For the past 25 years, Hotter Than July has revolutionized and represented the vibrant Black LGBTQ+ community in Detroit and holds the honor of being the world's second-oldest Black LGBTQ+ Pride. From its first iteration in 1995 to now — and in an unprecedented global pandemic — HTJ has created a space for healing, education and celebration. And, above all, it is a space for building a community and movement. Over the course of these years, the event and its founding organization, LGBT Detroit have evolved and grown, too, with over 9,000 in attendance at the 2019 Palmer Park Picnic.
LGBT Detroit began as KICK Publishing Company, then only the third Black American LGBTQ+ media company created in the country. Askari Ali, the first HTJ host and former columnist for KICK sought to reconcile a seeming discordance between the faith community and the LGBTQ+ community in Detroit with a Spiritual Corner column. The Black LGBTQ+ movement in Detroit at that time was fledgling and malleable and mostly a conglomeration of various organizations working together, wanting to build their own table rather than beg for a seat at others.
HTJ is a space created by Black LGBTQ+ Detroiters, for Black LGBTQ+ Detroiters. Ali recalled visiting other cities and seeing their Prides and feeling that Detroit needed a Pride that truly represented the distinct, rich culture of the city and its Black LGBTQ+ community — and one that felt truly inclusive and special.
"The Black LGBT+ community in Michigan didn't have very many openly supported and celebrated events of Pride. I wanted our LGBT+ youth to know they had support, love and deserved to be celebrated out loud," says former host DeAngela "Show" Shannon.
More than entertainment
A defining aspect of HTJ has been its political impact. Innocence Milliown, another former host, shared how a particularly surreal moment at HTJ came while standing side by side with the late Congressman John Conyers and other significant politicians and how that moment demonstrated the importance that including civic education and engagement in Pride events can have. Ramon Harris, a former host and co-founder of the Detroit LGBT Chamber of Commerce, says that the biggest evolution HTJ has had is the expansion of programming.
"We need advocacy, leadership, mentorship, support, venturing, visibility and acceptance. We needed a space to build community and solidarity with one another and to collaborate and respect and understand each other and our differences," Harris says, highlighting the diversity of experiences within the Black LGBTQ+ community.
Former host Erica Carter has enjoyed seeing HTJ grow from year to year also, not only in attendance but in its ability to serve the community and reach parts that have been overlooked, like Black trans women, as well as hone its messaging and help people find their purpose.
Unfortunately, HTJ had a long journey to get to the standing it has in Detroit today. When Ali asked for a formal welcome letter for the event from Mayor Dennis Archer, the ask was rejected on account of the "lewd behavior" HTJ would be promoting. But Ali pushed back and called attention to this incident in national media. As Harris said, HTJ became "an opportunity to take ownership of our own narrative." Many former HTJ hosts found their start working with LGBT Detroit from doing grassroots advocacy in the community, demonstrating the inextricable nature of Pride and movement building and mutual aid. Host Ronn Reeder became introduced to LGBT Detroit through partnerships as a health care worker and, along his journey, found empowerment and comfort in his identity and the spaces around it.
Ali also came to the then KICK Publishing Company after doing HIV/AIDS education and prevention work and at the height of the epidemic. It became clear how imperative and powerful the organization would be to the community. Decades later, with HTJ shifting to a virtual space in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has continued to provide a safe space for the community in challenging times. HTJ has also provided the Black LGBTQ+ community in Detroit with a much-needed sense of family and connectedness.
As former host Cierra Malone puts it, the event has a "family reunion atmosphere," and reminds folks of the power in finding solace in chosen family. From the somber candlelight vigil opening the event to the joy of the closing brunch, HTJ has allowed for the community to come together as one.
Carter, who has lived in Detroit all her life, was especially drawn to these familial moments of the event and took that concept far beyond that weekend. She has worked to help her community in whatever ways she could, from giving people in need a place to stay in her Palmer Park home to employing and training Black trans women in her salon to assisting several to go on to be licensed themselves. Still, that's not to undervalue the entertainment — an important component of HTJ throughout its evolution, vital in all of its vibrance and glory.
"The entertainment aspect is so important because it is an opportunity to bring in talent to those in the community who don't or can't go to the clubs or drag shows," Malone says.
Milliown found purpose in bringing in new talent as a host, from drag queens to vocalists, and recreating the freedom of the nightlife scene at the event. Reeder, a former host with the background of both a health care worker and American Idol contestant, especially emphasized the importance of this blend, noting that he was able to grow as a person, entertainer and community leader through being a performer and overcoming a fear of public speaking.
"I didn't go to prom in high school but LGBT Detroit gave me the chance to become prom king," he said.
Hotter Than July was an opportunity to further develop his talents from hosting at the Woodward and to showcase the range of incredible talent in the Detroit LGBTQ+ community.
"Hotter Than July is at its core a celebration, a time to elevate everyone's spirit," Carter says.
More than anything, HTJ has given Black LGBTQ+ folk in Detroit the freedom, power and platform to tell their own stories and create change from the ground up.
"It gives us a chance to unify and be ourselves and raise our voice and share our stories and experiences with people who identify just like us," Reeder says.
This year, HTJ will be an opportunity to look back on the last quarter of a century in remembrance and retrospection of the history it has written. The festival will move forward in healing and persistence in light of work yet to be done.
"From fighting in the street to living our authentic lives to having parades and celebrating who we are, we are creating change every day," Shannon says. "We have come so far but we still have such a long way to go towards freedom and it is up to us to continue to educate ourselves and others, live out loud and celebrate our truth and our power."