Pride During a Pandemic
While this is the 19th consecutive year that Ferndale is recognizing June as Pride Month, for a number of reasons it will be quite different from years past. Certainly, the obvious ones are those necessitated by the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, like postponing Ferndale Pride and canceling the public Pride Flag-raising ceremony. But Pride month is also different this year because it’s the first one with a newly elected mayor after Dave Coulter left office last year following nine years of service. With that in mind, Between The Lines checked in with mayor Melanie Piana.
“All of our events are impacted this year,” Piana said, regarding the novel coronavirus pandemic. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach month by month, because this is how the pandemic is going; there’s changes every week. And as we prepare to slowly open up, we’ll be taking a look at how to do that safely. But for Ferndale Pride, I think what the organizers are trying to do is to innovate.”
She described how Ferndale Pride plans to “elevate and recognize” Pride right now in ways that don’t involve gathering, like a Pride-decorating contest for homes that extends beyond Ferndale’s physical borders. Called “We’re Home and We are Here,” it is also hosted by Affirmations, Downtown Ferndale and the Ferndale Community Foundation. It’s open to entries through June 2. Piana said that every year outside her own home, the Coexist flag is switched out for a Pride one.
“I think every household will do with what they have … and we’ve seen a lot of creativity in Ferndale through this pandemic, which has been great,” she said. “The outpouring of support for one another and helping everybody and putting signs in your windows and drawing chalk on the sidewalk — I have no doubt that our creative residents will figure out a way to celebrate Pride, and in a way [that prioritizes] staying at home.”
Up to the Challenge
A city council member for 10 years prior to being elected mayor, Piana never could have envisioned that three months into her tenure she would be leading Ferndale in the face of a global pandemic.
“It was stressful, no doubt, in March when all the executive orders came down and everybody’s life was turned upside down,” Piana acknowledged. “We were definitely feeling that in the city government, because we are trying to make sure that accurate, truthful and timely information is given to our residents about what’s happening and taking cues from Oakland County executive government as well as the governor.”
Piana discussed some of the ways the city is doing what it can to support its small businesses that have been hard-hit and its residents too, especially the most vulnerable. The city launched a wellness check for seniors through the Ferndale senior group, and they are also addressing the needs of those who are food-insecure: the city received an award from local food entrepreneur Jack Aronson that enabled the distribution of 1,000 meals to low-income seniors; Council member Kat Bruner James and Piana project managed and coordinated with other organizations including Affirmations.
“As new opportunities arise to address problems, we carefully vet them, are thoughtful and figure out how to do it well and rapidly, because this has all been rapid-paced … and shifting,” Piana said. “Everybody’s felt it. Everybody is adjusting, myself included.”
When she’s not responding to the latest executive order or facilitating food distribution, Piana finds plenty that’s appealing about being mayor—not that she doesn’t find the less “glamorous” aspects any less gratifying.
“I’m approaching my 11th year serving our community and being mayor is definitely being a voice for the community and really just trying to figure out how to make the city stronger, and I love being a part of that—engaging with the residents,” Piana said. “I’m definitely a policy wonk. I love policy because policy is what changes the direction of a city, that a local government has control over. Like putting out a resolution for Pride, putting your values into practice. And I’m just very grateful for this opportunity to continue to serve our residents and do that as we evolve as a community as we look to figure out how to make our city stronger.”
Living One’s Values
Returning to the Pride Month resolution, Piana reflected on the importance of symbols. After all, a rainbow flag is not a law or ordinance — it is a piece of fabric. She was firm in stating her belief that such symbols are significant.
“They’re signals, really,” Piana explained. “They’re signals of support — ongoing support and commitment by your local government when they do that, and by the government leaders. It’s part of the values of the city of Ferndale — inclusiveness is one of our core values … as a city. And how do you live those values? How do you instill them in day-to-day practice? The flags and the symbols are all a part of the signal that these are our values as a community, and we’re living by them.”
Clearly, Piana is an ally to the LGBTQ community. When asked whether she had any doubts about being accepted as mayor of Ferndale since she is not LGBTQ, despite winning her race by a wide margin, she was frank in her response.
“You know, I really appreciate that question because I was worried about it, with two mayors who were gay, the first gay mayor in the state of Michigan [Craig Covey], and then the second [Dave Coulter], how would the community accept me?” she asked. “But [I’ve shown] my commitment to the values of inclusiveness and being an ally … and I have been supportive; I have signed onto the Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination … to make sure nondiscrimination laws are put into place.
“I’m doing my best as an individual and in my role as mayor to make sure that we continue to do the things that our residents who are LGBTQ feel safe and respected, and as mayor I continue to champion on the legacy of former leaders on behalf of our community.”