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Gay ‘brain drain’

By | 2006-01-12T09:00:00-05:00 January 12th, 2006|News|

BY SHARON GITTLEMAN

MADISON HEIGHTS – When Kiley James wants to talk to his friends, he just picks up a phone and starts dialing them – in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. Lately, the Detroit page in his address book has gotten rather slim.
Young LGBT people are fleeing the state, said James, 34, a Madison Heights resident.
“I think it’s a combination of factors,” he said. “Detroit is a city that’s primarily run by the auto industry and related supplier companies. Gay people who want a career in fields like the entertainment business or computer-related fields – they have to go elsewhere.”
Better career options aren’t the only factors robbing Detroit of its gay youth, said James.
“A lot of cities have developed nice gay neighborhoods,” he said. “Detroit hasn’t had that since the collapse of the Palmer Park area.”
While many LGBT people think of Ferndale when they are looking for a place to reside that embraces its gay community and provides a fun place to enjoy life, James thinks something more is needed.
“Ferndale isn’t a full-service gay neighborhood,” he said. “It doesn’t have a solid chunk of gay businesses all within walking distance of each other. It doesn’t compare to Lake View in Chicago or the North End in Columbus, Ohio.”
Adding a gay nucleus to a city makes LGBT people feel more comfortable, he said.
Though Gov. Jennifer Granholm has promoted the notion of “cool cities,” a concept from Richard Florida’s book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” some fear Michigan isn’t getting cool fast enough.
Urban opportunities for shopping, work and fun attract gays and lesbians, and maintaining diverse neighborhoods with a wide variety of people and income mixes keep them living there, said James.
“In Detroit, the condition of the city is so terrible,” he said.
The suburbs aren’t much better, in James’ view.
“The complaints I’ve heard from a lot of young gay people who want to move is the lack of a gay neighborhood, the sprawl – how you have to drive everywhere to get anything and the quality of gay night clubs,” he said.
Royal Oak resident Trevor Balnaves, 23, shares many of James’ views.
Balnaves said he would like to leave Michigan. States with warmer weather and living abroad are what come to mind when he thinks of moving away.
“I hear the United Kingdom and Italy are cool,” he said. “New Zealand is on the top of my list.”
Michigan is close to the bottom of that list.
“I don’t know too many people who think Michigan is that great a place,” he said.
The state’s depressed economy and limited job options are big factors behind many young gays’ migration to other states, said Balnaves.
“Most of my friends make money off of people’s discretionary incomes – waiters, designers, people that work in retail,” he said. “Or they work in jobs involved in the auto industry. That’s just not the thing to do anymore.”
Economics isn’t the only factor driving young lesbians and gays from Michigan, said Balnaves.
The area’s nightlife is less then stellar in his view.
“It seems most of the gay community doesn’t participate,” he said.
A gay home base would help, said Balnaves.
“We don’t really have our own space,” he said. “Chicago has Boys’ Town, New York has Chelsea, what does Detroit have? I think this is just not a well-organized gay community.”
Like James, Balnaves said Ferndale doesn’t really qualify as a gay zone.
“A district needs more of a draw than two gay bars, a bookstore, a community center and a half-gay restaurant,” he said.
Stanley Colorite, 34, from Plymouth said he’d also like to leave Michigan.
Crime is one of the biggest reasons.
“I’ve been robbed. My house has been broken into,” he said. “I’m a toy collector. They’ve all been stolen from my house – a lifetime collection. ”
Colorite agrees with James’ and Balnaves’ view of gay people’s job prospects in Michigan. He thinks he’d have better opportunities elsewhere.
“I have a house cleaning business,” he said. “I really believe a lot of straight people don’t want homosexuals cleaning their houses. Not everyone is accepting towards homosexuals and lesbians.”
What’s keeping him from leaving town?
“Money,” he said. “Honey, if I hit the lottery…”
What would encourage young LGBT people to stay closer to home?
“I think what has to be done is first and foremost to make Detroit a more walkable and livable city,” said James. “A lot of gay people say they hate the boring suburbs and the rotting city. Those are the complaints I’m getting.”
Supporting the expansion of businesses in downtown Ferndale and Royal Oak and an effort to create an LGBT neighborhood would be a good start, said James.
“Just a discussion of this issue is really important,” he said. “There’s a lot of denial and unwillingness to talk about it as a whole. A lot of young people are leaving Michigan.”
The problem is not limited to LGBT youth. According to Michigan Public radio, “Young people are leaving Michigan in droves. Projections show that one sixth of all Michigan residents will be over 65 by 2025.”
The flight of young people from Michigan, often called “the brain drain,” is also a topic of concern for the Michigan Environmental council. “Studies suggest young people ages 25-34 are leaving Michigan for ‘cooler’ places like Chicago, Boston and New York,” according to MEC’s web site. “Indeed, the state lost more than 200,000 members of this age group, or 13.5 percent, in the last decade.”
The loss of young LGBT people does not bode well for Michigan’s economic future, as LGBT individuals are a core part of what Richard Flordia calls the vital “creative class.”
According to Florida’s web site, “The Creative Class now comprises more than thirty percent of the entire workforce. The choices these people make already had a huge economic impact, and in the future they will determine how the workplace is organized, what companies will prosper or go bankrupt, and even which cities will thrive or wither.”
Additional reporting by D’Anne Witkowski.

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.