An Unlikely Pair, an Unlikely Pride
Equality Michigan Chairman of the Board Michael Rowady and up-and-coming New York drag queen Sierra Misst might seem like they have little in common. Yet both are alumni of Grosse Pointe South High School and both were featured, at different times, on stage at a rally following this year’s Grosse Pointe Pride March. Each captivated the crowd in their own way — but only one of them did the splits.
Hosted by Welcoming Everyone Grosse Pointe or We GP, the pride march is in its third year and drew an impressive crowd of approximately 2,000 individuals, as estimated by the organizers. The march began at Grosse Pointe South High School and proceeded along Fisher Road and then down Kercheval Avenue, eventually ending in the parking lot of Maire Elementary School. There, about a dozen nonprofits and local businesses including PFLAG, Stand with Trans, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Supportive Counseling Services — a practice recently opened by clinical social worker Amanda Be who treats primarily children and teens — had information tables. Face painting, the group Free Mom Hugs and treats for sale rounded out the festivities.
In the school parking lot anticipating the arrival of the marchers was Sarah Eisenberg, volunteer coordinator for We GP and one of the event organizers. She spoke about the significance of this march, what the event meant to her personally and to Grosse Pointe at large.
“It’s been so important to me and a lot of people here because it’s really about changing the community culture, about stating affirmatively and openly that we are a supportive and inclusive community, that we welcome and celebrate everyone here,” Eisenberg said. “All of our children, all of our neighbors, everyone is part of this community. … and really combatting some of the negative narratives that are out there about what Grosse Pointe is about and what reputation our community has.”
The parade boasted a few decorated vehicles, but mostly proud community members — whether pride-clad or not — as well as a number of proud-looking dogs. The clear, sunny morning was perfect for a ride in a convertible, and this march featured a red one with Sierra Misst sitting on the back wearing a bubble gum pink party dress, smiling and waving to the crowd. The 2011 graduate who now lives in New York City later said it was her homecoming queen dream come true.
Michael Rowady, 1990
Rowady kicked off the rally with words about his experience growing up in Grosse Pointe, the importance of the work that Equality Michigan does for the community and remarked about the necessity of amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. In addition, he added some encouragement and inspiration for the young people in the crowd. He spoke with Between The Lines prior to the event.
As a board member of Equality Michigan, Rowady is tasked with representing the organization and getting their message across in an ambassador role, but he felt this opportunity was particularly “special and important,” so he reached out. Although Rowady said he didn’t expect to be asked to speak, he was glad to, and called it “an honor.” Having had limited involvement with his high school since graduating, Rowady said, “I’ve given a lot of speeches. But 2,000 people in my own home town? That’s a big deal.” Rowady spoke about his teenage years.
“Being gay was unheard of — you just didn’t know anyone who was gay,” Rowady said, of his time in high school during the late ’80s. He called himself a ‘normal kid’ who got good grades and went on to college and law school. He said he didn’t think of himself as gay in high school and doesn’t recall any struggle.
“My parents and my family were and always have been supportive — until I came out and then it was some rough waters for a couple years there,” he said.
Rowady cited LGBTQ activist Jeffrey Montgomery, who founded the Equality Michigan predecessor the Triangle Foundation, as a role model when Rowady was in high school. Montgomery was a Grosse Pointe South High School graduate as well (1971). And although Rowady didn’t think of himself as gay at the time, he remembers being fascinated by Montgomery.
“I always looked at him and said, that it one brave SOB,” Rowady recalled. “He’s standing out there, alone. There was no group of people. That was an amazing thing. And he took a lot of heat.”
Montgomery died in 2016, and the two never met. But Rowady called it “really, really cool” that as chairman of Equality Michigan, he has the same role that Montgomery had in the Triangle Foundation years ago. (Montgomery’s title was President, and he later became executive director.)
Beyond his own experience and the work of Equality Michigan, Rowady had some words of wisdom for the audience he was anticipating: “What I would also say is that never lose your integrity,” he advised. “The lesson that transcends beyond being gay or anything, is always maintain your self-respect and your integrity. That is critical.”
At the rally, Rowady told the crowd, “When I was growing up, there were no out, proud young folks. There was darkness, and there was fear. And now we see the light: You are the light. You represent the light. Think about how far we have come.”
In terms of how far Grosse Pointe has come, Rowady told BTL, “I think it’s slowly keeping up with the times,” he said, in terms of increased diversity in every respect. “I gotta tell you, I had a tear in my eye yesterday when I was in Grosse Pointe on a business call, and there were pride flags all over the place. It was beautiful. It was an amazing feeling.”
Sierra Misst, 2011
It’s not every Saturday morning that a professional drag queen performs on an outdoor stage in an elementary school parking lot in Grosse Pointe. But this is Pride month, and this was a homecoming of sorts for Sierra Misst. Following Rowady’s speech and a performance by a high school choir, Sierra took the stage. Rowady had to leave early and only caught part of the show. As it happened, the two didn’t have a chance to meet.
Professionally trained in musical theater and an accomplished dancer to boot, the lady with the effervescent name did not disappoint. Lip-syncing to two of three songs, she performed “I am What I am” first, in her own voice.
As she stood in the shade after her performance, many lined up to have a picture taken with the hometown drag heroine. Sierra beamed, hugged children of all ages and chatted with at least one former teacher. After that, and while her mother waited, Sierra answered a few questions.
As it happens, Sierra Misst was born just about a year ago. Lifelong Grosse Pointe Park resident Evan Whittstock studied Music Theatre at Western Michigan University then attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, where he now lives and performs. Wittstock “dabbled in drag” then decided to create a fully fledged persona.
Asked whether Evan was out in high school, “not at all,” was the quick response.
“I was kind of sheltered,” Whittstock said. “Nobody talked about gay people necessarily. I did show choir at South for a long time and that was me gayve thriving as a high schooler. But it wasn’t really talked about: ‘The gay community’ or drag queens — God forbid.
“So it was kind of lonely. But to see how far the Grosse Pointe communities have come, just in the past couple years since I’ve been gone, is really inspiring and kind of surprising,” Whittstock continued. “It’s something I never could have imagined when I was actually living here. [To] become more of myself, figured out who I really was at the core of it all, and be able to come back to where I came from and share it with people, and have it be celebrated … feels really special to me.”
And how did Sierra end up back in Grosse Pointe, in the parade and then performing on stage before a couple thousand cheering Grosse Pointe friends and neighbors?
It was very last-minute, according to Sierra. Just a couple weeks prior, Evan was joking over the phone with sister-in-law Sammy about being in the parade. One thing led to another, and before she knew it, the event organizers purchased a plane ticket and Sierra Misst was headlining the 2019 Grosse Pointe Pride March.
As the interview concluded, a couple more kids approached the park bench, introduced themselves and asked for hugs, which they were given warmly. Of the entire experience, Sierra said, “It’s been a blessing. It’s been a whole lot of fun.”