All hands on deck: A brand-new LGBTQ+ community center is making waves in Port Huron, and Pride Source recently sat down with Blue Water Ally Center board member Laura Hillman to get the inside scoop. Hillman is especially psyched about an upcoming homecoming gala, set for Oct. 20, featuring a court of “drag queens, kings and other nonbinary royalty.” Since launching the center this summer, the crew has been very busy.
“It's been kind of a whirlwind because we just really opened our doors in June,” said Hillman, who is openly queer and grew up in the Thumb area. “And sometimes I'll say that we're still building the boat while we're trying to sail it.”
In fact, the “boat” that Hillman speaks of is a renovated ice cream parlor and cafe that sits in the heart of downtown Port Huron on Military Street near the St. Clair River.
Hillman said the need for the center was great. What began as a fund with a local hospital soon grew and was taken over by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, where the organization raised $30,000 with zero advertising. “And the Community Foundation looked at that and said, ‘Well, this is like a mandate from our community saying that there's a need here and we need to do something,’” Hillman said. The Foundation conducted listening groups with the LGBTQ+ community.
Over and over, they heard folks were looking for a safe space where they could be themselves. That didn’t surprise Hillman. The assessment also revealed folks needed affirming physical and behavioral healthcare. The St. Clair County Health Department has already begun offering immunizations at the center, and there are two practicing physicians on the board of directors. LGBTQ-specific recovery groups and programs for social and artistic expression were requested as well.
Hillman describes her own experience as a queer person in Port Huron as easier than most, thanks to the support she’s had along the way. “I know that I live a charmed life,” she said. Yet she hears while doing volunteer recruitment for the center that many queer young adults don’t feel accepted or are ridiculed by their families. Hillman doesn’t think this is unique to Port Huron or the surrounding area.
“I don't think it's more dangerous than anywhere else,” Hillman said. “But I also think that it still is dangerous to be queer in our country. I worry about my husband, who's a transgender man, if he is in the bathroom for too long.”
As a municipality, Port Huron is not easy to categorize. “Living in Port Huron is not rural,” Hillman said. “But it's not really suburban. It's definitely not urban.”
What’s it like to be queer in St. Clair County? Pride Source heard a range of answers, but none reported threats or other hostile acts in their present lives for being LGBTQ+.
For Jacie Sanders, who grew up in Flint and has lived in the Port Huron area for 40 years, blending in means she doesn’t experience discrimination. “I’m a woman who’s transgender,” said Sanders, the longtime leader of a Transgender Michigan group in the area. “Being an older woman, they don't pay much attention to any kind of male markers that they might pick up. Not like it was before.” She said others don’t have it as easy. “So I’m blessed that way. I’m very comfortable.”
John Middleton is 45 and grew up in Port Huron. He’s moved and returned a few times. Middleton said he has no problem telling people about his husband, but they don’t hold hands in public. And his husband is unable to be out in his career. Still, it’s a far cry from what Middleton experienced growing up in the ‘90s.
Back then, “I would be walking to school, and just because I always had crazy haircuts and stuff like that, people would yell ‘faggot’ out the window to me,” Middleton said. “And I'm like, how do you know? It's a haircut!” He said he also sees more Pride flags around town these days.
Lisa Naveen feels comfortable, too. She said her neighborhood in Fort Gratiot is particularly welcoming. Openly queer, Naveen grew up in rural St. Clair County and today works there as an elementary school teacher.
“My coworkers know my situation and my identity,” Naveen said. “I don't feel comfortable sharing about my family or anything like that with my students or my students’ families for the most part. So there is a big contrast.”
Even 10 years ago, when Jamie Smedley, 25, was in school, things were different.
“It was definitely tough,” Smedley said. “Our town is pretty traditional. Most people are not always necessarily open to things that aren't cis and straight.”
But several pointed to the downtown area as becoming more welcoming, and next summer, the city will welcome back Blue Water Pride. What began with 150 visitors in 2022 grew to nearly 1,200 last year. The festival is now a program put on by the center, which achieved 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in April.
Last month, the Blue Water Ally Center received some welcome news: Nearly $10,000 in American Rescue Plan Act dollars was secured primarily for security features for their building after a contentious meeting of the St. Clair County Commission. Lisa Beedon, the lone Democratic county commissioner, supported the application. But word got out that the county GOP would oppose the measure, and a call was subsequently blasted on social media by the Blue Water Allies and amplified by friends like the St. Clair County Democrats.
With around 40 public comments — largely supportive — over nearly two hours, the community showed up in force. In the end, the vote was 4-3 in favor. Hillman was in attendance.
“It's really even hard for me to put together my feelings, even going on 10 days later,” Hillman said. “I never anticipated that so many people in 24 hours would take time out of their day to come and support us.” She feels that because of the positivity and variety of stories that were shared, two of the commissioners who were on the fence voted for the proposal.
Middleton, who had doubts about the success of the proposal, was thrilled. And when it comes to the existence of the center, now in its fifth month, words like “excited” and “ecstatic” came up repeatedly in these interviews.
“It's honestly such a blessing, really, to Port Huron,” said Smedley. “I grew up here, and I've been openly queer since I was a teenager, and we never really had anything like this. Obviously, you could kind of create your own little communities, but having literally a brick-and-mortar place to go is completely different.”
Sanders, who originally started a nonprofit herself, was excited too. “Unbeknownst to me, they were working on it too,” Sanders said. “So I've kind of joined them.” Sanders is mostly concerned about youth, “but I like it covering everyone,” she said.
Naveen mentioned one of the programs. “It is really nice to be able to go to art class and know that it's going to be an open and affirming group of people there,” she said. “The teacher is going to be affirming, and no one is going to assume that ‘my husband let me come.’"
“It is nice even though there are a lot of allies that are also at the different events and the activities that are at the Blue Water Ally Center,” she added. “Everyone is very open and affirming and just lovely.”
Naveen is looking forward to the homecoming gala, as is Middleton. He’s going with his husband. “I actually got him talked into it because at first he wasn't sure,” Middleton said. “So I was like, ‘You're doing this.’”
For more information about the Blue Water Ally Center (1519 Military St., Port Huron), visit bluewaterallies.com. To purchase tickets for the Starry Night Homecoming Gala, Friday, Oct. 20, visit bluewaterallies.com/event-details/starry-night-homecoming-2023.