“There are individuals who can really make a difference and if they don’t feel welcome they won’t be here to help,” said WDET Corporate Underwriting Director Michael Perkins.
Perkins was part of a panel discussion at the Inclusivity & Revitalization Discussion June 6 at the Scarab Club in Detroit. The discussion centered on the role of LGBT people in the revitalization of Detroit, and over 150 people packed the gallery to have the dialogue.
Perkins was joined by Detroit Institute of Arts Vice President of Museum Operations Elliot Broom, Entertainment Manager Adriel Thornton, and Peacock Room boutique owner and Equality Michigan Board Member Rachel Lutz. The panel was moderated by Desiree Cooper, who authored the LGBT Leaders of Color Visibility Series featured in Between The Lines and paired with video interviews produced by Model D.
The question of Detroit “making a comeback” did not sit well with the panelists, who were quick to defend their city. “Detroit is not coming back. Detroit is moving forward and looking at what’s next,” Lutz said. The young ally said that young people don’t see Detroit in relation to some grand history.
“We don’t have that baggage of comparing Detroit to how it was in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. I don’t have any memories of going to shop at Hudsons with my mother. I don’t have those memories because none of this was here in my life. A lot of those things that older generations turn to, we just do not remember. So for young people in Detroit it really is about potential and opportunities.”
The discussion touched on the predictable issues of race and economic disparity. While aware of the problems that led to the city loosing half its population in the last half century, most who came to the Scarab Club that evening brought positivity to the table. However, the obvious issues could not be ignored.
Broom gave some historical perspective, explaining that the Palmer Park area, and particularly the area around Woodward between Six and Seven Mile and Woodward might have remained the center for gay life in Michigan were it not for the dangers gays faced due to the lack of police protection, and even harassment by police themselves.
“Police turned a blind eye,” he said. “The owners of businesses left because they didn’t feel safe.” Thoughts of clubs that closed, businesses that got torched, and people that got hurt or killed leave a sting in the hearts of those who can remember what it was like to be young, full of hope and vigor, and connecting in the freshly liberated gay community of the 60s and 70s.
“In 1959 when I came out there was a very good young people group,” said Charles Alexander who attended the event as a Scarab Club Board Member and well-known gay artist from Detroit. “We were closeted, but we connected…and it dawned on us that the gay and lesbian community is bigger than we imagined, but we have always been here. Detroit has always supported its LGBT youth.”
But again those memories mean little to the 20 and 30 year olds who see Detroit as somewhat uncharted territory.
The perception among the young leaders at the table seemed to be that racism and fear drove the gay community north to the suburbs in the past, and that the Eight Mile divide is a barrier to re-connecting today.
“I have a lot of friends in the suburbs and I invite them into the city,” Perkins said. “Some say no, but we need to keep inviting them down to parties, to the Opera House, to the DIA, to see what Detroit has to offer.”
“There have always been people who stayed who have made it cool,” Thornton said. “I don’t want to be a ‘gay spokesperson’ or a ‘Detroit spokesperson,’ but I’d rather it be me that what the mainstream media portrays.” He, like others in the city, admits wondering where the leaders are.
While groups like AIDS Partnership Michigan, Ruth Ellis Center and KICK work to train young leaders, it’s less often talked about what happened to the generation that came before them.
In defense of what she called “the middle generation,” Barbara Murray, executive director of AIDS Partnership Michigan reminded the youth that absence of older role models isn’t solely out of neglect or flight. “Of that middle generation, a lot of those people died. …We don’t often recognize our roots. But we need to recognize what AIDS did to us and to our community, it tore us apart.”
With pockets of LGBT communities popping up throughout the city, and grassroots projects of all types that are inclusive of diverse people, the question for today’s emerging leaders seems to be the debate between gentrification and assimilation. Should the community foster neighborhood building in one place, or should people live throughout the city, unafraid of being themselves no matter who their neighbors are?
Broom pointed to examples of gay communities developing inside of larger urban communities, with places like West Hollywood in California, Miami Shores in Florida, Boys Town in Chicago and the Gayborhood of New York. “The LGBT community moves in to neighborhoods people don’t want and what happens, they make them better,” he said.
Each individual on stage, and many in the audience, are doing their part to make their communities more welcoming and inclusive. “On a small level we can make change,” Lutz said. “If a man comes into my store and wants to try on a dress, I can create a welcoming environment for him… There are things like that you can do… It’s not enough to like a page [on Facebook]. If you want to see change, you can join a board, chair an event, and get involved.”
Broom gets it too, summing up the fundamental catalyst for change saying, “I can have an impact just by being who I am. …At the end of the day it’s about making people feel like they’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.”
To find out more about the LGBT Leaders of Color Visibility Project, go to https://www.pridesource.com/section.html?section=news-leadership.