Polestar: Michigan’s Newest LGBTQ Community Center Opens Its Doors

Ellen Shanna Knoppow
By | 2019-02-16T10:33:30-04:00 February 13th, 2019|Michigan, News|

A Bold Move
When John Young came out in his late 50s, he never imagined that just four years later he would have been instrumental in launching Traverse City’s first LGBTQ community center.
“I really came out. I did not hold back. And, frankly, I didn’t know what to do,” said Young, now vice-chair of Polestar, a new LGBTQ community center serving Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska and Antrim counties in northern lower Michigan.
Young said at the time he knew so few gay people that he thought he’d have to relocate, but met friends in a support group who were as forward-thinking as him.
“And it’s been a wild ride,” said Young, who said his brother remarked, “Jesus, John, you can’t just come out, you have to open a LGBT community center!”
Located at 717 Woodmere Ave., Polestar achieved 501(c)(3) nonprofit status two years ago and has been open since the summer. At just under 1,800 square feet, the space is divided into three area. There is a desk and restroom near the entrance, which opens up to a living room-like space that has two couches facing each other and a flat screen TV. To the left is larger room which can accommodate seating for 30, such as the LGBTQ-friendly church that rents the space to hold its services each Sunday. The third area, an office large enough for meetings, will also be utilized by Equality Michigan when the organization moves its existing Traverse City location to the center in the near future.
The center is entirely volunteer-run, and Young says Polestar is already meeting the needs of the LGBTQ community. In addition to drop-in hours, the center has events like movie and discussion nights. A transgender and GNC support group just formed, which drew 15 people at its first meeting and has plans for a shopping night and a workshop with a cosmetics consultant. And, just recently, Polestar’s Chosen Family Holiday Potluck was well attended, according to Young.

John Young came out in his 50s and soon opened an LGBTQ community center in Traverse City. Photos courtesy of Polestar.

“It’s Awesome to See Those Kids”
But probably what Young is most proud of is the prom. That was instituted on the advice of the director of Benton Harbor’s LGBTQ center, who became Young’s friend when Young toured centers around Michigan as Polestar was in the planning stages. And while two queer proms were held even before the center itself was opened, it has become Polestar’s signature event.
“The first prom that we had, we had 100 kids,” Young said. “This is northern Michigan. Rural northern Michigan. That’s way above average nationally. There’s probably a handful of centers that have anything close to 100 kids. And it’s awesome. It’s awesome to see those kids. So that was the very first thing we did; we’re doing it every year now.”
A local teen group, LGBTeens Up North, now helps plan the prom. Polestar has become the meeting place for the teen group, and when the youth are dropped off at the center, parents can gather elsewhere for their own peer support group.
Living up north, it’s not easy to be an LGBTQ young person, Young pointed out. Frankly, many LGBTQ people feel isolated in the areas surrounding Traverse City, a city which has a reputation for being progressive: Not only does Traverse City have an openly gay mayor, it has an LGBT police liaison — one of just a few in the state.
Describing the situation for youth in the region, Young said, “These kids are hurting really bad. It’s terrible. There are a few high schools I’ve got to figure out how to approach because we get crisis calls from those students. If you’re a student in one of the smaller high schools, in the outlying area, you might be the only out person in the LGBT community.”

Educating the Community
In addition to offering programs for youth and adults, Young is excited about the opportunities for Polestar beyond being a meeting place for members of the LGBTQ community. He also receives requests for speakers. Because of the positive response to those engagements, inquiries are coming in with greater regularity. From multiple departments heads of hospitals affiliated with Munson Healthcare to school districts who “want to get it right,” Young said, the requests have focused primarily on understanding the needs of the transgender community.
One presentation stands out in particular.
“The director of nursing at Northwest Michigan College contacted us, and said, ‘You know, I really want my students to learn about the trans community,’” Young said. “And we put a panel together, one of them a 12-year-old trans girl, and her very supportive mother. That went so well. They were in tears, by the way, halfway through it, hearing her story. And the director of nursing was so impressed, he said, ‘We have to have this at the beginning of every semester for my nursing students.’ That’s very gratifying.”
However, Young’s outreach on behalf of Polestar can only do so much, and he decried the lack of basic information on LGBTQ medical care by local health care providers. Young said he’s taken men who have been raped to the ER, and no one knew the correct protocol.
“Anything we can do to benefit the community, those are the people we want to reach out to … because it’s pathetic how little they know,” Young said.
He added later that Polestar partners with a local suicide hotline, and is now able to connect individuals in crisis to one of the hotline’s trained counselors directly, without having to hang up the phone.
Young has big plans for Polestar and sees a lot of potential. At 62 years old, he semi-retired to take on this endeavor, and says he’d love to be able to hire an executive director a year from now, who could be there full time. From finding experts and coordinating their speaking engagements to handling a huge volume of correspondence, it’s a lot of work. Fundraising and grant writing are two areas that he said need help, which are critical to keeping Polestar’s doors open. To that end, they are recruiting additional board members; the organization has six, currently.

What About the Name?
When BTL asked about the origin of the name “Polestar,” Young replied that it was a long story. They settled on Polestar, he said, because “it means a center of attraction,” which seems fitting. However, he added, “At some point, I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to change the name.”
Why?
“It confuses people,” Young said. “A lot of people are baffled by having that name. And several people have said, ‘We really don’t like it. It sounds like a strip bar.’”
Name confusion aside, Young has a message for readers who live downstate: He’d like to have more visitors.
“Come up!” Young said enthusiastically. “We have arguably the biggest Pride week in the state; I think we had approaching 4,000 people for our pride last summer, which was awesome. Come on up. Join us.”

To find out more about the center visit tcpolestar.org.

About the Author:

Ellen Shanna Knoppow
Ellen Knoppow is a writer, editor and activist. She also volunteers for the Human Rights Campaign and Affirmations.