When most Pride celebrations are winding down at the end of June, Pride is only just beginning in Detroit thanks to Hotter Than July, the second-longest LGBTQ Pride celebration in the country. But whereas the first Pride was a riot, Hotter Than July was created as a reclamation of sorts.
“When we decided to start doing Hotter Than July, we specifically said that this was not going to be one of those things where we got a bunch of naked boys and half-naked women, dancing in front of a bunch of folks,” said Cornelius Wilson, one of the event’s original founders. “This is going to be about education, information, entertainment and family fun. And that’s how we wanted it.”
It started with two organizations. The first being Men of Color, organized by Wilson, focusing on health and education when it came to HIV awareness.
“A bunch of us got tired of going to the club. So we started getting together at our homes and having a discussion party so to speak,” says Wilson, who was working for Community Health Awareness Group at the time. “And as that organization grew, which happened to be CHAG, they started getting money to promote HIV awareness in the Black community. We were asked to start a group and slowly but surely the discussion group became a support group, which became Men of Color.”
Whereas Men of Color focused on health and education awareness for LGBTQ people of color, the Billionaire Boys Club, organized by Robert Tate, was a social group.
“Each month the club would go to different members’ homes and have dinners,” Tate said. “So we got a chance to meet all the different members friends.”
From there, the club grew into a network.
“The BBC was breaking barriers in the city because we went places that gay people would never think about going, and they opened their doors and welcomed us in and always welcomed us back,” Tate said. “We went to the Renaissance Club, the Detroit club, the University club — we went all over Detroit doing different events and things and they were just so surprised at the clientele that came in, and they were gay; it was just unbelievable.”
A Fateful Meeting
Tate and Wilson met each other during one of Men of Color’s meetings.
“I went to one of their meetings one time, and I was hooked,” he said. “I never missed a meeting once I started.”
It was during the BBC’s weekend anniversary celebration at the end of July when it joined together with Men of Color to start the beginnings of Hotter Than July.
“What Men of Color was doing at that time before Hotter Than July, in particular, we were doing picnics over at Metro Beach or Kensington Park,” Wilson said. “I wanted to get information out in the community about the HIV and AIDS stuff that was going on. So we decided to try and do a combined health fair, picnic time thing. I guess you could say those were the first iterations of Hotter Than July. When we started doing it, it kind of went overwhelmingly successful based on the level of participation.”
If Hotter Than July has a little something for everyone, that is by design. The event, started in 1996 to celebrate Detroit’s Black LGBTQ community, began as a way to showcase the multifaceted lives of Black LGBTQ people.
“It kind of evolved,” Wilson said. “In the earlier days, you had pretty much a broad spectrum of participation. You had the old. You had the young. You had other community members that got involved and set up things for the children because we always wanted it to be a family friendly affair. So, you know, we had entertainment and professional entertainment that did some things, but it’s evolved over the years.”
One evolution is how the event goes about networking itself in the community.
“I would say back then when we started it was almost [exclusively by] word-of-mouth. It wasn’t a lot of organizing like it is today,” Tate said. “Back then it might have been at least 10 or 15 social groups or organizations and they all taken part in it and made it comfortable and brought all of the people together because everybody knew somebody. They would bring all those people together and it just blossomed into this wonderful thing that’s been going on for 25 years.”
Cornelius added, “The other thing was that, we had a whole lot of bars that we went to. We had three or four bars downtown. Through word-of-mouth, some of the bar owners or the folks would come to Men of Color or they would show up at some of the BBC’s functions. So through word of mouth folks would come check us out just because they had heard about this thing.”
Although Hotter Than July will be virtual this year, Wilson and Tate both agree that it is a natural evolution to fit the needs of the current community.
“I just think that this pandemic has moved folks along the continuum a little bit quicker than we expected,” Wilson said. “I think we were heading in this direction anyway, but I think the pandemic just kind of took us from zero to eight unexpectedly.”
“To me, it is so different the way they are doing it, and it’s unbelievable that the planning and everything that they are doing can still make Hotter Than July happen,” he said. “All the different activities that goes on during the week of Hotter Than July, I really think they all play a big part. I can’t really see a change in anything because all of the different activities that go on is what goes on to be successful.”
But no matter whether the event is virtual or in-person, both organizers say that having something for everyone is what has made Hotter Than July last through so many years.
“I believe the thing that made Hotter Than July stand out is that from Tuesday through Sunday there was something uniquely different in the community that no matter how you fit in the community, there was something there that you felt you could connect to,” Wilson said. “And it also gave people in the community who have talents and skills a chance to be highlighted. It put us up front to showcase their talents.”
And talent continues to be a core of what makes Black LGBTQ culture so special in Detroit today.
Emell Derra Adolphus is a veteran culture journalist of 10 years. He is working on his first novel. Reach him at [email protected]