Queer or not, the mayor of Ferndale is an important figure in Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community.
In a city with 19,000 residents that boasts its own LGBTQ+ community center, Pride festival and designated gay bar, newly elected Mayor Raylon Leaks-May will face challenging decisions and help set the tone for city council. With that in mind, Pride Source sat down with Leaks-May, a proud Ferndalian for more than 30 years who can recall the heyday of Winkelman’s department store and F&M, to get her take on heading up one of the queerest hubs in the suburban Midwest.
After 11 years as an elected official and more as a community volunteer, Leaks-May won in a landslide against a gay candidate, fashion marketer Sean Hurley. This seems to show that evaluating a candidate’s overall record is what matters most to residents of the city.
“I didn’t think about that,” Leaks-May said. “Typically people are running because they care about the community. They want to do great things for the community. So I feel like anyone has an opportunity to do that. I knew that I was going to run on my experience. I was going to run on my desire to do the right thing. I was going to run on my love for the community, my love for the people in a community that I love.”
“The residents were used to the current mayor,” Leaks-May added, speaking about Melanie Piana. “As I was able to get out and talk with people and express what I love about the city plans that I’d like to see come forward, I think people started to realize my intentions and that I'm a totally different person and a totally different leader with my own vision.”
Part of that vision is affordable housing, an area of expertise given Leaks-May’s role as a resource specialist for Area Agency on Aging 1-B. She said at work they often take calls from people experiencing housing insecurity.
“Ferndale is such a dynamic little town, and I'd like to see people who want to reside here and be able to afford to be able to live here with diverse housing options.” Leaks-May said.
Keeping Ferndale an inclusive community is important for Leaks-May, who is proud of the strides made during her tenure on city council. She points out the Pride flag in council chambers was first displayed when Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter was mayor.
“I think that really relayed a message to this community that we're accepting and we understand that a fight for rights continues,” Leaks-May said. “But you're in a community that recognizes the need to belong and that we want you to feel like you belong.”
The Pan-African flag is also displayed during February, something Leaks-May initiated for Black History Month. “I'm happy to be a part of a lot of firsts and for us to be that community that kind of sets the bar for other communities to take a stand and say, “‘You belong here.’”
Yet there will always be those who would divide a community. One such incident came a few years back in the form of a request to the council by Church Militant, a hate group with headquarters within city limits.
“What was difficult for me is the message that we received during the proposed resolution to raise that flag,” Leaks-May said. “It wasn't one of love, it wasn't one of acceptance. It was one of isolation, and one to belittle a population that has every right to be here in this community.” It was hard for her to witness the pain and distress caused by the incident.
While diversity is valued in Ferndale, there is work to be done, says Leaks-May, the first Black mayor in a city that is less than 10 percent Black or African American. “Representation matters,” she said.
“What I believe is that me being elected shows that Ferndale is open to change,” she continued. "It's something that's never happened before, and I'm really proud.”
Just as LGBTQ+ council members have put forth initiatives like the rainbow crosswalk that stretches across West Nine Mile Road between Allen Street and Woodward Avenue, they also paved the path to getting an anti-racism declaration on the books. The new mayor believes things like these initiatives, which affect the entire community, are what lead to progress.
Leaks-May would like her time as mayor to serve as an example to young people. “My children get to see this,” she said of her “crew” of five teenagers, all of whom attended Ferndale schools. She first entered life as an elected official as a school board trustee.
Ferndale City Council Member Greg Pawlica has known Leaks-May since her first campaign 12 years ago. “I remember that particular campaign was a bit contentious,” he said. Leaks-May’s slate sought to replace some school board members who seemed out of touch with what the parents wanted, due in part to no longer having children in the district.
“The ‘Bold Campaign’ had parents that were interested in really transforming the schools,” Pawlica said. “Raylon was part of this transformative group of people trying to re-energize the school district.”
With eight years of service on council together, Pawlica has confidence in Leaks-May's ability to make tough decisions. He called her level-headed and not easily swayed by frivolous arguments.
“She will run a very organized and productive council meeting,” Pawlica said. “But above that, as mayor, I think she's going to provide really great leadership to council. I think she has some really great ideas in regards to affordable housing I know that she really wants to continue to push forward.”
Pawlica is one of three openly LGBTQ+ council members this term. That’s three out of five, so queer Ferndalians are well-represented. As for Leaks-May, she believed the community knew her well enough to trust her, but she took nothing for granted. “That’s why we reached out to as many people as we could to get the message across that I'm ready to take on this role,” she said.