When Affirmations began in 1989 it started with a group of lesbians and gays that wanted to create a safe space for people to be themselves. It became clear early on that LGBT people who wanted to come out did not have the tools to know how to do so.
Coming Out Over Coffee was one of the first programs developed at the Center, and it remains an important first step for many who don’t know where to begin. Seventy-five year old Dave Ferger is the Tuesday evening co-facilitator along with Rachel Crandall. For years they have helped questioning gays and lesbians as they take the first steps to understanding themselves and how to share themselves with others.
“Sometimes people come in and they are so scared they just sit there trembling,” Ferger said. Nobody has to speak, but the facilitators do all they can to let people know that it’s a safe place to.
“Confidentiality is essential,” Ferger said. “Without confidentiality our group would never get off the ground.”
Crandall, who has been facilitating since 2005, remembers the fear she felt when she started going to a similar coming out program in 1994. “I remember the tremble myself,” she said. “There is a lot of fear. Fear of how people will react. Is there a life for me as a gay, lesbian or trans person and how do I find that? Plus we get a lot of married people who are afraid of what might happen in their families. When I came to Crossroads ,a transgender support group in Livonia, I was married. I know that fear. It’s like, what the fuck do I do?”
Now well past the coming out stage, Crandall is the co-founder of Transgender Michigan, a counselor and the coordinator for Affirmation’s Helpline. She and Ferger can’t help but chuckle at the ways people will tip toe around before fully embracing the process. “We get some people who will show up, then we won’t see them for a few weeks, then they show up again. Off and on until they are ready to talk,” Ferger said.
“I get people coming up to me saying they’ve been coming here and sitting in their car in the parking lot during the meeting time because they were too scared to come in,” Crandall said.
“Oh, and the guys that tell their wives they’re going bowling. We get that a lot,” Ferger added, making the point that for a lot of people coming out is a sometimes long and challenging process that most people have fears about in the beginning.
Ernie Kalina is one of dozens of Coming Out Over Coffee success stories.
“I began attending Coming Out over Coffee when I was 46 years old. This was when Affirmations was located in the ‘old’ building across the street on Nine Mile Road in Ferndale,” said Kalina. “I felt vulnerable, scared and isolated after spending an entire lifetime ashamed of who I was…It was eight years ago that I first called the center’s help line. Answering on the other end of the line was Dave Ferger. This one phone call would send my life into a totally different trajectory. Dave Ferger and Rachel Crandal have been instrumental in the transformation that has occurred in my life. Dave’s calm and reassuring manner on the phone gave me enough confidence to attend my very first meeting at the center. Many of the people who come to the meetings have never told a single person they are gay. They share this for the very first time in group.”
Kalina said the experience helped him to be free. “Once free you find out all the possibilities that are out there in life because your energy is no longer consumed with hiding. With coming out much of the fear that you carry around with you also lifts. I also found that much of the anger I carried around with me toward the world in general lessened. It seems the more you accept and love yourself in life the more you are able to love and accept those around you. Most of all the relationships I have today are more numerous and are much more significant because I am free to be my authentic self.”
He has gone from a closeted, bitter person to being an out-going, involved community member. In addition to finding true love with a partner he’s been with for over five years, Kalina also serves on the board of South Eastern Michigan Gay Lesbian Straight Educators Network (SEGLSEN) and with Affirmations as a volunteer group co facilitator. “I have found both experiences a way of helping others which in turn has helped me heal from some of the pain of being in the closet all those years,” he said.
Jonathan Werner first attended Coming Out Over Coffee in 2008. “It’s a great place to meet people and a great place to seek advice, wisdom, and counsel from others who are going through or who went through the coming out process,” he said. He came out after years of “reparative therapy,” and found an unexpected peace. He’s since moved to Philadelphia and taken a job with a pipe organ builder. “I make a point of returning to the COOC groups every time I’m back in Michigan,” he said. “I’m out to almost everyone now, and I’m dating a great guy who lives in Jersey, just a few miles from my home.” He is sad that while Philadelphia has a thriving Gayborhood, there are no groups like Coming Out Over Coffee in Philly.
Ferger and Crandall facilitate the group every Tuesday night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Affirmations. Another Coming Out Over Coffee group meets on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Find out more about this long-standing group as well as many other programs, events and services at http://www.goaffirmations.org.