If you tell Deana Spencer that something she believes in is not possible or unattainable, she will power through, make it happen and disprove you. That’s advice she received once related to her role with the LGBTQ+ organization Battle Creek Pride (BCP): “Even when it’s ugly and you’re being drug through the mud, you get up and you do it anyway. And you just go. And you don’t stop, and you just keep going."
I have seen it happen; she single handedly accomplished the legwork to make the Battle Creek Pride Resource Center a monthly distribution site for fresh food boxes from the South Michigan Food Bank, and she’s leading the organization through Pride event planning and fundraising to keep the doors open to the organization’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center, where anyone is welcome.
Spencer serves as co-president of Battle Creek Pride, alongside Kim Langridge, a trans woman who is new to the organization and to a non-profit leadership role such as this. Because Battle Creek Pride operates entirely on volunteer hours, these are our leaders. I joined the board with two younger women from the community in January 2022.
There are a lot of people who make BCP what it is, but Spencer is a lynchpin. Because she’s been involved since the beginning and continues to lead, Spencer is the keeper of the organization’s history. She lived it, helped shape it and reflects on it, all the while leading Battle Creek Pride into its uncertain future.
Spencer was part of the earliest iterations of Battle Creek Pride’s Board in the late 2000s. She was asked by then-president and gatherer of the group, Larry Dillon, if she would serve as vice president, somewhat out of the blue. Dillon’s home served as the first BCP meeting place, where members planned social events at local restaurants and at the local gay bar, Partners.
In time, the rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, Father Brian Coleman, an out gay man, offered a more stable home for the organization. BCP rented a room from St. Thomas in the early 2010s. Spencer remembers painting every surface of that room, even the ceiling, to make it comfortable, and they decorated it with furniture purchased from a $5,000 anonymous gift. It became a real home for the regular meetings BCP began holding, including game nights, support groups and social hours for LGBTQ+ people.
While BCP is thriving today in a permanent space on Calhoun Street in Battle Creek, getting to the point where BCP finally had a true home base was not an easy path. The pursuit of a homebase for Battle Creek Pride has caused tension since the organization began.
After St. Thomas, Battle Creek Pride moved to the First Congressional Congregation Church in Battle Creek, which was also specifically inclusive to LGBTQ+ people. But Spencer, and others, believed it was important to find a neutral alternative, not in a church setting or a bar. In 2021, BCP signed an agreement with a building owned by Neighborhoods, Inc. of Battle Creek, which provides a dedicated space outside of the church.
Until a very dramatic (and public) fallout between members in 2014, Partners Bar was also always a major player in the operation of Battle Creek Pride. After-parties for Pride events were always held at Partners, and Spencer remembers themed nights sponsored by the bar, such as the “Naughtiest Party Under the Rainbow.” Spencer reflected that they leaned on the bar for a lot of support in the early years for three reasons — it was the only gay bar, it was incredibly supportive and it was one of few safe places they had.
Mike Madden, a member of the Battle Creek Pride Board of Directors and a bartender at Partners, straddled both worlds, finding himself in the center of the tension in 2014, when he was voted off the Board after a closed session. Madden reflects that the conflict was because the two organizations — BCP and Partners — were too reliant on each other. He said the gay bar was like an older parent to the “teenaged” organization. “That’s kind of the way it felt,” Madden said. “[The Board vote] probably was handled with way more drama than it needed to have, but it was really important for Pride simply because it had to — they had to learn to stand on their own.”
As it finds its home, BCP continues to refine its purpose. Charlie Fulbright was asked to join the Board of Directors as it grew in 2012 to become an official non-profit. Fulbright was known in the community for creating the Gay Straight Alliance at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek as a student. He is an advocate for LGBTQ+ people in Battle Creek but has said he also believes in the importance of advocating for this community in a city that preferred to ignore its LGBTQ+ neighbors. He was influential in shifting BCP into an advocacy organization, as well as providing space for queer folks.
“Social events are great, and they’re fun and everything, but if you don’t show yourself at a systemic level, then nothing can change,” Fulbright told Pride Source.
Fulbright led the charge in 2013 to compel the Battle Creek City Commission to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance that would protect LGBTQ+ people from housing and employment discrimination. Chairing a group called One Battle Creek after assisting in a similar initiative in Kalamazoo, Fulbright led trainings and canvassed neighborhoods to collect signatures. On Sept. 3, 2013, Battle Creek became the 26th municipality in Michigan to adopt such an ordinance, and Fulbright held a sign that lauded the 1,129 signers who supported the human rights ordinance in the city.
This isn’t the only time BCP has had a direct impact on the City of Battle Creek. In July 2021, Spencer and co-president Langridge led efforts with BCP to get the city to fly a rainbow flag at Battle Creek City Hall during its Pride festival week. Spencer remembers how much pride she felt when that happened and said these are examples of how this city increasingly sees LGBTQ+ people. She’s being asked to sit on city and community committees, and BCP is being included in diverse community wide events. And, through initiatives like providing fresh food boxes to the community, she prioritizes giving back to the city and being present at community events. For many years, BCP poured cereal at Cereal Fest in downtown Battle Creek.
“We can’t just go around asking for things; we have to give back. And if it just means giving our time, then that’s what it means,” Spencer said. “Just so people would see us, get used to us, take their fears and their ideas and their stereotypes away a little bit and understand we’re just regular folks like everybody else. We are not scary, we are not stealing children, we are showing up and pouring cereal in the hot sun,” Spencer said.
Deana Spencer watches the Pride flag raised at Battle Creek City Hall in 2021.
Spencer has her critics. When I first started volunteering with the organization, folks who sit across the table from her on projects warned me separately about her reputation. She’s sharp with people and blunt about her opinions and feelings. As BCP moves forward with stated goals to be more equitable and inclusive, she’s being confronted, somewhat directly, by new members of the board about her approach.
This sort of conflict is not new for Spencer, or BCP. Spencer is reflective of how decisions in the past, by the Board and even herself, have shaped the community overall. For instance, she said she’s not proud of how she handled the situation with Madden and Partners Bar. She calls the falling out “traumatic for the community” and wishes it hadn’t happened the way it did.
“Looking back, I wish that I had been better then about listening and sitting down and having much better conversations than I actually did,” she said. “Because I didn’t handle things well back then. I didn’t give any grace to some of those emotional pieces to it. Do I think we needed to separate [from Partners]? Absolutely. Do I think the drama needed to happen? No, I don’t.”
Spencer’s reflection and the ongoing progress of BCP are linked as much as they’re separate. As it has all along, the organization finds itself in the tension of these interpersonal relationships: It figures itself out as it works through the challenges and successes of an eager leader.