Affirming Ferndale

May 30, 2007 at 12:00 am

If "Christopher Street, the Castro and North Halsted" were Jeopardy answers, the question would be "What are gay neighborhoods in major American cities?" And even the most hetero of heterosexuals would get it right.

Nearly every urban metropolis contains an area within its city limits that can be defined as predominantly gay — with gay residents, restaurants, bars and businesses. Often referred to as "gay ghettos" because of the neighborhood's condition before its new inhabitants arrive, revitalization is usually the hallmark of these areas and prosperity a result. Major cities like Miami and its famed South Beach have been transformed in recent decades by the gay infrastructure that grew up around the urban pioneers who settled there. Detroit, however, seems to be impervious to this phenomenon — and the reasons for this are hardly surprising.

The elements that have served to keep the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities fractured in Detroit are, in many ways, the same elements that have divided the city in general. Racial issues, economic crises and political mismanagement have all played their part. But, in the end, it was post-Detroit riot era crime that brought the Big Ugly to its knees — and the tenuously constellating gay community of the late '60s was one of the many casualties.

On Sunday, June 3, Affirmations, the new lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center in downtown Ferndale will officially open its doors. The event, which coincides with the annual Motor City Pride celebration, represents a turning point for the LGBT community in metro Detroit. And the center itself — a spectacular, 17,000-square-foot, three-story structure located in the heart of Ferndale — is an undeniable declaration that Ferndale's growing LGBT presence is here to stay.

"We're going to look back on this and talk about 'pre-community center and post-community center,'" says Jan Stevenson, one of the founders of Affirmations and co-publisher of Between The Lines, Michigan's leading LGBT newspaper. She says that the city of Detroit has neglected its gay and transgender community and that that neglect has come at a price.

"That $6 million building could have been in Detroit," says Stevenson, 51. "Detroit could have had a lot of that if it wanted it, but the Detroit city government just doesn't get it. In five years, the community is going to be much more organized — politically and socially. I think it's just starting. We're going to be a powerhouse in this state."

To understand the struggle of LGBT people in metro Detroit, one must first understand the history of the Pride movement in America. While homosexuality has likely been a part of the human sexual repertoire since the dawn of man — depicted prevalently in the recordings of ancient cultures like those of Egypt and Greece — the evolution of gay life in the United States is shrouded in mystery. Mass conservatism, brought on by the influence of the Catholic Church and other Christian organizations, as well as various political institutions, deemed homosexual unions immoral or irrelevant, frequently driving practicing gays and lesbians underground to protect themselves and their loved ones. Numerous organizations exist today that address the needs of homosexual Christians — the Gay Christian Network and among them. But the Catholic Church, for instance, still views homosexual acts as "intrinsically disordered," and the World Health Organization listed homosexuality as a "mental disorder" until a scant 17 years ago.

In the '50s, small, upstart support organizations like the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco began to appear, but it wasn't until the late '60s that a radical shift in gay activism arrived. On June 27, 1969, New York City cops raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. A known gay and cross-dressing bar, the Stonewall's patrons were no strangers to police raids. But on this night (coincidentally, the night of gay icon Judy Garland's funeral), they decided to fight back. The weekend-long riot between the LGBT residents of Greenwich Village and the New York City Tactical Police Force was a call-to-arms for the gay community. Seemingly overnight, the relative complacency of organizations like the Mattachine Society was rendered obsolete. New, radical groups like the short-lived but influential Gay Liberation Front demanded a more confrontational brand of activism and the gay pride movement was born.

Today, the events of Stonewall are commemorated all over the world every June with parties, parades, festivals and memorials. Metro Detroit is no exception. As it has for the last six years, downtown Ferndale will act as host for the Motor City Pride Festival on June 3. Presented by the Triangle Foundation, in cooperation with other LGBT and LGBT-friendly organizations in the area, the street festival brings gay art, commerce, entertainment and activism together for a daylong party. Last year the festival attracted more than 40,000 participants. And this year's theme, "Building Our Community One Piece at a Time" seems entirely appropriate.

"Everyone now knows Ferndale as this liberal, progressive community, but it didn't used to be that way," says openly gay Ferndale City Councilman Craig Covey. "In the '80s it was very conservative and 98 percent white." Covey, 49, is currently serving the end of his second four-year term in Ferndale and is the founder and CEO of the Midwest Aids Prevention Project (MAPP). The shift in politics toward a more diverse, LGBT-supportive environment in Ferndale has meant enormous positive socioeconomic growth in the city including 99 percent occupancy of its previously stymied downtown business district. "I liken Ferndale to that movie The Mouse That Roared," says Covey. "This tiny little four-square-mile principality is trying to show our neighbors that there's a better way."

One of those neighbors is Detroit.

For as long as there has been life in Detroit, there has likely been gay life in Detroit. And the center of gay life — in Detroit and everywhere else in decades past — was the gay bar. It was the one place where gay and lesbian men and women could mix with a reduced fear of social oppression or physical threat. Old-timers speak wistfully about places like the Ten Eleven club where, in the '40s and '50s, go-go boys would kick up their heels as the mostly white male patrons sipped cocktails and mingled. The Mattachine Society had a chapter in Detroit and, later on, the GLF did too. But their history here is sketchy. Much better preserved is the gay political history of Ann Arbor, thanks to the archives of activist James W. Toy and the photo archives of John and Leni Sinclair — both preserved at the Bentley Historical Library in Ann Arbor. Wayne State University had a presence in the Gay Pride movement, with student-organized marches and parades throughout the '70s and '80s and a newsletter named the Gay Liberator. But if there is a unifying feature about these efforts in Detroit, it would be brevity. Most of them were short-lived, and the myriad problems the city faced in its own right, especially during the '60s and '70s, rendered the gay rights agenda largely unsustainable. The splintering of the gay community within itself served to further weaken the cause. Even today, lines are drawn between genders, races and economic status. But it wasn't always this way.

The idea that Detroit once had a thriving gay neighborhood seems about as plausible today as the notion that it once had a Chinatown. But just as the sweet smell of pork buns once wafted down Third and Michigan Avenues, Detroit's Palmer Park was, for a brief moment in time, the epicenter of gay life in the city. "It was the Castro of Detroit," says Louis Diiorio, 60, manager of Ferndale's Chosen Books, which got its start in the Palmer Park scene of the '60s. "It was a safe haven." It also had momentum. When Woodward Bar regular, Paul Jennings, 48, came out in 1977, the area was bustling with gay bookstores, bars and restaurants. "You couldn't get an apartment in Palmer Park unless you knew somebody," he says. "It was a lot more diverse when I came out. This town couldn't afford to support separate gay and lesbian bars, so we had to come together."

Ask three different people what happened to Palmer Park and you'll get three different answers. But all will eventually agree that crime is what dismantled Detroit's opportunity to have a gay renaissance akin to those of San Francisco and New York. The glorious art deco apartment buildings that were once at such a premium in this neighborhood are still there — but you no longer have to "know somebody" to get one. You just have to have to pony up about 300 bucks and be willing to live between a beautiful park and ungodly urban squalor.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, David Kmiecik, 60, and his friend Dave Wolan, 83, shared a drink at Menjo's, a gay landmark in Detroit and one of the only businesses to survive the flight of the homosexual community from Palmer Park. In between discussions about the fabulous drag shows at Bookie's (also known as the city's famed punk venue) in the '70s and the equalizing power of Honest John's original Belle Isle location in the '90s, there is much reminiscing about Palmer Park and Menjo's in their heyday.

"Seven nights a week this place was jam packed," says Kmiecik, as he gazes around at the appealingly updated decor. "The dance floor was filled with tons of people and they played the latest music and everybody was in a big, partying mood." Kmiecik has fond memories of this period, but his caveat is telling: "You have to realize that, at the time, there were lots of drugs going around too."

By the '80s, the cement strip at Six Mile and Woodward became known as "the meat rack," so named because of the gay prostitutes who began to gather there. The park itself became the site of clandestine couplings between tricks and johns; straight men, too, were frequenting the area posing as prostitutes — jumping potential johns for drug money. Crack cocaine had become the scourge of Detroit and beatings and murders in Palmer Park happened with gruesome regularity.

"Crime became a lot more rampant," says Kmiecik. "There was no taking the bus anymore. People were getting stabbed and getting their cars shot at. They started moving out of the apartments around here, and the whole neighborhood changed."

Diiorio, too, remembers. "I saw it at its best and I saw it at its worst," he says. "Now there's nothing. When gay people move in, property values go up. But you also have those people who are vulnerable to the darker elements. The cops wanted it cleaned up, and rightfully so." The bars migrated north up Woodward. Places like Tubes, the E Ramp and the Gas Station opened near Seven Mile Road, but with the police crackdown on the park and the Woodward corridor, the drugs and prostitution moved indoors. Before long, the area was a ghost town.

As Craig Covey describes it, the gay community was "in a diaspora" — fleeing from Palmer Park and dispersing back into the city or out into the suburbs. Covey himself made an ill-advised move to Palmer Park from Columbus, Ohio, in 1985 only to discover that everybody was leaving. "There were some very serious crime issues," he says. "I left within a year and a half."

As Covey and many others describe, the trajectory of the post-Palmer Park gay community mimicked, very much, that of the overall citizenry of Detroit — with those who could afford to leave the city largely scattering and those who couldn't afford to leave being left to fend for themselves. "The bulk of them tended to move up Woodward Avenue and they settled in Ferndale, Royal Oak and Birmingham depending on their economic abilities," he says. "The middle-class folks came to Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge, as I did."

This left an enormous chasm, racially, in the LGBT community and, according to poet-activist Johnny Jenkins, further deepened the challenges unique to African-American gays in Detroit.

"Everybody in the black community doesn't identify as 'gay,'" says Jenkins, 38, "it's a culturally-based issue." A Detroit native and co-founder of Hotter Than July, the annual Palmer Park "black same-gender-loving" Pride festival, Jenkins says that forging unity among BSGL people is difficult because of the stigmas that still hang over the issue of homosexuality in black culture. Elements that divide the gay and lesbian community in general make the black gay and lesbian community even more disparate.

"The phrase, 'black same-gender-loving,' is trying to identify a crowd of people that are very difficult to identify because they are so closeted," says Jenkins. "Religion is one of the big factors. A lot of us grew up in the black church in Detroit — which makes it difficult for people to rise to the cause."

The Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park (named for the pioneering lesbian who opened her Detroit home to African-American LGBT kids in the '30s) provides a safe, supportive environment for urban youth to address issues of sexuality and the challenges of life at home. But Jenkins says that, because of stigmatization and lack of resources, many of those who need help don't get it — and that forces them "down low," a popular term for gay men masquerading as heterosexuals. It can also, says Jenkins, compel them into other compromising situations — like dealing with mental health issues, battling addiction or contracting STDs.

"Nobody in the black community wants to touch issues of sexuality," he says. "That's why HIV and AIDS is such a problem. The results of living in that closet come out in other ways."

Jenkins says that being involved with Hotter Than July helped him come to terms with his own sexuality and that, though the festival provides an annual opportunity for the BSGL community to come together, once a year is not enough. In his estimation, the city of Detroit and national civil rights organizations like the NAACP are remiss in not availing themselves to the gay community on a more consistent basis.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick "has been to the festival, but it was all politics — it was about getting votes," says Jenkins. And, he adds, the gay community has seen no results from going to the mayor's office in force. "The thing is that we don't have the power, economically, that they have in Ferndale, and we don't have any political power in Detroit. And we have few allies to help back us up. It's not like the NAACP is there to help us; it's run by the black church — and those pastors are not really interested in reaching out to the BSGL community. They're too busy trying to beat us down with the Bible. You start looking at our leaders and saying, 'Wow. You people don't have the courage to fight what's really going on.'"

Jenkins says that, even though Hotter Than July (which attracts thousands of African-Americans annually) is an entirely different animal from Ferndale's Motor City Pride, the BSGL community recognizes the Ferndale Pride community as its "biggest ally."

"Even though they are two different Prides with two different purposes, we do support each other," he says. "They know that, if anything is going to happen in Detroit, we [the BSGL community] have to take the lead."

Calls to Detroit Mayor Kilpatrick's office in regard to this story went unanswered at press time.

If you're looking for front row seats to the political evolution of the gay community in metro Detroit from 1985 to the present, Craig Covey is a good man to call. Covey originally came to the area to head the Detroit-based Michigan Organization for Human Rights in '85. When that enterprise folded in the early '90s, it was absorbed by the Triangle Foundation (a statewide civil rights and advocacy group for the LGBT community), Affirmations and MAPP. Covey bought his first house in Ferndale in '89. He was 31 years old.

"I had looked in Royal Oak because, at that time, people were saying Royal Oak was going to be the gay center," says Covey, leaning back in the chair of his MAPP office in Ferndale, "but Ferndale's houses were much more reasonable than Royal Oak's. There was the kernel of a gay community in Ferndale, and there were more middle-class activists starting to coalesce here."

Though Royal Oak looked like a contender with LGBT-friendly businesses like Pronto!, Noir Leather and the relocated Chosen Books (now in Ferndale), the economic boom that already hit the area made it difficult for young people and entrepreneurs to get a foothold. Host city of the annual PrideFest Celebration beginning in the late '80s, Royal Oak had all the earmarks of a burgeoning gay mecca, but with prosperity already at hand, a "gay ghetto" it was not.

Ferndale, on the other hand, was prime.

"Ferndale was empty," says Covey. "People used to say you could roll a bowling ball down Nine Mile and not hit anything. This was just prior to the building of I-696 [the interstate freeway that bisects Ferndale and Royal Oak] and conventional wisdom was that 696 was going to be the new Eight Mile — that it was going to separate the wealthier, safer areas to the north from what some people saw as the lower income, more distressed areas to the south. At that time the city was run by Republicans and conservative Democrats, and it was under major stress. People were moving out. Ferndale could have gone either direction at that point."

Covey first ran for Ferndale City Council in 1995, finally winning a seat in 1999. But the civil rights ordinance that he and other gay activists such as Ann Heller had been championing since 1991 wouldn't find its way into Ferndale's law books until 2006. "The ordinance protected gay people from discrimination in business, housing and public accommodations," says Covey. "It was basic civil rights for gay people. We went to City Hall [in '91] and asked to pass it and they laughed us right out of the room." When Noir Leather, the fetish boutique that helped usher in the transformation of Royal Oak's retail landscape, came knocking in Ferndale in the late '90s, it too was shot down. "Some of the old guard were, naturally, unfamiliar and nervous about this new gay presence," says Covey. "Back then, we were only 10 percent of the population."

The civil rights ordinance was reintroduced in '99 and, when it finally passed in 2006, it was with 70 percent to 30 percent vote in favor. "Over 16 years, the vote completely flipped," says Covey. "I don't know if any city has ever transformed itself that fast."

Transformed is a good word for it. Along with the institution of flagship gay businesses like feminist bookstore A Woman's Prerogative, came more conventional, but gay-friendly, businesses like the Woodward Avenue Brewery. After the narrowing of Nine Mile Road down to two lanes several years ago, the more pedestrian-friendly downtown has seen an explosion of new businesses, both gay and straight. "All of the businesses welcome the community now," says Covey, who recently announced that he intends to run for mayor in Ferndale next year. "It's so cool to me that blue-collar guys and off-duty cops can be sitting in a bar next to lesbians and young couples and everybody has a ball."

Anatoly Ashkenazi manages SOHO, a gay bar in the heart of Ferndale. "It's nice to work in a place where people are free to express themselves," says the 23-year-old Russian immigrant who identifies as straight. "It's 'progressive,' which is a shame. It should just be the standard. But, for now, we still have to distinguish between a gay bar and a straight bar. We want to cater to the gay community, but we want to be open to everybody at the same time."

This is also the aspiration of the community center. "We're here for people of all sexual identities and gender identities and orientations," says Kathleen LaTosch, communications director of Affirmations. "We're here for the whole community."

The facility, which includes a wireless cyber café, an LGBT library, a game room (with a pool table, ping-pong, foosball and video games), several classrooms and meeting rooms and an elegant rooftop patio, offers annual memberships ranging from $1 for "limited income" applicants to $50 for families. Affirmations will celebrate its official grand opening during the Motor City Pride festival — which takes place right on the community center's front doorstep. "Ferndale is one of the most welcoming and affirming cities in Michigan," says the Triangle Foundation's director of development, Kevin McAlpine. "That's one of the reasons that the festival, ultimately, moved to Ferndale."

Motor City Pride moved from Royal Oak to Ferndale in 2001 and, according to Triangle Foundation director of communications, Dawn Wolfe, it has been celebrated "in one manner or another" for 35 years. Oddly, documentation on the history of Pride events in Michigan, particularly in Detroit, is slim. "The lack of a consistent gay press in Michigan before 1995 contributed a lot to the lack of gay documentation, particularly because the mainstream press wasn't documenting it at all," says Between The Lines' Jan Stevenson. Stevenson and her partner, Susan Horowitz, bought the paper in '94 as a monthly and took it weekly in '98. While there have been many LGBT papers in Michigan throughout the years, Between The Lines has emerged as the largest and longest-running. "Now, with Between The Lines, you can go back and see what we were doing at various points in time," she says. "It's one of the main reasons I wanted to do it."

Yale University Ph.D. student Tim Retzloff's pioneering work in piecing together Michigan's LGBT history has made the Lansing resident's name synonymous with gay history in the state. The 43-year-old has published in scholarly journals, made presentations for academic and local groups and co-curated an online exhibition on the topic.

The lack of documentation, he says, "reflects on the closet — but some of it reflects on the fact that there were people at the time that didn't think it needed to be saved." Retzloff also believes that the crushing economic troubles faced by Michigan residents also forced gay people out of the Detroit area and into the more welcoming and prosperous gay communities of places like New York and San Francisco, thus taking the paper trail with them.

"The bottom line is that people need jobs," says Retzloff. "The auto companies have been scaling back and it really hits home. But things [in the Michigan LGBT community] are vastly different now than they were in 1977, and that was vastly different than it was in 1957. We are seeing strides and we have a lot to be proud of."

To look around Detroit's Rainbow Room on any given Saturday night, you might be inclined to believe that being LGBT in Detroit has never been anything but fun. The Eight Mile and Mound Road gay bar is an institution in the community, and this particular Saturday finds it mobbed with young women, a few older women and a small clutch of guys, all here to mingle, drink and make racket while drag queen and hostess Natalie Cole works up her sassy floor show under a canopy of tiny disco balls. Butch chicks in baseball caps and lipstick lesbians in push-up bras all vie for the bartenders' attention while Cole dominates the dance floor with bejeweled gowns, snappy commentary and convincingly lip-synched versions of dance and soul favorites.

Roxie Arning, 48, regularly drives all the way from White Lake (about 80 miles round-trip) to make the scene at the Rainbow Room. "It's like Cheers for gay people," says Arning, who describes herself as a "transgender lesbian" — meaning she's "into girls" but won't undergo surgery to alter her original sex. "The bartenders know what I'm drinking and they know my name. And it's a nice, safe place."

Bartender Dennis Rutowski, 39, has worked at the Rainbow Room for 12 years. He's the bar's "newest" bartender. He says that the reason the staff, and the patrons, stick around so long is that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, is made to feel welcome. "We've always done our promotions to a mixed crowd," he says, "gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and even a few straight people. If we can't accept ourselves, how can we expect other people to accept us."

Natalie Cole is barking at the young lesbians assembled onstage for the Rainbow's "Hot Boobs and Buns" contest. The contest's title sounds trashy and provocative, but it's actually quite tame, even cute — mostly involving fully-clothed "dance offs" for the audience's approval. "Pay attention, sluts!" Cole commands, before the contest begins. Once she has them rapt, she gives a serious instruction: "It's Mother's Day this weekend, and I want to tell you to love your mother while she's here. Maybe you didn't have the best mother, but that doesn't matter. Tell her that you love her while you still can. One day, you won't have the opportunity anymore." Cole punctuates the message with a description of her own self-imposed estrangement from her now ailing mother and how the two came to reconcile and enjoy their lives together. For its brevity, the message is surprisingly affecting. It also calls attention to the fact that, gay, straight, bi or transgender, our concerns are, ultimately, supremely human.

"The struggle doesn't necessarily have to be all negative," says Retzloff. "We can re-think what our community is and build bridges where they weren't able to be built in the past."

In the eyes of Menjo's bartender Johnny McCorkle, 34, this process has already begun.

"Back in the day, gay bars were the only places we felt safe and comfortable," he says. "Now we can go anywhere they serve a martini.

"We are everywhere."

Wendy Case is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]