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Is Detroit on its way to becoming a gay-friendly city?

Motor City Pride

Motor City Pride

Motor City Pride

Motor City Pride

Motor City Pride

Motor City Pride

Motor City Pride


A vivid memory from early June, 2011: I'm at Motor City Pride in Hart Plaza. The annual lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community festival is being held in Detroit for the first time in 10 years (having moved, not without controversy, from downtown Ferndale). It's sunny, warm, a perfect day. I'm standing around, chatting with friends, when I look up at the 72 story Renaissance Center and pause. "Is that…?"
 
Sure enough, it is: the recently installed LED lights that ring the tops of the complex's five tubular towers, normally a shade of GM-brand blue, are subtly but certainly cycling through the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. We all stop talking and watch, a little dumbfounded, a little incredulous, at this unexpectedly prominent display of our community's colors. Is this Detroit -- our own hometown?
 
GM's decision to temporarily turn its imposing hood ornament of a headquarters into a monumental beacon of inclusion and welcoming was an unprecedented move in these parts. (A move that, four years on, we might already be taking for granted. 2015's Motor City Pride festival took place in Hart Plaza last weekend, and the Ren Cen's now-familiar ROYGBIV show started like clockwork on Friday night.)
 
The pride festival's wildly successful return to Detroit, GM's high-profile show of support, and now, just last week, the first-ever Detroit Tigers' Pride Night, attended by more than 1,400 LGBT individuals -- these are bold signifiers of cultural change. As our hardscrabble metropolis continues its 21st century evolution, is it finally learning to put its big, strong arms around the diverse and beleaguered LGBT community that calls it home? Signs point to yes. Let's take a look at the efforts of some thoughtful, committed people who are working hard to make Detroit a more welcoming place for all.
 
Promoting diversity and inclusion in business
 
How attractive is Detroit, and southeast Michigan in general, to LGBT professionals from around the country and the world? That's one of the key questions asked by the Detroit LGBT Chamber, a group formed in 2013 to promote business and economic opportunities in the region for LGBT people and their allies. (They also co-sponsored last week's Tigers event.)
 
"Our core business is twofold," explains James Felton Keith, the Chamber's CEO. "We advocate for workplace equality and promote supply diversity." To achieve the first objective, the Chamber works with Out and Equal, a national LGBT workplace advocacy organization, to develop employer resource groups in large and mid-sized corporations. The goal of these groups is to ensure that employers understand the hows and the whys of "establishing an air of inclusion and equality."
 
"This is about promoting a culture where talented LGBT professionals can bring all of themselves to the negotiating table," Keith says.
 
Darrious Hilmon, a native Detroiter who just moved back to the area to lead Affirmations, the LGBT community center based in Ferndale, understands firsthand the necessity of the chamber's work. Hilmon describes the personal discomfort that led him to remain a largely closeted professional until he moved to Chicago, where the "energy and atmosphere were more open, more welcoming," and where he discovered "the freedom to self-actualize."
 
Now that he's back, though, Hilmon senses a change in his hometown, a place he once found static and stifling:
 
"What I'm seeing now is people coming here from other places, which brings new energy and new norms, and that's one of the best things that can happen in Detroit. But we have to be open and welcoming to that. You've got a population of young professionals who identify as LGBTQ and they bring with them careers in business, creative careers -- and they bring a tax base. What they expect is to be able to walk safely, to move safely, to have arts and culture, to be able to walk down the street with their partners and not have it pose a problem. There's a whole generation of LGBTQ folks who simply are not going to accept living anything but out loud."
 
Caring for those most at risk
 
Working to attract, retain, and connect LGBT professionals is a worthy goal, a surefire path to both regional economic development and a more inclusive and vibrant local culture. But our community is made up of so much more than professionals -- in fact, we struggle disproportionately with poverty. So who is looking out for the people who are most vulnerable to the physical and emotional dangers that result from hate, ignorance, and inequality?
 
The Ruth Ellis Center estimates that there are between 800 and 1,000 runaway, homeless, and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Detroit on any given day. (The "Q," if you're new to this particular alphabet soup, is for "questioning.") A significant number of these kids and young adults have been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. And research out of San Francisco State University suggests that LGBTQ youth who experience high levels of family rejection are at risk, indeed. Not even accounting for the dangers associated with not having a place to stay, these young people are 8.5 times more likely to attempt suicide and 3.5 times more likely to use illegal substances and engage in high-risk sexual behaviors than their peers who grow up in more accepting families.
 
The folks at the one-of-a-kind Ruth Ellis Center have been caring for this population in Detroit and Highland Park since 1999, most notably by offering a residential foster home as well as a place where at-risk youth can hang out, socialize, go online, vogue, experiment with gender expression, or hold hands with their same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend -- a place, in short, where they can be themselves.
 
Youth programs director Jessie Fullenkamp says that in recent years, Ruth Ellis has also developed a remarkable youth leadership and advocacy program that brings together LGBTQ youth of color between the ages of 14 and 24 in pursuit of a common goal. "They go through a training period and then interview each other about their experiences in a system like education, foster care, or child protective services," Fullenkamp explains. "They then put together a video to educate policy makers and people who control regulation and change."
 
In the program's first year, participants focused on education and presented their findings to the Detroit School Board, which then invited them to rewrite the district's anti-bullying and harassment policy. For the first time, the policy now includes language about LGBTQ identity, as well as a directive that bullies undergo counseling about the challenges their LGBTQ peers face.
 
And next fall, the work of the Ruth Ellis Center is going to move even farther out into the community and in front of the problem of LGBTQ youth homelessness. Its forthcoming pilot program will train 300 Wayne County child protective services workers to identify and work with families who are experiencing strife as a result of young people's sexual orientation or gender expression -- before these kids are kicked out of their homes.
 
Working with faith leaders
 
The idea of fostering cultural change from within communities is a familiar one to the Rev. Roland Stringfellow. The former head of the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations of the Bay Area is bringing to Detroit his passion for making African-American faith communities more LGBT friendly. (He moved here two years ago when his husband, Jerry Peterson, became the Ruth Ellis Center's executive director.)
 
While there have been significant strides made within Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian faith communities in recent years on issues of LGBT rights and equality, Stringfellow says that progress has been slower in predominantly African-American churches. And these circumstances necessarily contribute to problems associated with domestic homophobia and transphobia in Detroit -- problems like youth homelessness.
 
Stringfellow's work includes convening public, faith-based conversations and seminars on subjects like marriage equality and inclusion, as well as holding closed-door meetings with influential pastors. These conversations, he says, are rooted in scripture ("the Christian sensibility to do no harm and to only do good in the community," for example) but also in a sometimes controversial linkage between the civil rights struggles of African-Americans and of LGBT Americans.
 
"Many of my white colleagues around the country shy away from making that comparison," he says, "but there are so many blatant connections that you really have to choose not to see them. Bigotry is an equal opportunity disease. Hatred is hatred."
 
On June 18, Stringfellow and LGBT Detroit are hosting a public panel conversation at the Spirit of Hope Church, during which predominantly African-American clergy, parents, and other concerned laity will discuss their support for marriage equality. "We're trying to stir the pot," he says, in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality, expected later this month, "and are inviting anyone in the community, whether for or against, to come have the dialogue."
 
That Supreme Court ruling is going to be a big one for same-sex couples in Detroit, determining whether or not we have the right to legally marry, and it offers a reminder about a powerful and persistent truth that shadows our subject here: no matter how much progress we make in the city, we still live in one of the worst states in the union for LGBT people. It's a state where, for the moment, we cannot marry or jointly adopt children, but where we can be fired or denied access to public accommodations based on our orientation or gender expression. A state where legislation enshrining such discrimination in the language of "religious freedom" is pending. A state where both the attorney general and the legislature have fought -- hard -- to eliminate domestic partnership benefits for public employees.
 
It's clear that we still have a long way to go, and that there is still much work to be done. Fortunately, we seem to be at a point in time when diverse efforts to uplift our diverse communities are coalescing; perhaps now Detroit, city of struggle and innovation, is ready to take the lead.
 
Matthew Piper writes about art, culture, and sustainability in Detroit.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at matthewjpiper.com.
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