Where the Gays Are

Conventional wisdom says that every major city has a gay neighborhood, and that the gays are the harbingers of gentrification.  Well, the problem with conventional wisdom is that it’s, well, conventional. And we all know how Detroit loves to defy convention!

So where is the gay community in Detroit? Why isn’t there a major presence in the city? Is Ferndale really that great for the gays? (The short answers are Chicago; Chicago; and sort of, yeah.) Given a metropolitan area population of about 4.5 million, you’d think there would be a visible gay presence in the exciting, dynamic, urban, up-and-coming CoD, right? I know, that’s what I thought too! So I strapped on my girdle and set my sights on finding it.

Now before I get going I must make a few things clear. You need to know that gay life in Detroit is sub-ideal. The gay population is dispersed geographically, although you will occasionally find little pockets of sparkle, as in Indian Village, Lafayette Park, Woodbridge or East English Village. The gay bars in the city are also decentralized, in addition to being windowless and charm-free. (Don’t believe me? Check out the Detroit Gay Bar Blight Tour on my blog about gay life in Detroit). And the political climate in Detroit and Michigan seems immune to any sort of warming phenomenon, despite our diligent work at increasing emissions.

The next thing to acknowledge is that while gay people do generally want the same things out of city living as straight people, we also have certain special requirements. I’m not talking about an Hermès boutique (yes I am), but rather a need for meeting places, for community, for visibility. Gay people need ways to connect. Many people say that Detroit is great because gay people are welcomed almost everywhere, and while true and certainly a step in the right direction, it’s an incidental presence, only providing local color. What about meeting new people for friendship, or dating?  What do you do when you are new in town? If you have to drive out to Ferndale to meet new people, why even bother living in the city?

Well, it’s worth the bother. It took some digging, but what I found were not only signs of intelligent gay life in Detroit, but exciting signs that things might be on the upswing in terms of gay interest and investment in the city.

Gay and upwardly mobile

First off, there seems to be an uptick in the number of gay folks living in the city. Homo-owners have long been important parts of the city’s strongest neighborhoods. The quality and value of homes in Detroit, in addition to the fact that a gay can hardly resist a fixer-upper, have made Detroit the nesting grounds for gay and lesbian couples who meet in the singles scene of the suburbs. Additionally, the growth of sophisticated and stylish rental properties in the city seems to have generated an influx of single folks. The Addison on Woodward or Lafayette Pavilion are two buildings that seem to get more than their fair share of fun urban 20-something gays.

If you hit the right spot at the right time, it can almost feel like you’re hanging out in a different city’s gayborhood. Take Atlas Global Bistro, for example. Last summer and fall, Wednesday nights at the bar were so gay and upwardly mobile they looked like a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign (and mercifully, they’re gaying up again). Or Yacht Rock Thursdays on the Slow's Bar-BQ patio last September – gay hipster heaven!  And after a few Saturdays at Eastern Market, I know that I can shop for pansies any time of year, not just on Flower Day.

There are grassroots social events that have sprung up in reaction to the lack of options. Most significantly, the Guerrilla Queer Bar has been taking over unsuspecting establishments for over three years, and in the last year has really taken off with folks from the ‘burbs. Reactions? They’re looking for something different, and they like finding about new places in the city they’d never have discovered before.

Of course whether you are gay or straight, the magic of the city is stumbling on the things that never happen anyplace else.  

Spontaneous, awesome events that ensue from that mix of people and things and experiences you find only in the city. Por ejemplo

On a warm evening last fall I was part of a crowd that gathered at the Bohemian National House on the western fringe of Corktown for DJs, alterna-theater and a performance by gem-sweater hip hop sensation Leslie & the Lys. There was a huge turnout of (surprisingly) cute gay hipsters in their 20’s and 30’s. The DJ? Super cool stuff you will hear at no gay bar. The temperature? A little stifling, my friend’s feathered hair wilted. But the vibe and crowd were amazing. Then? Kate Moss shows up on the dancefloor, being photographed by Bruce Weber (for what turned out to be a glammy but gritty 50-page spread in W). Unexpected? Absolutely. Surreal? Totally. But completely in line with the kind of surprises I expect from Detroit. And better than any gay bar in Chicago.

So yes, there is gay life to be had here, if you can ferret it out. And it only seems to be improving. So gays, Detroit could be, and should be, for you.

Fun! Conversation! Money!

Now I want to finish up by talking about what a strong gay population can do for the city.

Gay and lesbian Detroiters have already stepped up to create some of the most exciting changes this city has seen. Avalon International Breads, Vicente's Cuban Cuisine, Slow's Bar-BQ, the late lamented Oslo and newly-opened modern furniture store Mezzanine all have at least partial gay ownership. OK, wait, not Slow's, sorry.

Those are only the business owners who have gone on the record – there are more. Gay architects have been responsible for work on major historic restoration projects in the CBD and in our neighborhoods. Gay people are involved at high levels in both administrative and philanthropic efforts for our cherished cultural gems.  

And yet … there is still this reluctance to discuss a strong gay community in the context of Detroit. The mayor of Chicago practically French kissed everyone at the Gay Games Opening Ceremonies last year, but you can’t get local politicos to even discuss the multiple aspects of “Detroit Love.” Huh?

If you need further convincing about what the right influx of gays can do for you, look no further than the cable channel Bravo for a parallel. That station was boring nothingness until they got a gay programming director. All of a sudden we got “Queer Eye” and every permutation of “Project Runway” imaginable. Fun! And parent channel NBC got a huge increase in advertising revenues. Money!

So people, I think a little more conversation about how we can engage Michigan’s gay population and how we can make Detroit a more attractive homestead can’t hurt. It doesn't mean we have to change things for the people who already live here and like things the way they are, but there is certainly room to add other dimensions to gay life in the city.

As for me, I am aware there can be challenges to living here, but I’m old school gay. I believe in the fixer-upper. Because it turns out the city has a lot to offer an inquisitive queer like myself, and there are always new discoveries, new friendships, and new cocktails on the horizon.

We get a lot of talk about “keeping it real” in the city … and I just have to say that Detroit makes me feel real. Mighty real.

This is Supergay's first dispatch for Model D from the beating heart of gay Detroit. Expect more sassy and stylish insights and opinions in the future.


Atlas Restaurant on Woodward

Avalon Bakery

The Addison

A Guerrilla Queer Bar Event at the Majestic Cafe

Mezzanine Furniture on Broadway

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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