On the radar: Young, black LGBT Detroiters raising profile, building community

When Charles Pugh was campaigning for city council, he held a workshop at his home with a handful of his team to prepare for what he calls the "gay question." They spent the night working through 25 different scenarios that might come up during the race about his sexual orientation.

"We over prepared," he says. "None of it came up. I was pleasantly surprised."

Pugh became the first openly gay politician elected to office in the city of Detroit last November. He's under 40, he's black, he's gay, and he's the city council president.

"It's just one part of me," he says from his 13th floor office over looking the Detroit River, "an important part, but just one part."

Pugh's last statement is indicative of Detroit. The black LGBT community is just one part of the city, an important part, but just one part. And this part of Detroit is growing, whether it's prominent members of Detroit's political realm, like Pugh, organizations like the Ruth Ellis Center or Mpowerment Detroit, or the black pride festival Hotter Than July, the black LGBT culture is becoming an integral part of Detroit's future.

The city doesn't have a clearly defined "gay-borhood" as, say, Chicago's Boys' Town or Chelsea in New York City. And though Ferndale's large LGBT scene is just a bus ride away, we're still talking within the city limits. But just because Detroit lacks one of these neighborhoods doesn't mean the scene doesn't exist.

"We've existed under the radar for a long, long time. For decades," Pugh says. "We are a diverse city, we have a rich community, and there is a whole culture of people living here that Detroiters might not know about."

These days, however, thanks to Pugh and a growing, more vocal and visible movement, the black LGBT community is moving off of that radar and closer to the spotlight.

Expanding social networks

A sign of the health of the black LGBT community in Detroit is Hotter Than July, the weeklong, annual black pride festival that took place last month. It consisted of a parade, a cruise along the river, workshops, and a closing party at Palmer Park. This was the 15th year it took place.

"We can gauge the community here in Detroit based on Hotter Than July," says co-founder and community activist Johnny Jenkins. "And (Hotter Than July) 15 years ago is nowhere close to what it is now."

Before the first black pride festival here, the community was organizing and sending busloads of Detroiters down to Washington D.C.'s black pride festival. As the buses filled up and more and more started going, Jenkins and crew decided to just throw their own. Jenkins says a festival like Hotter Than July is not just a positive for the black LGBT community in Detroit but a positive for the city as a whole.

"There is a significant black gay culture here in Detroit," Jenkins says. "We're flexing our muscles, we're voices in the community, we're part of Detroit."

Detroit's black LGBT community 20 years ago was pushed forward by groups like the Billionaire Boys Club (BBC) and Men of Color.

"Looking back we thought we were really visible, the places we went, the things we did," says Robert Tate, a founding member of the BBC, which is a social club for black gay men in the city. "But we weren't nearly as visible as the community is today. I like to think we helped pave the way for the younger generations, helped them feel more comfortable here in Detroit." He pauses for a thought. "Or maybe we helped Detroit feel more comfortable with them."

Bobby Foote, a 25-year-old Detroiter, fashion designer, and lesbian, says the media has made it easier for the youth as a whole to come out. "When you see it on TV, shows like Ellen DeGeneres, or read about states that accept gay marriage, it makes it easier for us," she says.

Foote came out when she was 16. Her grandmother kicked her out and the rest of her family didn't accept her. Yet Foote says that things have changed in the nearly ten years since she come out, though there are still many challenges when navigating these waters.

"These kids are at the intersection of race, gender and poverty," says Laura Hughes, director of Highland Park's Ruth Ellis Center, a care center that provides services to LGBT youth between the ages of 13 and 21. On top of the services the center provides, they offer ten beds for couch surfing, homeless and abandoned LGBT youths who need shelter (and there's a waiting list). Ruth Ellis has a drop in center that serves dinner, has a computer lab, and provides opportunities to these youths to seek out services that'll help them get their lives back on track.

Organizations like R.E.C. Boyz, Mpowerment Detroit, KICK, LOCS, SPICE, and Ruth Ellis are beacons of positive energy, education, and simply showing the kids that they are supported and relevant to Detroit.

Mpowerment Detroit is a nonprofit funded by the Michigan AIDS Coalition. The project provides HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness education, leadership building, and life skills that pertain to the whole body, says Myles Curathers, secretary of the Black Pride Society and part of Mpowerment Detroit. Mpowerment also holds events such as "Vogue Down Fridays" and "Sunday Sessions," where the young people can come up to the loft space above Niki's Pizza and just talk.

"I think events like 'Vogue Down Fridays' keeps these kids out of trouble," Curathers says. "We'll get 100 kids up there. During our Sunday sessions we'll get 80. Eighty kids to just talk and vent about their lives. And it's all word of mouth."

Curathers says numbers like those prove organizations like Mpowerment are needed here in the city. Council president Pugh agrees.

"Places like Mpowerment Detroit, R.E.C. Boyz, groups like Ruth Ellis Center, are places to go and belong," Pugh says. "They will tell you that you're OK as you are. These support networks have made it easier. Facebook and YouTube have made it easier. (Detroit) has an amazing support system of groups that will look at you and say, 'I love you as you are.'"

The black LGBT community doesn't live on an island though. It exists in the same city as everyone else. They are facing the same challenges that any other Detroiter is facing. And just because someone is LGBT doesn't mean life is different.

"Queer culture is punk"

"We don't define ourselves based on who we have sex with," says Adriel Fantastique, a local promoter and events producer. He co-founded one of Detroit's most successful party franchises, Family, in the mid-1990s and is now involved in the monthly Fierce Hot Mess and Macho City events.

Fantastique calls himself a promoter of queer culture in Detroit. He describes it as the counterculture of the LGBT movement. "If LGBT is pop," he says, "then queer culture is punk." He adds that some in the LGBT community might see this as divisive but he disagrees. "It's options. Detroit needs options."

Tiffany McLean, a board member of the group KICK, says the economy, interestingly enough, has brought people together in an odd way.

"We're meeting new people, networking," she says. "People need jobs and that's more important these days than if you're gay or straight."

Another co-founder of Hotter Than July, Kevin Griffin, says that Detroit's LGBT community has seen some very positive changes. Every year there are small increments of positive change. One of the biggest points of change is the youth movement. "Younger people are taking leadership roles and passing it down to a new generation," he says. "We have a responsibility to ourselves and to Detroit. Having Pugh in office is a start. But it's going to take more than just him. We need to encourage others to take responsibly of the city of Detroit."

Detroit has some serious problems. There is a high dropout rate, a high unemployment rate, the crime issues, problems with the public schools, revenue is down. But, Pugh says, this offers a unique opportunity for LGBT youth to get involved and turn Detroit around.

"We have a unique opportunity for this community to deal with these issues," he says. "Get actively involved in your community. This will be the best way to advance the LGBT community here in Detroit and to advance Detroit itself."

When it rains, Pugh says he's wet, and not gay. He says when a Tiger hits a home run to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, he's excited, not gay.

"We all love Detroit," he says. "We want to see Detroit improve, side by side, on the bus, in the boardroom, in the church pews. This is the 21st century and a city that should encourage a thriving gay community."

Stephen Brown traveled all the way from London and found himself on a cruise on the Detroit River as part of the Hotter Than July festival. The cruise was put on by KICK. His assessment sums it all up: "Detroit is a very vibrant place. There is a lot of resilience among black people and in Detroit. I feel it. Something is being born in the LGBT community. They say Detroit has nothing but I disagree. It has everything."

News editor Terry Parris Jr. goes looking for fresh "Buzz" each week and is a regular contributor to Model D, Concentrate and Metromode.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


A sign at the Ruth Ellis Center

Voguing at the Ruth Ellis Center

Frank works at the Ruth Ellis Center and finds the center to be a refuge with like minded individuals