A backwoods mentality still plagues parts of Northern Michigan when it comes to accepting the gay community.
Although gay people say they can be themselves in Traverse City or Petoskey, they think twice about what they say or do in smaller towns.
Rev. W. Edward Grim, a retired United Methodist pastor who is gay, runs an informal lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) ministry. He said he knows gay people who live in rural areas.
“Most of them, if they live in a rural area, they pretty much stay in the closet when they’re in that area,” Grim said. “They hide it and they try not to be known.”
The urban-rural divide is an indication that gay tolerance is in a state of flux, he said.
“We’re in the middle period,” he said. “We’re in the transition period.”
Jon Becker, a gay real estate agent at Century 21 Northland in Traverse City who’s expanded his business in recent years by advertising on gay websites, said he behaves differently depending on where he is.
“If I went out in Buckley or Mancelona, would I go out to a restaurant and talk as openly with my gay friends as I would in Traverse City?” he said. “Probably not.”
Becker said he believes people in rural places have a harder time being open about being gay, but that he hasn’t heard of anyone getting harrassed.
“I guess I’ve never heard any huge horror stories of things that happen to them,” he said.
OUT AND ABOUT IN PETOSKEY
Taylor Martin and Tracy Thomson have done what just a generation ago might have been unthinkable – they moved back to Petoskey after college to settle down publicly as a gay couple.
They discussed their marriage plans and their desire to stay in the town they love in a front-page feature in the Petoskey News- Review in March.
Martin, 27, and Thomson, 29, said reaction to the newspaper article, which ran after the stay of a federal court decision that temporarily legalized gay marriage in Michigan, has been positive.
“We hear nothing but positive feedback and if there is negative feedback, they just keep it to themselves,” Thomson said. “We had, like, zero negative comments about that.”
Thomson, who is from Petoskey, and Martin, who is from Charlevoix, say they might have moved to a large city with a gay community if it were 20 years ago.
“The gay community up here is growing. So maybe 20 years ago, I probably would have moved,” Thomson said. “I would have wanted to be around a larger gay community. Now we’d be comfortable anywhere.”
That the legality of gay marriage in Michigan is in limbo has not altered the couple’s plan, which is to marry in Northern Michigan in the summer of 2015.
“We’ll probably set a date, regardless of whether it’s legal here or not,” he said. “We’ll just have a big party.”
EQUAL RIGHTS; NOT SPECIAL RIGHTS
The fight for marriage equality has been divisive in the state. Thomson and Martin say they hope to come across as though they are looking to be treated like anyone else; not as though they want special rights.
“We’re like every other couple. We met like other couples meet. We do the exact same things that other couples do,” Thomson said. “We’re not asking to be treated differently. We just want to be treated the same. We want to be treated like the majority of America.”
Nick Erber, mental health and HIV/ AIDS counselor at Munson Medical Center, also has a personal interest in the state’s gay marriage debate.
He got married to his partner in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. in 2010. While that marriage is recognized by the federal government, it is not recognized in Michigan.
“If we want to start a family, which we do, we really need the family benefits, which are at the state level,” Erber said.
Grim said the gay marriage debate is extremely personal for the LGBT community.
“It’s hard to imagine for people outside of our community how hurtful it has been, how difficult,” he said.
ON THE FRINGE IN CADILLAC
The state of gay tolerance around Cadillac is somewhere in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” range, said Lonnie Burkett, owner of a gay bar there.
Partners – in life and business – Burkett and David Artt found a decaying and beautiful old building in Cadillac. They said they knew they’d found the perfect location for their bar and restaurant.
Not long after opening about 18 months ago at the corner of Mitchell and Harris streets, the couple realized that because they are gay, their bar would be gay, too.
Before they even called the Escape Bar and Grill a gay-friendly place, there were people who maligned it, Burkett said.
“We only came out as a gay bar because there was so much controversy in town that we were a gay bar,” he said.
Burkett said it’s been a struggle to run a gay bar in Cadillac, a conservative, blue collar community that exists in limbo between identities as resort town and manufacturing hub.
“We have people come into the bar and complain that there were two lesbians holding hands in the bar or that two gay men were kissing,” Burkett said. “They’re OK with us being gay as long as they don’t see us being gay.”
They’ve also had problems with people spreading rumors about the place, particularly that they do not welcome straight people.
“The other bars tell people that about us. They say, ‘You don’t want to go there. That’s a gay bar,’” he said. “Actually, we’ve had some of those people come to our bar and say, ‘Well, I appreciate them letting me know that. I didn’t realize there was a gay bar here.’”
BEACON IN THE WILDERNESS
What makes the Escape important to Burkett and Artt is what it represents in Cadillac and surrounding towns.
“We’re here to be more than just a place for people to get drinks,” Burkett said. “Our goal is to have a place where the LGBT community knows they can be who they are and be safe and be able to relax.”
For example, a few weeks ago three young people showed up at the bar.
One of them, Burkett suspects, is in the process of changing their gender identity. All three of them experience trouble in the small towns where they live. One of them had been kicked out by his family.
Someone who brought them to the Escape commented to Burkett how much it meant to them to be there.
“They said this was the happiest they’ve ever seen these three individuals, being able to relax and enjoy themselves,” he said.
Burkett said comments like that make the struggle worthwhile.
“We’ve had a few that were closeted, [who have said] that it’s actually given them the courage to come out, or to live more freely with what they’ve been trying to hide,” he said.
TC MADE A STATEMENT
Of all the places Up North, Traverse City made the biggest statement to the LGBT community when the city passed a human rights ordinance.
Jim Carruthers, a gay city commission member, believes Traverse City has made a lot of progress toward tolerance … but still has a ways to go.
“It’s all becoming normal; I think it’s a generational thing,” Carruthers said. “As more of us come out, more families are having to deal with this because their children are coming to them and saying, ‘Hey, I’m gay.’” Still, some believe Traverse City has always been, at its heart, a fairly tolerant place.
Scott Kenny, general manager at SideTraxx, said he’s been out in Traverse City for the past 25 years and he’s never had much trouble.
“I’ve never really experienced, on a personal level, any form of hate,” Kenny said. “I personally think that for an area that borders on a lot of small towns where there are a lot of less educated people, it’s very accepting.”
Kenny said there really haven’t been any incidents at SideTraxx in the last 10 or so years. Stuff happens there, but it’s the kind of stuff that happens at any bar.
“You’re always going to have some ignorance or the smart ass who thinks they’re being clever,” he said. “I think you’re going to have that anywhere.”
TC NEEDS A CENTER
Grim said in retirement he was drawn to Traverse City from Indiana for the same reasons others are drawn to the city – lots of great restaurants, lots of things to do, incredible natural beauty.
He grew up vacationing in Mackinaw City, but decided to settle in Traverse City.
He said he also appreciated that there is a gay community in Traverse City, albeit a small one which he believes needs to be better organized.
Traverse City needs an LGBT community center, like Affirmations in Ferndale, he said.
It would serve as a central gathering place for information and to bring people together.
“Traverse City currently has SideTraxx, but not everybody drinks or feels comfortable at a bar,” he said.
Grim said he’s been to the dance bar, though it’s not his kind of scene. “You need some central place, even if one of you is coming in for a yoga class and the other one is coming in for a book signing or book discussion, you meet each other.” Grim said.
A community center could also make Traverse City more appealing as a gay tourist destination, something that could bring a lot of money to the city.
“You want the feeling out there, the reputation of being open and accepting,” Grim said. “We’re not seen as a real friendly destination, but we’re not seen as an unfriendly destination. If they were smart, there would be advertisements in Out magazine.”
Becker said he’s seen how Traverse City attracts gay people through his real estate business.
He believes the city could do more to become a gay travel destination.
For example, businesses could put rainbow stickers in their windows, subtly advertising they are gay friendly.
“I think we have a ways to go, but I think Traverse City does have probably more [gay tourists] than any of us know,” Becker said. “I think Traverse City does an outstanding job of having so many big city amenities without it being a big city.”