August 19, 2022

LGBTQ+ Up North: How Far Have We Come?

And how far is left to go?
By Craig Manning | June 20, 2020

In 2019, the Up North Pride Traverse City Visibility March drew more than 6,000 attendees. It’s an event that has become, in the six years since it began, the single largest LGBTQ+ Pride march in the state of Michigan.

But Traverse City wasn’t always known for being an open-minded and welcoming community to LGBTQ+ populations, and most other smaller towns throughout northern Michigan still don’t have that reputation.

In honor of Up North Pride’s 2020 Pride Week celebrations (which, because of COVID-19, will run virtually in 2020, from June 22 through June 28), Northern Express took stock of where things stand for the LGBT community today, including how far we’ve come over the years — and how far we still have left to go.

“When I first moved [to northern Michigan] in the early '90s, it was a very different community,” said Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers. “It was not a welcoming community or an accepting community to diversity, at all.”

Jonny Cameron, who co-founded Up North Pride and serves as its chair, echoes Carruthers’ words.

“My wife, Elon, graduated from Traverse City High School in 1991, and she remembers very well how it was here for queer people at the time,” Cameron told Northern Express. “It was not safe. There was not much visibility, aside from maybe a sticker on the door of a bookstore or The Bookie Joint [used bookstore in Traverse City], which I think is the first place I remember seeing a rainbow sticker.”

In Traverse City, at least, things have changed a bit in the past 20 years. In particular, Cameron recalls October 2010, when the Traverse City City Commission voted to update the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. The update made it illegal for employers to fire or otherwise discriminate against employees due to sexual orientation and set similar rules for landlords, apartment complexes, and other housing facilities. One of the people sitting on that city commission was Carruthers, who is openly gay. Carruthers went on to win the mayoral office in 2015 and won re-election to a second term last fall.

In 2014, Cameron co-founded Up North Pride. That year, they said, about 250 people showed up for the first Visibility March. By year two, the event was already expanding into other free programming, from youth outreach efforts to LGBTQ+ storytelling events to a popular drag night at The Little Fleet bar and food truck lot. And every year, the numbers grew, turning Up North Pride from a niche event into one of northern Michigan’s biggest and most beloved celebrations.

Today, Cameron says the support from the community is almost surreal. Not only has Up North Pride found partners in the likes of the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority, the Traverse City Arts Commission, and Traverse City Tourism, but Cameron also notes how common it has become to see a rainbow flag or an Up North Pride sign outside a local business. Things today are a far cry from when the only rainbow sticker to be found in northern Michigan was on the door of a bookstore or two.

“We really are feeling the love and support of a lot of organizations and institutions in this area that we just didn’t have seven years ago,” Cameron said. “We have them taking steps with us to ensure that this place is going to continue to be more inclusive and safe. And the allies that have supported us in this movement have been on a learning journey with us. They’ve asked things like, ‘Okay, you’re trans. What are pronouns? How can I be an ally? How can I help?’ So we have been steadily educating a wonderful posse of allies in this community who are taking that work into their workplaces and into their homes.”

That’s not to say the battle is won, or that homophobia or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity are things of the past. On the contrary, on both a local and national level, LGBTQ+ awareness, acceptance, and human rights remain areas of major debate and struggle.

Last year, the partnership between Up North Pride and the Traverse City Arts Commission resulted in rainbow stripe murals being installed at 14 crosswalks around town. The art installations drew online backlash and hateful comments from some community members, prompting Carruthers to question how much progress Traverse City had actually made toward LGBTQ+ acceptance — and how much the example set by the Trump White House might be affecting forward momentum for the gay community and other minority groups.

“It’s always 10 steps forward and eight steps back,” Carruthers said. “In general, I think we've really changed the climate in Northern Michigan, and that it's a much more accepting and welcoming place. We’re doing our best. But unfortunately, we’re three and a half years into a Trump administration, and this president has not made it any easier on us. He's opposed marriage equality. He's created barriers to healthcare. He's really been actively trying to take rights away from the LGBT community and giving them to the religious community. And that shouldn't be the way it is. It shouldn't be ‘Either you have the right to pray, or you have the right to be who you are.’ But unfortunately, Trump has been inflaming a lot of the issues.”

On Friday, June 12, in fact, the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era protection that prohibited discrimination in healthcare against individuals who are transgender. The announcement not only came in the middle of Pride Month but also on the four-year anniversary of a mass shooting at Pulse, the Orlando gay bar where 49 people were murdered and 53 injured. Many in the LGBTQ+ community did not see the date as a coincidence.

When asked just how high stakes the 2020 presidential election is for the LGBTQ+ community, Carruthers doesn’t mince words: “We can't have another four years of this current administration, because we're being pushed back into the dark ages. And it’s not just the LGBT community. It's the environmental community; it's black lives. Every aspect of progressive movement forward in our country is being challenged by this administration, and I think we need to do whatever it takes to change our leadership.”

While a welcoming business community and a massive annual pride celebration help somewhat to dampen the blow that Trumpian viewpoints have on the LGBTQ+ community in Traverse City, Cameron acknowledges that many smaller northern Michigan towns are still under-served and under-supported when it comes to community togetherness and valuable allies.

“I am always thinking about young people who are at home [in smaller outlying communities], who are under 18, and who are in environments that aren't safe or affirming,” Cameron said. “I’ve been particularly worried about how this lockdown [for COVID-19] has been for kids in those situations. There are a lot of people doing work in this town with youth homelessness and with other organizations, and they are all asking exactly this question: How do we get into these small communities and provide resources and visibility? If we could open a safe house in each little community for these kids, that would be great, but that takes funding and that takes a lot of other stuff that we don’t have. So what we do have is sort of an informal grapevine. When we hear about issues in these smaller areas, we try to resource people to help. But that’s not sustainable, and it's not strategic; it's just reactive to one situation at a time.”

There have been strides made in smaller communities. In Kalkaska, for instance, residents in 2018 voted to recall then-village-president Jeff Sieting, who drew public outcry after making controversial social media posts that called transgenderism a mental illness and suggested violence against Muslims and people who were part of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the special election forced by the recall, Sieting lost the village presidency to Harley Wales, an openly gay man.

In Petoskey, meanwhile, residents last year formed the LGBTQ+ Alliance of Petoskey, an organization designed to offer “resources, tools, advocacy opportunities, support groups, and merchandise in support of the LGBTQ+ community.”

Another positive change came in the form of Polestar, an “LGBT+ community center” opened in 2018 that — while physically located in Traverse City — seeks to serve people in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska, and Antrim counties, “and beyond.” The center offers a variety of support groups and programs geared toward the LGBTQ+ community, as well as general open hours aimed at providing a safe space for anyone who might need it.

Jocelyn Link, who serves as chairperson for Polestar, says one of the organization’s biggest focuses — beyond simply operating the organization's physical center — has been to provide outreach to northern Michigan communities. From school programs geared toward spreading awareness of LGBTQ+ topics to consulting services that help businesses understand how to interact with LGBTQ+ customers, these programs strive to target areas beyond Traverse City. Link notes that Polestar has been particularly successful in bringing together the region's LGBT youth community — not just through support groups, but also by hosting celebratory events such as the annual “Queer Prom.”

Unfortunately, Link says COVID-19 “has put a pretty hard stop” on much of what Polestar is able to do. Queer Prom was canceled this spring, as were many support group meetings and other programs. The center itself is currently closed, though Link says that Polestar’s board of directors is “currently talking plans about how to [reopen] safely.”

While the local LGBTQ+ community and allies are thrilled to have a community center like Polestar —and would like to see more safe spaces of its ilk in other areas throughout northern Michigan — Cameron said their ultimate hope is that the gay community will eventually be able to safely move out of these sequestered gathering spaces and further into the open.

“Part of the reason we wanted to have Up North Pride was that we as the LGBTQ+ community do exist outside of bars,” Cameron explained. “It’s cool that we have had a gay bar in Traverse City for as long as we have. [Note: Traverse City nightclub SideTraxx opened in 1988 and was the first Michigan bar north of Grand Rapids to cater specifically to the gay community.] But I think queer people finding places to gather outside of establishments that sell alcohol is a plus.

"And there are more places now. There are a lot of businesses that we can go in and out of, and every time that we see a flag on one of these businesses, that's a signal to us that they're trying to be inclusive. There are a lot more communities of faith up here that have taken the steps toward being open and welcoming to queer people. And now we have Polestar, too. So those are all things that have come about in recent years, as a result of our awareness and advocacy, and it’s all about what Harvey Milk said: It's about getting ‘out of the bars and into the streets.’ Because for so long we only had the bars.”

For Cameron, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance won’t truly be won — locally or abroad — until bigotry and discrimination in all their forms are a thing of that past. There could be a million rainbow flags in northern Michigan, or LGBT-friendly community centers in every town, or a Pride march that numbers 10,000 strong. But those examples of forward momentum, Cameron says, are just stepping stones toward the kind of broad systemic change that would truly rewrite the narrative.

“Until our kids are safe, until the people who are sworn to protect and serve them do their jobs, until the educators who are there to mold them into good humans and citizens understand them, until the bad apples are weeded out, until people take bullying [of LGBTQ+ people] seriously, we're not going to be okay,” Cameron said. “And it is every person's job, especially those with privilege, especially those who want to be allies, to do something. It is every person’s job to step in and get uncomfortable. Because we're uncomfortable.”


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