By Meghan Christian
Since 2000, June has been recognized as “Pride Month,” also National LGBTQ History Month. In Flint, activists annually join in the observance, both by offering a hometown event and by reflecting on the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender life here and nationally.
The Flint Pride festival will be held from 2-8 p.m. Saturday, June 24 in Riverbank Park. The seventh annual event, coordinated by Flint Wellness Services, will include live music, food, merchandise booths, children’s activities and educational information. Organizers said the event has grown from 150 people the first year to more than 1,300 last year.
A word about the acronyms. Local activists note that what seems like an “alphabet soup” is continually changing as society’s understanding of gender identity evolves. Genevieve Field, part of the Equality Caucus of Genesee County, for example, said the added “Q” refers to “queer” for some people and “questioning,” for others. Some have recently added an “A” to the acronym for “allies” or “asexual.” Some, like Wellness, call for putting a “+” at the end to indicate inclusivity. Some, Field said, advocate using the word “queer” to include all members of the community, and because, as she put it, “it is a word, not an acronym” and is a way of positively co-opting what was formerly a slur. For this story, EVM has opted to use “LGBTQ” throughout.
Organizers say Flint Pride is a place for the LGBTQ community to celebrate one another, to take a stand against violence and discrimination and to honor the sacrifices made by those in earlier times.
Contemporary LGBTQ life in Flint has evolved greatly since the last century, and now offers many more opportunities for the LGBTQA community, such as the activism of the Equality Caucus and hangouts like the Pachyderm Bar. Less known, according to Tim Retzloff, a former Flint resident and scholar of LGBTQ life, is the history of that community in Flint in the last century.
Pride festivals are held during June to commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion – a series of riots that occurred on June 28 and 29, 1969 in New York City. During a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar packed that night with revelers, the patrons fought back. Over that night and the next, violence spilled out into the street and surrounding neighborhood. Thirteen were arrested and many hospitalized.
While raids on establishments catering to LGBTQ people were not uncommon, resistance like that was, Retzloff said. Stonewall helped make the struggles of the LGBTQ community visible, when it had been hidden. While Stonewall was one of the first events to put issues around the LGBTQ community in the foreground, he added, it was not the beginning of LGBT life in America, and certainly not in Flint.
Retzloff has been studying the Flint LGBTQ community since he attended UM-Flint in the 90s – where he was the co-editor of Qua, the literary magazine. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he received his Ph.D. in history from Yale.
In his research, Retzloff examined old court cases, the earliest from 1938. Those court cases offer a glimpse into the discrimination and violence leveled back then against the gay community.
“A guy was cruising Willson Park and was arrested…and there’s at least a police report and some court transcript available,” Retzloff said. “The judge asked the guy if he wanted [the judge] to order him castrated if that would solve his problem.”
For many of these cases, the charges were gross indecency and sometimes sodomy. If found guilty, a man could spend up to five years in prison. If not prison, many were sent to a psychiatrist because homosexuality was still considered a mental illness up until 1973, when it finally was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
It wasn’t until the late 1940s that a more positive sense of LGBTQ life began to emerge. In 1948, Melva Earhart, a lesbian, opened The State Bar on Union Street. It was one of the first bars to serve both straight and gay patrons. The State Bar, and bars and clubs that followed, gave the LGBTQ community a place to gather quietly together in peace. Most were still unable to be open with their sexual orientations, but the beginnings of safe spaces were “monumental” to the Flint LGBTQ community, Retzloff said.
But it took until 1975 for the first LGBTQ organization to be established in Flint. The organization was called Dignity and it was established for gay Catholics, Retzloff said. While the group was not exclusive to men, the majority were men. A few years later in 1978, Moonrise was established, the first lesbian organization in Flint.
During the 1980s, Redeemer Metropolitan Community Church, originally on Chevrolet near Welch, offered outreach and services to the LGBTQ community. It is now meeting again at the Unitarian Universalist church on Ballenger, Retzloff said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, while Flint’s network of support for the city’s LGBTQ community grew., there still were no laws passed protecting the LGBTQ community. Finally, in 1991, the city council unanimously passed a non-discrimination ordinance.
The State Bar moved to its Dort Highway location in 1968 and closed in 2013. Earhart died in 1985, and her longtime partner, Betty Leonard, died in 2013.
“Our contemporary LGBTQ world did not spring out of nowhere,” Retzloff said. “It has a history and it’s important to know that history because it’s important to know the kinds and degree of oppression that people endured. It is also important to know that they did endure; that there was resilience, there was a sense of community and fun..Just because it was forced to be invisible doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.”
Mark Blake, a transgender teen from Grand Blanc, attended Flint’s Pride festival last year and said he not only had fun, but also gained a sense of belonging.
“I attended Flint’s Pride last year around this time, and I felt at home. The LGBTQA+ community came together and created a huge safe-zone for us to express ourselves and receive little to no judgement. People always associate Flint with negative things, but that was amazing,” said Blake.
Many members of the LGBTQ community say Pride festivals are a way for LGBTQ people to challenge the view that there are only two kinds of gender identity, and to show that all expressions of love, regardless of gender, are real and valid.
“We grow up believing that straight relationships are ‘normal.’ Many people of the LGBTQ community will admit that they didn’t know that they had the option to love or transition to the opposite sex,” Blake said.
“Being a part of the LGBTQA+ community is not abnormal, but people of our community often feel alone and like their relationship is invalid. Pride is the perfect opportunity to show people that they are not alone by showing your pride for who you are and coming together to celebrate our community.”
EVM Managing Editor Meghan Christian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson contributed to this story. She can be reached at email@example.com.