Threats at Michigan Gay Day Highlight Why the Mitten Isn’t Cuddly for Queers

Michigan isn’t necessarily the first place you think of when you make a mental list of anti-gay states. There are other states whose elected representatives, like Rick Santorum when he was senator of Pennsylvania, are notoriously homophobic; or states where amendments meant to ban already-illegal same-sex marriage are passed. But if you look at it closely, Michigan has its own problems. There was the law that actively revoked benefits for domestic partners of employees of public agencies, the outrageously and vocally homophobic mayor of the town of Troy, the bill allowing counseling students to refuse treatment to gay patients, and the fact that you can still be legally fired in Michigan for being gay. 

LGBT leaders in Michigan have begun a hunger strike initiative meant to raise awareness about the environment that LGBT Michiganders face.

“We’re trying to educate our straight allies about the extreme anti-equality environment in this state,” said David Garcia, executive director of Affirmations in Ferndale, which will host the hunger strike. “One could argue that Michigan is the Mississippi of the civil rights movement when it comes to gay equality. We are constantly behind on many issues, and many people don’t know it.”

grand rapids’ gay day and protesters, via mlive.com

For a full 99 days, community members will take turns fasting for 24 hours while sitting in a large window, where they’ll be visible to passerby. The fact that the campaign is a group effort participated in by eight different queer centers from eight different cities, which highlights the fact that these concerns are shared by queer people across the state. The campaign functions on the premise that the larger population of Michigan isn’t aware of the discrimination that queer people face in the state, and that “when the majority of the community knows, they get angry… and then we’re going to let them know how they can help.”

But more recent developments in Michigan may suggest otherwise. Grand Rapids, MI recently saw its queer residents put together a “Gay Day” for the very first time, also to raise awareness in their city. Their event was met with rape and death threats from protestors, and the police were called for the protection of the Gay Day participants. When police arrived, no one specific wanted to step forward to file a complaint, and since it was determined that no one was being threatened while the officers were at the scene and they weren’t “breaking any of the protest rules,” no arrests were made.

There’s much more to what makes life different for LGBT Americans than the right to get married. Michigan is a good example of a state in which marriage equality isn’t on the horizon, but neither are a dozen other important rights, from the right for your partner to receive benefits from the state to the right to keep a job you’re qualified for without worrying that your identity will mean it gets taken away from you. But perhaps most of all, the right that people in Michigan (and all over the world) are fighting for and still clearly don’t have, as the Grand Rapids Gay Day demonstrates, is the right to be open about who we are in public without fearing for our safety because of it.

 

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books as well as news and politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel currently lives in Michigan. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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35 Comments

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    Thank you for covering this. I’m an intern at Affirmations,the host site of the Hunger4Equality campaign, and it is vital to keep spreading the word. Michigan is completely backwards when it comes to equal rights. That’s why we plan to raise awareness until the general elections in November. :)

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    Things like this are why I am moving from Grand Rapids to Madison, WI. Grand Rapids may have pockets of goodness, like a few neighborhoods and things, but overall it is steeped in conservatism and religiosity and narrow-mindedness.

    I was going to write a queer girl guide to Grand Rapids but honestly couldn’t think of enough positive things/places to put in it.

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    I’m living in eastern Michigan right now, but I grew up about an hour away from Grand Rapids and it really is one of the most secretly conservative and hateful places in the midwest.
    I’m also sick of towns like Grand Rapids and Saginaw (where I currently live) lamenting about how brain drain affects them. People leave in droves because they ARE educated. They don’t want to live in a hateful place and there are very few places in Michigan, at least, that are willing to bend their conservative “values” to be accepting of the same people who would fill needed positions within their communities.

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      So much THIS to your comment. I’m one of those people who is a part of the Michigan “brain drain” and while I didn’t really become aware of just HOW horrible Michigan’s laws on queer and women’s rights were until I left for greener pastures, I have a lot of friends where that’s a big part of the reason that they’re so eager to get out of Michigan. They don’t like having to hide the fact that they’re gay, bi, trans* etc. so they can continue to get jobs outside of liberal oases like Ann Arbor without worrying about their employers firing them for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

      Michigan doesn’t feel as virulently socially-conservative as other states if you live in one of the more liberal/moderate areas don’t look at the laws, but its legal backwardness accommodates a lot of the shittiness that exists. Certainly, there are plenty of homophobic asshats where I am now in Maryland and where I’m moving to in Massachusetts, but the fact that they can’t threaten my ability to get a job and so on saps a lot of their power to impose their values on me.

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    Well damn. I’m moving from a city that’s going to be hosting the “Gay Olympics” within the next few years to…Michigan. I can at least take comfort in the fact that it’s Ann Arbor and for 3 academic years instead of forever.

    It’s disheartening that everybody can’t get along within the mitten.

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      Ann Arbor is adorable. And honestly, I’ve drunkenly suggested that Detroit will be Portland in about 5-10 years; there’s a heavy artistic community and a lot of people are getting priced out of Ann Arbor and moving to Detroit (which brings up another issue of gentrification).

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        That’s good to hear about Detroit. As a native I feel like Detroit often gets a lot of credit for its Democratic politics which are more based on the strength of the labor movement there than they are on accepting views on social issues like abortion or gay rights.

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      I also live in Michigan and it’s not a wash. I like it here a lot actually! I think liking it is why stuff like this upsets me so much actually. Ann Arbor is also super great. It will be okay!

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        I get that, I grew up in Northern Michigan and honestly it’s kind of my favorite place in the whole world. But there are no jobs, and the politics just suck.

        But when it gets to the point where the police won’t protect you and go so far as to give legitimacy and equal status to hate groups who threaten rape, then I think it’s time to leave.

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      My wife and I were married in Ann Arbor and held our reception at Arbor Brewing Company downtown… :) Everyone who helped with the planning and wedding was just awesome. And the day of, we walked down the streets together in our matchy white wedding dresses and had no issue. Ann Arbor is cute like that.

      The rest of Michigan? Not so much. Which is why we live in Portland, Oregon now. :)

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    i just spent like a week researching my family history and discovered that basically everyone from my family who emigrated ended up in this tiny town in Michigan…guess I def won’t be going overseas to hang out with them anytime soon

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      As a native Michigander we’re not all bad! Don’t assume!

      Part of the weirdness of Michigan’s laws is that culturally, Michigan isn’t thought of as conservative as some other states; for one, it’s consistently voted Democratic in every election since 1992 and there are plenty of more liberal areas like Detroit (the city itself, not necessarily the suburbs) and Ann Arbor. Yet, especially as more and more young, typically more open-minded, usually educated people leave the state in the wake of the economic problems, the conservative areas are gaining more and more political traction and that means that while the rest of the country is shedding more and more of its anti-gay policies, Michigan isn’t. (At least, that’s my theory for why my home state is lagging on this issue.)

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        haha no, rather i’m assuming that wherever my relatives ended up was/is a pretty damn conservative part of the state, that’s where they’d fit in…i’m 99% sure that my relatives are NOT the open-minded educated kind, not their style

        soooo i guess my family should probably be apologising to the entire state of michigan…? we should’ve kept them here, sorry

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        From what I gather they’re trying to say: hey stop depicting Jesus as white/blonde, what sort of ethnocentric religious ass-hattery concluded that a man born in the middle east would look like white Europeans? There’s no way he was light-skinned, and that version of Jesus perhaps is tied in with all sorts of other “misguided” notions about how Jesus would live.

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          I agree with that sentiment 100%. I still think the actual sign in the picture fails utterly to make that point at all well.

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          I don’t think this is an actual Christian group, the sign has Jesus wearing devil horns and it also says “This is the devil”. So I’m not sure what group these people were representing but it wasn’t your standard Christianity.

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    I am yet another graduate student planning on leaving Michigan as soon as I and my partner finish up our degrees. I can’t tell you how many of my educated friends, both queer and otherwise, are planning the same. I love my home state, but there isn’t anything to keep me here.

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    I did my undergrad at a religious university in a tiny, conservative town in Michigan and it scarred me. My girlfriend and I stayed in the closet the entire time for fear we could get kicked out of school and/or lose our jobs. I still regret the decision not to come out because that excruciating secret was its own form of hell, but it definitely felt necessary to stay in that area. Michigan has a long way to go…

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    I’ve lived in Ann arbor my entire life and never realized what an oasis it was until I went away to school farther north. It was quite the adjustment and it seems as if you leave Ann arbor, the lights go off and you are in the dark about all the issues. Fear is definitely keeping a lot of voices silenced in cities across this state. All I can say is thank God for Ann arbor.

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    We do have one of those constitutional amendments banning marriage and civil unions too.. i remember being a kid and hearing my friends’ parents say they were voting yes on Prop 1 in 04, and then it passing. I sort of wondered why I felt so hurt to hear that, since I had no idea who I was at the time. I’ve escaped too, for undergrad, and I don’t think I’m coming back..

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      I remember basically hating everyone who voted yes on Prop 1 that year. Ugh. Why, why, why do you think you have the right to take away other people’s right to marry? (Especially since it was already illegal in Michigan, and therefore pointless.)

      Hopefully those state constitutional amendments will start getting overturned for being in conflict with the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

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    Saugatuck and its neighbor Douglas make up an artsy and queer community on Lake Michigan. It’s a pretty touristy place, but the number of rainbows and art galleries make it my favorite place in the Mitten that is within driving distance from my own extremely conservative town.
    Also, there are people who seriously will harass you if they find out that you like to visit Saugatuck, because it’s the most queer place around. Oh well, it’s their loss. It’s a really excellent place.

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    I’m from California and I’m thinking about going to grad school at MTU. Has anyone lived in/around Houghton, MI? Is there a queer scene on the Upper Peninsula? Should I expect major, major culture shock as a queer black cis-woman? What is there to do? (Will I freeze to death? I’ve never been snowed on before…um…kinda scared right now, guys…)

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