Queer Expats

Remembering Michigan’s LGBTQ past needs to take into account its queer expats.

Born here, these former Michiganders ended up elsewhere.  Some fled to escape family rejection or local hostility or sexual boredom.  Others moved away in pursuit of new kinship or some semblance of local tolerance or sexual opportunities.  Some left early on in their lives.  Others resettled in retirement.

Most who are familiar with the word expatriate probably associate it with the expatriate writers who sought refuge in Paris from Prohibition and nativist impulses in the U.S. during the 1920s.  The famed American Expatriate scene had its own queer subtext in the celebrated salon of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

More recently, the Flint Expatriates blog, created and hosted by Gordon Young, has provided an outlet for those of us ex-Flintoids, queer and otherwise, who still feel an emotional tug for our hometown.  Alas, Flint was a place where, for many a queer kid, the factors pushing them to leave outweighed the factors pulling them to stay.

As scholar Kath Weston points out in her classic essay “Get Thee to a Big City,” since World War II a notable number of LGBTQ people have sought the promised utopia of such queer magnet cities as New York and San Francisco.

Indeed, when Dorr Legg decided to leave Detroit after police, in 1949, arrested him and his boyfriend in a parked car, he researched different cities to find one he felt would be most hospitable.  He chose Los Angeles, where he took part in a pioneering early interracial gay group called Knights of the Clock and helped to found the publication ONE.

Irma Wolf, originally from Mount Clemens, also ended up in Los Angeles, where she joined Dorr Legg in working with ONE magazine, serving as its editor in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, Sault Ste. Marie native and former Detroiter James Pascoe, better known by the stage name Jerri Daye, finished his career as a celebrated female impersonator in Las Vegas.

Novelist Henry Van Dyke was born in Allegan and attended the University of Michigan before leaving for the big city and an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.  (Carl Van Vechten took a striking photograph of Van Dyke in 1962.)

Heather MacAllister grew up in Dearborn, attended Eastern Michigan University, and worked for the Triangle Foundation before migrating, in the early 2000s, out west.  There, she became involved in queer burlesque and fat activism.  (Leonard Nimoy took a striking photograph of MacAllister in 2005.)

Queer migrations have long been a compelling part of Michigan LGBTQ history and the queer heritage of the United States.  They demonstrate some of the choices people made in order to live queer lives.

Not all were motivated to leave for reasons of sexuality or gender.  But like African Americans who moved north during the Great Migration or the millions of immigrants that have fueled the country’s population, they were on a quest to better their lot.

A notable number of queer expatriates maintained ties with friends and relatives back in Michigan.  For LGBTQ people who were compelled to leave or drawn elsewhere to new possibilities, and for their LGBTQ friends who remained back home, cross-country connections created long-distance dialogs that influenced queer life and politics both there and here.

Such connections continue on today, of course, now facilitated with the help of social media.

At the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of gay and bisexual men returned to Michigan to die under the care of loved ones.  In too many instances, however, birth families rejected their queer relatives, leaving them to die in exile.

The newspaper Metro Gay News in 1977 published a feature on how former Michiganders Bob Stanton, Greg Turner, Amy Fournier were adjusting to life in San Francisco.  Turner had been involved in the radio program Gayly Speaking on Detroit’s WDET.  Somehow, despite his common name, I located him still living in San Francisco.  I interviewed him there in 2005 about his life in Metro Detroit during the 1970s.

Of the 109 oral history interviews I conducted for my dissertation, thirty-nine were with individuals who no longer lived in Michigan.  Four were done by telephone, thirty-five in person.

Before I finished my B.A. at the University of Michigan, I used my tax refunds for several years to visit New York and San Francisco, recording the life stories of people who once resided in Flint or Ann Arbor or Detroit.  I also benefited from a grant from the Center for LGBTQ Studies while still an undergrad to fly to California and Florida to conduct more interviews.

In grad school, with some assistance from Yale’s Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies, I purchased Amtrak rail passes to interview former Detroiters in Montana, Colorado, Illinois, Texas, and Louisiana.  These in-person exchanges were far richer than those conducted over the phone and were affordable for me to do only by the old-fashioned train travel.

Stories of former Michiganders proved crucial to my project, since so many key people moved away.  What they shared were time capsules of crystallized memories, memories often less affected by later developments and relationships than people I interviewed who lived here all along.

I could easily spend another week or two just in Florida doing additional interviews.  So far, time and finances have kept me from making the trip.

If you peruse the growing gallery of people included on Michigan LGBTQ Remember, be mindful of those tagged as expats.  Their stories provide a distinct lens to queer remembering.

Tim Retzloff

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