Origin Stories

The statewide LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group Equality Michigan, also known as EQMI, made an embarrassing gaffe last month when it used the wrong photo to identify organization founder Henry Messer in promoting a key annual fundraiser.  Instead of Messer, the promotion showed his partner of 62 years, Carl House.  EQMI then exacerbated its mistake by again identifying House as Messer at the event itself.

Longtime local gay journalist and gadfly Steve Culver took EQMI to task in a two-page takedown in OutPost, highlighting the photo error.  Culver also sought to correct the recurrent notion among EQMI leaders and in the pages of Between The Lines that the Triangle Foundation, precursor to EQMI, was founded by Jeffrey Montgomery when Messer, in fact, played the primary role in getting Triangle started.

Culver is right in saying that it is “important to remember our history. And to remember that history accurately.”  He deserves much credit for detailing the crucial and unequaled role that Messer played in our community.  And major kudos to Out Post for sparking a vital discussion that took place on its Facebook page.

Origin stories are often mythologized and can be deeply contested.  Such has been the case with the Stonewall Uprising ever since someone threw a brick that sparked three nights of rioting in June 1969.  The 2015 Hollywood film Stonewall drew protests and a boycott after director Roland Emmerich put the brick in the hand of a fictional white, Midwestern cisgender gay male runaway, shifting focus away from real people of color and gender transgressors like Stormé Delarvarie and Marsha P. Johnson, known to have played prominent roles.

The Triangle Foundation origin story is contested, as well, its competing stakes reflected in the broken friendship of Henry Messer and Jeffrey Montgomery.

I did an oral history with Dr. Messer in November 2009 after many years of pursuing such an interview.  Perhaps he thought it was finally time to record his recollections, or perhaps, as a doctoral student at Yale, I finally had the credentials.

His leadership in the local community went back to 1976, shortly after he and House moved to Dearborn Heights from New York, when they became active in the Association of Suburban People.  He appeared on a Gayly Speaking broadcast in 1977, and over time Messer became one of the few area activists willing to have his name in print.

Messer was responsible for initiating a sign-in sheet, which became the basis for an ever-expanding mailing list.  He purchased an early, early IBM home computer to maintain the   database.  When he shifted his attentions to the Michigan Organization for Human Rights in the early 1980s, he took the database with him.  Over time, by Messer’s estimation, it grew to more than 60,000 names.

The creation of the MOHR Foundation as an offshoot of MOHR came about when a former dentist’s office was offered as a donation and a separate entity was required under tax laws to make this possible.  The MOHR Foundation then rented the building, at 19681 West Seven Mile Road in Detroit, to MOHR for its offices.

The building, the MOHR database, Messer’s own notable income as a neurosurgeon, and his connections to potential donors put him in good stead when he sought to forge a new organization out of the MOHR Foundation that became the Triangle Foundation.

With regard to the role that Jeffrey Montgomery played in the founding of the Triangle Foundation, I will share what I wrote in an email exchange in September 2016 with Jason Michael, who was seeking an answer to that very question for a story he was writing for Between The Lines:

“The origins of the Triangle Foundation are complicated and murky.  It began with strong links to the Michigan Organization for Human Rights (MOHR) as the MOHR Foundation, formally incorporated with the state in December 1982, in order to raise and disperse funds under certain IRS guidelines.  MOHR itself was founded in 1977 as a statewide coalition in response to the Anita Bryant “Save Our Children” crusade.

“In documents filed with the state in February 1991, the MOHR Foundation became the Lesbian Gay Foundation of Michigan.  According to a report in Cruise in July 1991, Jeffrey Montgomery represented the Lesbian Gay Foundation of Michigan at a forum on hate crimes held by the Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“Per documents filed with the state dated December 1, 1991, it formally changed its name to the Triangle Foundation.  John Monahan was president of the corporation at the time, and Henry Messer listed as a contact.  The earliest document I have seen showing Jeffrey Montgomery’s involvement with Triangle per se is a letter dated December 3, 1991 co-signed by Monahan and Montgomery, with Jeffrey identified as ‘Project Coordinator.’  This evidence suggests Jeffrey Montgomery was involved in the founding (i.e. was ‘a founder’) if the founding is dated to this name change.”

Both Messer and Montgomery were featured on large banners as pioneering activists this past June at Motor City Pride.

Tim Retzloff

 

2 thoughts on “Origin Stories”

  1. yes – origin stories are contested! I am looking forward to reading all of your histories about LGBTQ activism and organizations in the state of Michigan, Tim. Here’s to origins and stories and lots of space for contestations! (And I am not sure I would characterize the OutPost piece as a “take down.” Steve Culver might like that framing, but I read it as an expository piece that clarifies various nuances of the history. Take down seems a bit too salacious and NY Post-esque. The piece read to me almost in the tone of the Times!)

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  2. Thank you, Tim, for this correction! During my time as an assistant to Jeff and a friend to Henry, I asked them the question about Triangle’s founding. They both gave me the same answer, there were three founders: Henry, Jeff, and John. If anything, I always felt the two gentlemen were sad about John being forgotten more than any pickering about one of them getting more credit than the other. However, I am not 100% sure I would agree with “the broken friendship of Henry Messer and Jeffrey Montgomery”. I think to the end, they both loved and cared for each other a great deal, and they had a very complicated relationship and friendship. I suspect on any given day either might have called it broken, but I think that spoke more to the complexity and their personalities than the actual state. But, that is obviously just my view. 🙂 Again, thank you for this posting and your great work!

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