Who to Queerly Remember?

On the first anniversary of Michigan LGBTQ Remember and this companion blog about Queer Remembering, I thought it might be time to reflect.  Then I realized how silly that was since the entire project is all about reflecting.

But the one-year mark does seem like a good opportunity to discuss how I have decided which people to include here.  Who to queerly remember?

One of the aims of the project, after all, is to explore the process of finding, crafting, and sharing LGBTQ history, to throw back the curtain and show how historians work—or at least how this historian works.

While the remembrance and tribute elements are inherent to the site, it is primarily a project of history, seeking to document the LGBTQ past through LGBTQ lives, recognizing aspects of our heritage not readily captured elsewhere.

I make no claims to presenting a precise sampling of LGBTQ Michiganders who are no longer with us.

Based on demographic analysis of Gallup surveys and self-identified same-sex couples in the U.S. Census, the Williams Institute at UCLA estimates that 4.1 percent of the current Michigan population is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  These researchers are careful to say this provides only “a peek” that is based on “the best data … available.”

Given questions of definitions, labels, the closet, and erasure, discovering Michigan’s LGBTQ community in its totality, past or present, is an impossible task.

However impossible, there is an approximation worth striving for, a portrait of our collective queer past that might closely reflect our experienced truths.

Who to remember on the site?  From the original fifty capsule profiles made available March 1, 2017 to the 181 added since, choosing individuals has been an act of curation.  Each week I’ve picked from an ever-growing pool, selecting people based on a desire for representation and diversity.

This means not just white gay men.

I have aimed for a composite that shows a cross-section in terms of gender, race, class, and geography.

The preponderance of white men who have been involved in gay activism, gay nightlife, and gay commerce is reflected in the typical sources available.

Besides those who have been remembered in the pages of Between The Lines, Metra, OutPost, Cruise, and other LGBTQ publications, I’ve included people whose names have come up in doing oral histories or in digging through archives.

I could easily flood the site with hundreds of people arrested in Ann Arbor, Metro Detroit, and Flint for crimes involving homosexuality from the 1950s, but these would skew male.  More importantly, not everyone was arrested.  And not everyone arrested would have seen themselves as gay.

I could also easily include person after person after person from the thousands who died from Michigan of complications related to HIV and AIDS.  These, too, would skew male.

I have tried to push back against sources, knowing that who gets documented is distorted by gender, race, class, geography, and the power structures that define lives and society.  This has required asking around and being proactive in other ways.

Queer Remembering logo copy

From the start I have strived for some level of gender balance.  Given the limitations of sources, I figured that remembering two women for every three men might be the best I could do.  Of 231 Michiganders remembered thus far, 110, nearly half, were women, a better representation than expected.

The regular “Passings” feature in Lesbian Connection has been invaluable.

My biggest surprise from the initial twelve months of this project is how extensively I’ve been able to draw on obituaries from mainstream newspapers.  Thank you, online obits!  Thank you, survivors, for publicly acknowledging your lesbian relationships!

Racial and ethnic diversity has been trickier to achieve.  The past year, the site has presented 34 people who were African American, 4 who were Latino/a, and 2 who were Native Americans.  Even these numbers have required targeted outreach, in part because queer people of color often don’t have obituaries.

I have yet to find a gay obit, for instance, in the Michigan Chronicle.

Sources documenting transgender lives are especially scarce.  Too many receive press attention only if they perished in violent circumstances.

In the past year, the site has remembered 14 people who were murdered.

I cannot (and should not) ignore those who left us in violent circumstances, either dying by their own hand or in an anti-gay or anti-trans hate crimes.  But these stories have greater impact in the context of lives that did not end tragically.

The 36 individuals who died of HIV/AIDS associated causes barely scratch the surface of those lost to the disease.

Occupations can provide a loose reflection of economic class: 33 were educators, 16 were bar owners, at least 11 had been factory workers, 8 were clergy, 7 were musicians, 6 were female impersonators, and 6 were poets.  The 5 people who were involved in sports included June Peppas, who played with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Twenty-two of those remembered were veterans.

Then there’s the geographic spread.  At some point in their lives, 86 people had had some connection with Detroit.  Others had resided in cities and towns across the state.  Places represented have included Adrian, Coldwater, Midland, Alpena, Escanaba, Imlay City, Allegan, Dundee, Oscoda, Jackson, Ravenna, Holland, Flint, Southgate, Owosso, Utica, Warren, Hastings, Portage, Ironwood, and Howell, none of which can be considered gay sanctuaries.

Thirty-eight were expats.

In terms of our state’s historic rivalry, 19 were affiliated with the University of Michigan, including UM-Flint, whereas 31 were affiliated with Michigan State University.  While it may seem that I have favored my current place of employment over my alma mater, 12 of those connected to MSU were friends of Jon Nalley remembered in his affidavit and honored with special postings for World AIDS Day.

The earliest feedback I received was an anonymous correction that clarified that Mary Beth Dietz did not go to UM as I’d originally noted, but was a diehard Spartan in the midst of a family of Wolverines.

The earliest person remembered so far is Katharine Coman, who died in 1915.  The most recent to date is Ronald DeJonge, who died in January.

The youngest is Bella Bruinekool, who took her life at age 13.  The oldest is Ruth Ellis, who lived to be 101.

Four individuals rose to a level of national stature in their lives such that they received obituaries in the New York Times.

And 14 have had their personal papers preserved in an institutional archive.

Foremost in creating this gallery of LGBTQ Michiganders, I’ve strived to remember individuals whose lives tell stories, stories that are part of a larger story.

In doing so, I’ve tried to be diligent and tried to set some useful guidelines for myself and the project.  I hope that I can sustain Michigan LGBTQ Remember and Queer Remembering for several years to come.

Looking to year two of this project, I have hundreds of people in the queue to commemorate in the months ahead.  As I add three or four new people a week, I remain committed to documenting the diverse complexity of Michigan’s LGBTQ past through the real people who lived it.

Tim Retzloff

One thought on “Who to Queerly Remember?”

  1. And I thought you were just choosing profiles of people I knew at one time to shock and sadden me!
    Ha ha. Seriously, I love the site and the blog. This is such an excellent example of public scholarship that serves communities in meaningful ways. Thank you for all of your work on it, Tim!


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