Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer elders convey truths that letters (typed and handwritten) cannot, that yellowing news clippings cannot, that fading photographs cannot.
When LGBTQ elders share stories from their lives, their eyes flash with emotion. Their faces show the idiosyncrasies of personality. Their voices sometimes express joy, sometimes pain, sometimes anger, and, yes, sometimes sexual nostalgia.
As a trained historian, I can talk on and on about the queer past. Believe me. Yet, however revealing the fruits of research, nothing compares to learning first-hand about Michigan’s first homophile organization in the 1950s, or bar life in the 1970s and ‘80s, or finding support within an emerging trans community in the 21st century.
As often as possible, I’ve sought ways for LGBTQ elders to speak for themselves. Since finishing my dissertation in March 2014, I have moderated and helped organize several public events to shine the spotlight on people who have had a part in shaping Michigan’s LGBTQ heritage.
The first of these, in October 2014, was a Conversation with Jerry “Jai” Moore, the last surviving officer of the Detroit Area Council of the Mattachine Society. Held at the Hatcher Graduate Library at UM, my former place of employment, the evening fulfilled a longtime wish to bring Moore back to Michigan from Florida to be recognized for his pioneering activism.
The event was made possible thanks to Julie Herrada, curator of the Labadie Collection, which houses the Detroit Mattachine records, and to an endowment left by the late Edward Weber, Labadie curator from 1960 to 2000.
At age 86, Jerry was quite the ham that night. He regaled the audience with stories about Detroit bar life, his friendship with Bramwell “ChiChi” Franklin, and running errands for his “gay mother” Bill Cornell, a press agent for the many stars that came through Detroit in the ‘50s. In all his delightful tales he barely mentioned Mattachine at all, much to my bemusement.
The most gratifying comment from those who attended may have come from Esther Newton, who researched female impersonators for her 1968 University of Chicago dissertation. She said that Jerry reminded her how much she missed that generation of gay men.
In June 2017, Nicole Derusha-Mackey and Drew Marsh of the Equality Caucus of Genesee County invited me to re-stage an exhibit on Flint LGBTQ history I had done for the Flint Public Library ten years before. Part of the event, entitled Rainbow in Retro, centered on an onstage conversation with 76-year-old Grace Bacon, who in 1977 founded a group for crossdressers called Crossroads, one of the earliest organizations in Michigan to focus on what we now call transgender issues.
Grace told about first encountering the very idea of “changing sex” when she was 12 and read about Christine Jorgenson’s transition in a newspaper at her aunt and uncle’s. She shared her journey from seeing herself as a heterosexual male named [Glenn] who liked to dress in women’s clothes to understanding herself as a woman and pursuing surgical affirmation in her 70s.
Nicole and Drew, who both work as aides in the state legislature, presented Grace with a proclamation, signed by the Flint-area representatives, honoring her for her work on behalf of transgender people in Michigan.
More recent events I’ve participated in have involved numerous elders reflecting on their roles in specific aspects of local LGBTQ life.
In April, I moderated a gangbuster panel entitled “Our History in the D – Bars” held in the Olympus Theater of the Menjo’s Complex. The event was organized by Menjo’s manager Tim McKee and included Mary Sappington, publisher since 1979 of Metra magazine; legendary DJ Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale; Wayne Mourning, founder of the Performers Awards of Detroit who did female impersonation in the 1970s as Torchy; Rickie Barkoff, better known as Lady T Tempest, who has been began her career as an entertainer in the late ‘70s; Mike Weiss, former president of the leather group Tribe; and archivist and longtime bar patron Douglas Haller.
The conversation was revealing, engaging, and a tad unruly. Although I got in only a few questions and we barely talked much about bars, participants shared memories of coming out, the sense of fun and family at Metra Picnics, the enormous impact of AIDS, and experiencing racism and sexism at certain bars.
Alison Stankrauff, the University Archivist with the Reuther Library at Wayne State University, reached out to me last fall about organizing an LGBTQ event to mark the university’s 150th anniversary. The result, Our History at Wayne – LGBTQ Life at Wayne State University, took place June 12th in the Community Room at the David Adamany Undergraduate Library.
The panelists for this occasion were noted area artist and Between The Lines columnist Charles Alexander, who started at Wayne as an undergraduate in 1959; the Rev. Dr. Renee McCoy, began at Wayne at age 16 in 1967 and later earned her Ph.D. in anthropology there; Lynne Rose, who in 1994 became the university’s first paid staff member devoted to programming and counseling for LGBTQ students; and Ashton Niedzwiecki, a pansexual transgender man who came out as trans while involved in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance on campus.
Perhaps due to the setting, this discussion felt more formal. Panelists spoke to how Wayne has been a magnet for LGBTQ people back to the 1950s, but for many years was also unwelcoming, not simply in terms of sexuality and gender, but in terms of race and class.
A second onstage panel discussion at Menjo’s, Our History in the D – Queens, brought together five past Miss Gigi’s title holders in late June.
Lady T Tempest, Miss Gigi’s 1983, took part once again. Joining her were Renee Peters, Miss Gigi’s for 1984, who got her first glimpse of female impersonation at Dutch’s in Saginaw; Eunice Alexander, lured to the stage in 1977 when she saw a drag show at Bookie’s Club 870, who won the Miss Gigi’s title in 1987; Fantaysia Dior, the Mother of the House of Dior, who won the Miss Gigi’s crown in 1988; and Nikki Stevens, the astounding emcee and show director at Gigi’s Cabaret since winning the Miss Gigi’s title in 1992.
Because of the thematic focus and smaller panel, the conversation was able to probe a bit more deeply into the distinctive experiences of the performers who have helped shape local gay culture. The standout moment was when Fantaysia talked about the late Melba Moore, which I wrote about a few posts back. I was particularly struck by the shared history and close bond between all five of the panelists.
As much as I treasure the laughs that Nikki Stevens has brought me over the years, I’ll never forget how she comforted Fantaysia as she shared memories of Melba.
It’s an understanding of our LGBTQ past you can only get from elders testifying in-person before a live audience.