Five Years On

I’ve long had an odd penchant for observing anniversaries.

If anything, I guess I can blame it on my mild, half-hearted fascination with calendars.

When Great Britain and its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar to replace the Julian calendar in 1752, it eliminated eleven days out of existence.  George Washington’s birthday shifted from February 11th to February 22nd.

One of the appendices to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King shows the Middle Earth calendar in which each month had thirty days, with extra unnumbered days of Yule at the end of the year.  No having to remember that “Thirty days hath September” rhyme business for the hobbitses.

In 1995, when my new boss in Interlibrary Loan at the University of Michigan asked me when I was born for their list of staff birthdays, I told her February 30th.  It was weeks before she caught the joke.  I should note that there was once a real February 30th, in Sweden, in 1712.

(I was not born that day.)

All queer stuff, in the “odd” sense of queer, tricky word that it is.

Which is all a rambling, shambling way of getting to the point that five years ago, on March 1, 2017, I launched Michigan LGBTQ Remember with an initial fifty posts.

Fifth Anniversary.  Fifth Column.  Fifth Amendment.  It all kind of blurs together.

(I’m not even sure what that means.)

The site has been updated every week since, with three new additions a week for the first four years, and one per week added this past year.  There have been extra postings for World AIDS Day and, on occasion, to mark particular anniversaries, like the first anniversary of the death of Jeffrey Montgomery or the 100th anniversary of the birth of Andy Karagas.

As of last weekend, that’s 815 people remembered.  Thus far.

I don’t know what exactly I expected in the project besides wanting to explore the realities of LGBTQ+ history in a new way, through real people with real names in the real state of Michigan who lived their real queer lives, in the “umbrella” sense of queer.

Thanks to this project, I’ve learned about LGBTQ+ people from Ewen, Montague, Nunica, Quincy, Osseo, Saranac, Mattawan, Weidman, Ravena, Beaverton, and other small Michigan towns I’d never heard of.

Here I conjure a phantom earworm of David McCullough narrating a Geoffrey C. Ward script with his measured cadence: They came from towns like Ortonville, Roseville, Middleville, Rawsonville, Webberville, Fennville, and Hermansville.

Indeed, each of these towns have been represented.  As I mused in an early Queer Remembering blog entry, We Were Everywhere.

I’m always extra appreciative to find people from the Upper Peninsula—twenty-five Yoopers to date—since many do not suppose that LGBTQ+ folk live north of the Mackinac Bridge.

More to the point, there are so many stories I likely would never have discovered with other projects or with other sorts of projects.

There’s the story of Virgil Leone, perhaps the key early activist in the Gay Liberation Front at Central Michigan University.

There’s Lewis Treece, drag performer killed in a bizarre car accident in 1953.  We know the names of too few black female impersonators from that era.

There’s James Limbacher, Dearborn librarian and Association of Suburban People member who published the 1984 novel My First Year Out, written by fellow ASP member John Steponaitis under the pen name John Ketzer.

(I’ve tried to locate John Steponaitis with no luck.)

There’s Jere Van Syoc, Grand Rapids artist whose home was host to many an Aradia gathering and who raised the ire of neighbors by playing Nina Simone too loudly.

There’s Joseph Maldonado, a.k.a. Dani DiLetto, a mainstay at the Iron Hinge in Detroit, who became Miss Gay America in 1976 when the original crown holder had the title revoked.

There’s Lucile “Porty” Portwood, whose champion Scottish terriers owned with then-partner Evelyn Sanders received press notices in the late 1950s.  Portwood was later a litigant in a 1988 lawsuit filed by the Michigan Organization for Human Rights to challenge the state sodomy law.

There’s Marion Dunlap Whitman, a 1958 arrestee in my Detroit Recorder’s Court research who went on to live life as a trans woman in San Francisco.

And there are numerous players on the Grand Rapids Chicks, the Muskegon Lassies, and the Battle Creek Belles of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the late 1940s and early ‘50s that went on to form life partnerships with women.  Check out the Netflix documentary A Secret Love to experience the lasting impact of such hidden relationships.

Of course, I could not come upon some of these stories without crying.

Here I’m thinking of lesbian matriarch Dorothy Hoogterp and her granddaughter Jonel, and of gay father and son Thomas Lohr Sr. and Thomas Lohr Jr.

And I’m thinking of Nancy Kasparzak and Susan Breuer, life partners and onetime horse farmers in Benzonia, who died within four days of one another in 2020.  They must have been a formidable presence in that corner west northern Michigan.

Heartbreak is especially pronounced in examples of young love irreparably ruptured by loss, as with Midland-native Ryan Pennacchini Hall who died at age 36, leaving behind his spouse Frederico Hall Pennacchini.

Early on, Michigan LGBTQ Remember began interspersing those who died ten, twenty, or thirty years ago with contemporary deaths, including Christopher Andrew Leinonen and Tevin Eugene Crosby murdered in the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in 2016.

Some of those who died in the course of the past five years hit hard personally.

Phyllis Erb, co-owner with her partner Patricia Teal of a B&B in Grayling, was subject of my favorite piece I ever wrote for Between The Lines.

Steven Fischer, manager at the Holly Hotel, helped arrange my husband Rick’s and my party when we got married in 2010.

Lavelle Williams, who I met at a party for Carleton Gholz in the wonderfully slanted space of Tom’s Tavern, I thought I would have decades to get to know.

Tara Kelley participated in GLAS, the Gay and Lesbian Awareness and Support group at UM-Flint in the late 1980s, back when a visitor to our bake sale table told us he was working to get the death penalty for homosexuality.

David Hutchinson, a wondrous University of Michigan doctoral student who I last saw present a brilliant paper at the 2019 Queer History Conference in San Francisco, was already making his mark with stunning insights.

The loss of our friend Lisa Ortiz was so sudden and so deeply painful.

Stuart Itzkowitz was pleased that his partner Larry Zimmerman was included on the site.  Stuart wanted my assurance that I would add him when he passed on as well.  He died in 2019.

Obit scans folder

“The Queue”: inside the Obit Scans folder on my desktop

My beloved grad school friend Ana Minian is still very much alive.  When I last saw her in 2018, she expressed concern for my emotional well-being, spending so much time with death and loss.

As the great New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox said in the 2017 documentary Obit, “It’s counterintuitive, ironic even, but obits have next to nothing to do with death and, in fact, have absolutely everything to do with the life.”

So, as macabre as it may seem on the surface, there has actually been something life affirming, life sustaining about this project.

(As I type this, I listen to John Lennon’s anthem “God” over and over again.)

One other thing I ought to mention is that this is a volunteer effort.

Not everything worthwhile has to be monetized.

Julie Enszer, my dear friend in activism, scholarship, and life, benefactor from the start, has generously covered the annual costs to maintain the domain name and the site on WordPress.

I’ve probably spent way too much over the years on death certificates—the Michigan Vital Records Office charges $34 a pop—but, alas, death certificates are the only means of accessing certain details, especially for those who never had a published obit.

And such people as Sylvia Robinson, Ken Dudley, Diane Bono, Cappisene Ford, and Tony Brown deserve to be remembered.

My hope is to highlight LGBTQ+ Michiganders who are familiar and unfamiliar.  As Jason Michael’s recent feature “9 Black LGBTQ+ Michigan Trailblazers You Should Know About” reflects, I’ve aimed for diversity and strived for some semblance of gender balance.

I marvel at the accumulation, at the cumulative effect, far greater than the mere sum of entries.

In many ways, I’ve come to view this as a Johnny Appleseed project, as planting seeds, each person a story, an invitation to others to explore and expand and dig up more.

It might be more apt to invoke Mary Applehof, a Kalamazoo lesbian known as the “Worm Woman” for her advocacy and expertise in using earthworms in composting.

Maybe composting is a useful metaphor for doing queer history?

I also see Michigan LGBTQ Remember as simultaneously an act of documentation and an act of resistance, resistance against naysayers, against forgetting, against the void.

For now, there are several hundred obits in “the Queue” to add in the future.  I continue to scout for new people, with extra attention to those underrepresented, always eager to delve deeper into the past, as best as I can, rambling and shambling as long as I can.

Maybe until the next February 30th?

Tim Retzloff

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