The State of Gay

Metro Detroit has made many strides in embracing the LGBTQ+ community, but there’s still more to be done.
Illustration by Holly Wales

To say that being queer in metro Detroit has been an emotional roller coaster these last few years would be an understatement.

In the past two years alone, the oldest gay bar in the city, The Woodward Bar & Grill — usually shortened to just “The Woodward” and maybe even “The Woody” for those deeper in the scene — tragically burned down, leaving a void of places for local queers to gather. It was the latest in a string of closures of gay bars in the city proper, including Briggs Detroit and Club Gold Coast.

On the upside, in March, the state of Michigan amended the long-standing Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include additional protections for LGBTQ+ residents, culminating a hard-fought battle that could only have been won with a Democratic majority across the Legislature, something the state hasn’t seen in decades. And while some bars have closed, Gigi’s Gay Bar near the Detroit-Dearborn border has stood the test of time, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Along the way, queer residents in the region have continued to do what they’ve always done: being here, and getting used to it. It’s just that whatever the “it” is keeps fluctuating.

While gayborhoods like Ferndale continue to fly the rainbow flag proudly, more mini-gayborhoods have popped up on the eastern side of Detroit — particularly in Islandview and elsewhere along East Jefferson Avenue’s riverfront neighborhoods. Queer business owners, such as April Anderson of Good Cakes and Bakes on Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion and Ping Ho of Marrow and The Royce, have become more visible. The city of Detroit bolstered its employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees, growing its membership and marching and speaking at the most recent Motor City Pride event.

“Something is happening here,” says Pink Flowers, a multihyphenate resident of Islandview who moved to the area in 2014 after hearing legendary activist Grace Lee Boggs speak at a conference here. “Suddenly, I’ve got girlfriends getting their meds at Planned Parenthood — easily.”

Flowers, who is a playwright and activist, is helping to develop a cooperative living space for queer students of color at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one of many recent movements she points to around the area that have cropped up recently.

That’s on the professional level; personally, she’s noticed more trans women like herself and gender nonconforming people “in critical mass” in Detroit, living more openly and creating a community without fear.

“The way that Detroit throws it on, just drapes it on and works it — that’s queer culture,” she says.

She also points to some DIY aspects of queer community building, including They Beach, where nonbinary and genderqueer residents make a safe space on one of Belle Isle’s beaches, and Hotter Than July, the annual celebration of Detroit’s Black LGBTQ+ community held by LGBT Detroit in Palmer Park; at 28 years, it is the world’s second oldest festival of this kind.

“It’s just so apparent to me in the fact that everywhere I go, there are other trans women,” Flowers says. “I was in the bar next to Planet Ant [in Hamtramck], and it turns out that’s a bar now that’s frequented by trans people.”

That would be Ghost Light, which hosts a queer-friendly karaoke night on Thursdays, a drag show called Gender Bender, and a smattering of other themed events. On another side of Hamtramck, the White Star Night Club has become a de facto weekend gathering place for the crowd that once patronized The Woodward, in light of the bar’s closing.

“A lot of the other gay clubs in Detroit, they all play top-40 music,” says Tramaine, who for privacy reasons wishes to withhold his last name. “We [Black queer Detroiters] are more of a hip-hop and R&B-type fanbase.”

Tramaine is one of four promoters at the events company The Firm, which for about 13 years has organized dance parties and other social gatherings for Black queer Detroiters at spaces like Menjos and The Woodward prior to its closing. (They also do events in Atlanta and New York City.) Their business has become more active in the year since The Woodward shuttered — so much so that the once sleepy White Star, which sat largely dormant even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, now has enough business to open nightly again.

Tramaine notes that the White Star (now owned by The Woodward’s owner) won’t become exclusively a gay bar but will continue to host regularly scheduled events from The Firm.
And The Firm promoters want to branch out from the clubs.

“We’re working to build a Black gay pride,” hoping to organize a “festival” that incorporates more nightlife, music, and dance, says Caleb, another team member.

Adding new Pride celebrations — in addition to Motor City Pride, Ferndale Pride, and other individual city-by-city celebrations — to metro Detroit’s agenda might have been unfathomable a decade ago. State Sen. Jeremy Moss, who represents Southfield and helped push for the amendment of Elliott-Larsen, marvels at how quickly things have changed.

“I first started coming out, and going out, wedged between two generations,” Moss says. “In 2009, we were far away from marriage equality, and you could still smoke in bars. And I engaged with the generation that really fought hard to be tolerated. As things advanced, and more support for LGBTQ rights and issues became popular, I see the newest generation not just being tolerated but also being embraced.”

The amendment to Elliott-Larsen was certainly a benefit of having Democrats in control of the Legislature, but Moss notes that public opinion toward LGBTQ+ Michiganders has also shifted outside Lansing.

“When they know it’s their children, it’s their neighbors, it’s their family members, and it’s their work colleagues [being discriminated against], it really personalizes the struggle and issues for them,” Moss says.

Michigan has a ways to go to ensure some other basic protections for LGBTQ+ residents, which would include passing legislation that would ensure safety for the most vulnerable, Moss says. Attacking or murdering a trans person is not classified as a hate crime in the state, and marriage protections for same-sex partners could be at risk if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that made same-sex marriage legal in every state.

“We are bleeding talent here in Michigan,” Moss says, because LGBTQ+ residents who don’t feel at home, whether due to discrimination or not feeling protected by the law, move to states where they feel safe. “We definitely have some work to do.”

This story is part of the June 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition.