The minutiae of queer life rarely make it into the Lansing State Journal or other mainstream media. Small everyday details can best be found in sources generated by LGBTQ+ people themselves, and often signal subtle and meaningful changes in the making.
In the 1990s, the Lansing Association for Human Rights newsletter and a DIY zine called Queer Magnolias gave voice to Bill Beachler and Charlie Nash. Beachler died in 2016. Nash died last September. Each, in their way, presaged the dominant strands of LGBTQ+ Greater Lansing over the past 20 years.
Beachler edited the LAHR newsletter under the pseudonym D. Bill Haines for its first two decades, in part to shield his job with the state Department of Transportation. In 1996, Beachler began to write under his real name.
It didn’t make the newspaper, but Beachler’s coming out publicly, completely, and unapologetically helped signal of shift toward the mainstream.
Nash’s vision of the world, reproduced by Xerox and distributed by hand or by mail to those who sent him postage stamps, reflected a challenge to the mainstream. He juxtaposed poetry with images of young men emaciated from AIDS, clippings that mocked consumerism, his medical bill. The very use of the word “queer” was in-your-face and, at the time, bold.
From 1991: “Queer Magnolia queer revolutions ‘those queers are revolting’ that’s right queer revolutions queers on the left, queers on the right queer revolution that’s right ‘those queers are revolting’ that’s right queer magnolia queer revolutions queers on the left, queers on the right right on write on queer revolution queer magnolia left right on write left revolutions don’t be left out.”
An ongoing tug between fitting in and acting out, between mainstream and radical, shaped LGBTQ+ life and activism since the year 2000.
Core community institutions included the First Friday group, the Lansing Area AIDS Network, Sistrum, the LanSINGout Gay Men’s Chorus, and the Great Lakes Pride Band. The Lesbian Connection remained a vital conduit of lesbian sisterhood.
Suits and the City, a monthly cocktail mixer for LGBTQ professionals, began in April 2004.
Gay-straight alliances were started at East Lansing, Haslett, Lansing Eastern, Lansing Everett, Mason, Okemos and Williamston high schools, as well as at Lansing Community College, with an annual drag show to boot.
At Michigan State, the LBGT Resource Center, soon to be the Gender and Sexuality Center, provided programming and safe space. Among new campus groups were Q-Cross, an LGBTQ Christian student organization, and the Queer People of Color Coalition, which was featured in the 2014 Spartan yearbook. MSU also began offering a new LGBTQ Studies minor.
LAHR continued to pursue change within the system. In 2000, LAHR and the Lansing Area AIDS Network proposed an LGBTQ community center but it never came to fruition. From her position as LAHR president, Penny Gardner pressed the community to address concerns of seniors and those with disabilities. Meanwhile, LAHR-PAC asserted clout through candidate surveys and endorsements.
Local LGBTQ people exerted influence when they ran for elected office themselves. Chris Swope won a seat on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners in 2000 and voters elected him Lansing city clerk in 2005. Other out candidates included Emily Dievendorf, Todd Heywood, Wyatt Lundman, Rory Neuner, Ken Ross, Ryan Sebolt and Peter Spadafore. Some lost, some won.
Transgender activist Melissa Sue Robinson ran for state representative in 2004 and state senator in 2006. She filed suit to challenge the legal requirement that her dead name be included on the ballot.
Elections yielded results. Current Lansing mayoral hopeful Kathie Dunbar was elected as an openly bi Council member in 2005. A year later, with Dunbar leading the push, Lansing finally enacted its non-discrimination ordinance.
Subsequently, activists took ordinance fights to surrounding jurisdictions and secured passage of protections in Delhi Township, Delta Township, and Meridian Township in 2013.
On March 21, 2014, Judge Bernard Friedman ruled that the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. The next day, Lansing residents Glenna DeJong and Marsha Caspar, together 27 years, became the first same-sex couple in Michigan to wed.
At the time of the decision, Dievendorf was serving as executive director of Equality Michigan, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group that succeeded the Michigan Organization for Human Rights.
Over beverages at Blue Owl Coffee recently, Dievendorf shared her memories of the day, surprised that she recognized few of the couples seeking marriage licenses when she arrived at the Ingham County Court House.
“Most of the people who were there were older couples that I had never seen out and about in my own community,” Dievendorf recalled. “These were people who spent their lives like any couple caring for each other quietly, humbly, raising families, except in this case hiding until that day.”
LGBTQ+ commercial nightlife experienced a downward trajectory as Grindr and growing acceptance reduced the imperative for gay bars. After Club 505 closed in 2008, in came the Chrome Cat until it closed in 2013. Spiral was forced to close last year with COVID-19 and is up for sale.
In profound ways transgender life and activism rose to the forefront of this recent past.
MSU alum Rachel Crandall-Crocker founded Transgender Michigan after being fired for beginning to live as a woman. The first Transgender Pride picnics of the late ‘90s and early 2000s were held in Potter Park and Marshall Park. Crandall-Crocker served as LAHR vice president and the hotline director before moving to Detroit in 2005.
A fight over a trans-inclusive policy rocked the Williamston schools in 2018.
Trans-masculine genderqueer Phiwa Langeni, in 2017, saw storefront rental space available and opened Salus Center at 624 E. Michigan Ave., not far from where Covello’s and Trammpp’s once stood. “When it comes down to it, folk want to be connected and most want that connection to be in diverse communities,” Langeni wrote in an LSJ commentary.
A renewed vein of radicalism also emerged in the past 20 years that amped up defiance and harkened back to Charlie Nash and Gay Lib. These activists aimed to challenge to the perceived complacency of assimilation.
Residents of the Dein Haus co-op held Queerfest in 2007. NorthStar Center offered an alternate Queer Pride in June 2008 that organizers felt were more aligned with the spirit of Stonewall. A poster for the event touted “Tranarchy” and read, “Breaking down gender should be part of the revolution.”
On Nov. 9, 2008, a group called Bash Back! Lansing disrupted the Sunday worship service at Mt. Hope Church, an evangelical megachurch on Creyts Road in Delta Township. “It’s a pry-the-gay-out-of-you place,” one demonstrator told Details magazine. “Gays should be there protesting every day.”
And in 2019, participants in Lansing People’s Pride celebrated in deliberate and marked contrast to the usual street festival. “What capitalism does is strip us of our identity and sell it back to us,” Vivian Thompson said in an online City Pulse report.
Whether a mainstream, radical, or other approach to LGBTQ+ politics will hold sway remains to be seen.
(Historian Tim Retzloff teaches LGBTQ Studies at Michigan State University.)