The evolution of Pride in Michigan


In the late 1970s, Lansing’s first Pride celebration didn’t include any parade floats, performances or other festival-like aspects attendees have come to expect over the years.

“It was just a march to the Capitol,” said Roxanne Frith, 64, an LGBTQ+ activist and the longtime photographer for Michigan Pride. “And then they went to Turner Street and had a street dance. There was no activity except to march to the Capitol because Pride was about politics. When it began, it was always about politics.”

In the 1970s and ‘80s, and even into the ‘90s, LGBTQ+ people had far fewer rights than they do today. Pride events were organized to bring light to inequality and petition for laws that would protect LGBTQ+ community members and create more equitable conditions.

“When we were organizing the Pride march, you have to remember that at that time, we were still being thrown in jail as gay men for having sex. It was a felony in the state book. We were just fighting for our right to exist,” said Chuck Marquardt, 53, who was an organizer for Michigan State University’s Lesbian and Gay Council and helped put on the statewide Pride march in Lansing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “The Pride celebration was a Pride march, not a parade. The festival we had around it had about 100 vendors from around the state coming and selling jewelry and various things that might be of interest. So, it was two things. It was a protest, but it was also a celebration of us and a chance to be together, and there were so many people who came who were still completely closeted at home but could come to this event and, for that one day in the year, feel like they could be who they were, and that was super exciting.”

As time went on, however, Pride celebrations grew from a few large events in cities like Detroit and Lansing to hyperlocal festivals all over the state that now include hosts of vendors, live music, drag performances, parties and more. Last weekend alone, Muskegon hosted its 2nd annual Pride festival and first-ever Pride parade; St. Johns and Lowell hosted their 3rd annual Pride festivals; Douglas hosted its 5th annual Pride festival; Northwestern Michigan College hosted a Pride Carnival in Traverse City; and Trenton, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Keweenaw, Ortonville, Eastpointe and Roseville, Madison Heights, Ypsilanti and Brighton all held Pride celebrations as well. To name a few more events, Detroit, Grand Haven, Holly, Howell and Marquette will have their Pride festivities Saturday (June 10); Grand Rapids, Grosse Pointe, Lansing and Livonia will have their Pride celebrations June 17; Bay City, Benton Harbor, Flint, Holland, Monroe County, Owosso, Rochester and Three Rivers will celebrate Pride June 24; and Big Rapids, Macomb County, Port Huron and Saint Clair Shores will have their Pride festivities June 25.

“As a former co-chair of Michigan Pride, we would start out with a parade, then we would have a rally, and then we would have the festival. Those are the traditional Pride Month activities for the LGBTQ+ community across this country,” said Lorenzo Lopez, a former co-chair of Suits and the City and a longtime activist in the LGBTQ+ community. “That has all changed. The larger cities still have the parades — Detroit is having its big parade this year as well — but what I find fascinating, here in Michigan particularly, is despite the negativity and the outright verbal violence against the LGBTQ+ by certain sectors of our communities across the country, small communities like Williamston, Meridian Township, St. Johns and Jackson are also having their own Prides, which we didn’t used to see. Everybody had to come to the central city. And I’m sure some of them will probably continue to do that, but they now have enough organization — and within themselves, the courage — to have Prides in their own cities and not have to rely on a major city.”

Frith said one of the main reasons for the move to more hyperlocal events is that there’s less of a need to petition the state government at the Capitol than there was before the turn of the 21st century.

“As the community grew and things became more equitable for people, they didn’t have to go in and do the work, so there was less politics,” she said. “What was more important was to go have a party. Politics have changed in the last 15 years in particular, and people go to events more in their local communities, rather than a statewide event.”

“It was probably about ‘94 or ‘95 that we started having a few more floats and things along those lines. I think by ‘96, we had as much of a parade feel as we did a march, and yet we still ended up at the Capitol,” Marquardt said. “What I love about where we are now is that we can have these hyperlocal events. Whether it’s in a school, on a campus or in the town square, it’s so wonderful that people can go to something in their own town and don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to get to a Pride celebration in their own state. I think visibility is everything, and visibility in the locations where people didn’t necessarily expect it is important. Not to say that there’s not a time to get everyone together in one spot, and the state Capitol is a very important spot to do that, and yet if we’re not fighting legislation, it’s not necessarily necessary to do it at the state Legislature.”

Another change to Pride celebrations has been the inclusion of family-focused events and activities for children.

“What I think I see more of — it’s more of a family orientation,” Lopez said. “Now they’re being promoted — and have been promoted for many years — as family events. Your children, your family, whomever you’re connected with within your family — however you define that — all of them come. Even to the point where you have little areas specifically designed for children.”

Even with the success of Pride celebrations throughout the state, there’s still work to be done to ensure all LGBTQ+ people have equal rights and are protected from harm.

“Every event we have, at least in Lansing, we now practice — without question — alerting the Lansing Police Department,” Lopez said. “We have to make sure the police are aware of all of our events, whether they’re large or small. We have a lot of uneducated people. I remember clearly, I think it was 2019, when I was making sure the parade was in order for Michigan Pride. I was lining everybody up, and all of a sudden, these protesters came right in the middle of the road. But, luckily, in order to have a parade of that size, you have to alert the Lansing Police Department anyway. I contacted the police, and they came immediately and took care of that issue. But now we have to be even more careful because so many people have guns, and we don’t know what they’re going to do.”

“I want people to still be aware of what they really have to be concerned about,” Frith said. “There are small things that still have to happen that really take politics. We have to really work with the trans communities. There’s still danger. Trans women, particularly Black trans women, are at risk. You can get beat up and hurt and killed because of the other side of politics.”

However, Michigan’s robust LGBTQ+ community will push on and continue to celebrate how far we’ve come as a society while acknowledging how far we still have to go.

“Despite what happens, we move forward. We will not be deterred, we will not be discouraged, and we’re just gonna go forward,” Lopez said.

“I just think it’s important to get together, and it’s important to celebrate our differences and our similarities and the fact that we can coexist in a lovely way,” Marquardt said. “When you think back to the statements and the opposition stating that gay marriage would lead to the destruction of Western civilization as we know it, it’s fascinating to see just how normal everything is. It’s so normal. It’s boringly normal. And I think it’s really wonderful. The more that we’re out, the more that we’re visible, just how normal it all seems.”


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