Two blocks of downtown St. Johns were festooned with rainbows. A vendor was making bubbles that wafted in the wind under the blue sky. Children laughed and squealed as they romped in a bouncy house. A clown made animal balloons and volunteers painted faces with rainbows and sparkles.
Saturday marked the third annual Pride Fest in rural Clinton County’s biggest community, 20 miles north of Lansing. The sun shined on a bucolic, welcoming scene in small-town America.
Yet Lady Seduca was “terrified.”
“I’m coming as a Black person,” Neil Monté Alexander, a 25-year-old Detroit native whose stage name as a drag performer is Lady Seduca, confided about his trip to rural Michigan. “And that has a different layer of anxiety, a different layer of trauma.”
“I’m coming first and foremost as a person of color,” he added.
Such fears are clouding the joy and celebration of Pride Month this year — with some 400 events throughout the state — for many members of the LGBTQ+ community. Nationally, a raft of legislation attacking the LGBTQ+ community, particularly transgender and gender non-conforming people, has been introduced since the beginning of the year. Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, reports over 400 pieces of such legislation.
The fervor and fear over LGBTQ+ youth, and particularly transgender youth, have also hit the greater Lansing area.
In Grand Ledge, the race for school board last fall featured an unsuccessful but vocal trio of conservative candidates who parroted claims that schools pushed an agenda on students. They were echoing the views of Tudor Dixon, the GOP candidate for governor. Dixon was advocating against a so-called “gender agenda,” declaring she would ban education related to gender identity in the schools because it was a form of “grooming.”
Last fall, students in Maple Valley Schools lobbied for a Gay-Straight Alliance, only to be faced with hostile adults.
In the audience was Aly Monteil, a nonbinary person who attended the schools and lives in the Vermontville area, in rural Eaton County about 35 miles southwest of Lansing.
“To see these people acting like this, it was shocking in a way,” they said. “I knew we had people that were like that in our community, but I didn’t know that they’d go to school board meetings and be so open about it. And just so hateful towards us.”
The 19-year-old was one of several young people, ages 15 to 25, to whom City Pulse spoke for this report. Some were fearful of a backlash if they were in the paper. Some, like Alexander, asked that his exact city of residence was be withheld out of fear people might seek him out to cause harm.
Monteil said coming to terms with their sexuality and gender identity was a journey that began in earnest in the seventh grade.
“I’ll grow out of it,” they said they thought at the time. That was until they realized, “I’m a little bit not straight.”
By 2020, they were searching the internet for answers and connecting with gamers online. It was in the gaming community they found a connection and a word they were looking for. In chat, they first were encouraged to use they/them pronouns.
“It was great because I finally felt like I found myself in a way,” they said. “Oh, my God, I love being referred to as they/them.”
In-person support, they said, is found in the monthly meetings of I’ll Be Your Rock, a nonprofit started by Vermontville native Christine Turpening after she came out as a lesbian.
“They’re like a family,” Monteil said.
In November, for the first time in decades, Michigan Democrats scored a trifecta, capturing control of the House, the Senate and the Governor’s Office. They quickly went to work addressing a series of longstanding policy initiatives, including those protecting the LGBTQ+ community. After decades of pitched battles to amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, Michigan Democrats finally passed legislation in early March, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed.
Even as the legislation was heading to Whitmer’s desk, a group of eight Republicans introduced a three-bill legislative package that could leave parents or guardians of transgender children facing First-Degree Child Abuse charges — a felony with a penalty of up to life imprisonment.
The package of bills was referred to the House Criminal Justice Committee. Delhi Township State Rep. Kara Hope, a Democrat, chairs that committee.
“I have zero intention of hearing them,” she said this week. “The bills are ignorant. They are transphobic. They are hateful. They incite hate and misunderstanding, and as the chair I don’t want to have any part of facilitating any of that.”
It’s similar to legislation introduced in Republican-controlled state houses across the country. In Texas, an attempt by recently impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton was made to investigate and potentially prosecute parents of transgender children for assisting them in getting medically necessary care for their transitions. His actions were halted by a Texas appeals court.
Many who have pushed such laws fear that members of the LGBTQ+ communities are attempting to transform children through a liberal ideology that erases gender and sexuality. The right-wing Daily Caller website released a video last week called “Damaged: The Transing of America’s Kids” that focused on several people who said they were confused and rushed into an identity as transgender.
That’s not the experience Miss Transgender Michigan Jamie Ashby had with her own process of becoming her “authentic self.”
As a young child, Ashby, who was born male anatomically, would eye Barbie dolls and wonder when her body would look like theirs. At age 4, she was taken to a therapist in an attempt to understand why the supposed little boy was so focused on the female body.
There she was given two anatomically accurate dolls: a boy and a girl.
“The girl doll did not reflect my body, and I wanted to know when my body was going to develop like the girl doll,” Ashby, 39, said. With “the male doll, I saw the genitalia as the same as mine, and I wanted to rip that off and place the genitalia on the girl doll because that is how I would see myself. It was so confusing.”
She was labeled as having gender identity disorder, a diagnosis that no longer exists. The American Psychiatric Association has since adopted the term gender dysphoria to describe feelings of discomfort or worse over being misgendered.
Her struggle to be seen as her authentic self led to harassment at school and delinquency, she said. She became a ward of the state at 14, and struggling. She tried to go to Michigan State University and ended up homeless, couch surfing with people she met in the drag community. It was in those circles, as she worked the scenes as a queen, that she was introduced to transgender people.
In 2011, after months of talk therapy — which she paid for out of her pocket using what little bit of cash she earned performing drag — she was authorized to begin a medical transition to female. The clinician who counseled her wrote a letter and referred her to a clinic in the metro Detroit area where she could access hormones to change her body.
Now, she’s working at a large mid-Michigan company as a human resources expert.
With the platform of Miss Transgender Michigan, she’s hoping to use her stability and story to bring hope to others.
“I can be a voice for those who don’t have one, and I can be visible for those who can’t,” she said. Her hope is that by discussing her adversities, children who “might be going through the same thing can find hope within my story.”
In November, she will compete in Milwaukee for the Miss Universe title.
Ashby did not want to identify her employer in part because it could face backlash. It’s not an unreasonable concern in light of the attacks on Target for having Pride merchandise or Bud Light for sending a Pride theme beer to a transgender social influencer. Stock prices for the beer manufacturer have suffered since the controversy broke in April.
Jewel Jubilee, who was crowned Amateur Miss Lansing Pride last month, lives in Ferndale and grew up in the metro Detroit suburb of Walled Lake. The 25-year-old’s real name is Nick Fuller. He escaped the state for four years — two years attending a performing arts boarding school in Boston, then another two years at Fordham University in New York. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and works as an accountant by day.
“It’s been really life-changing and really amazing to have the familial connections with her and everyone else in our family,” he said.
The rising backlash against the LGBTQ community is a “fucked-up situation,” he said.
“We had a feeling we not only had to use our voices to raise awareness about this sort of thing but also feeling afraid and acknowledging that ‘new normal,’” he said. The ‘new normal” is one fed not only by the rising pushback against the community, but he is also a product of a generation raised in the specter of gun violence in gay clubs and in general.
“I am always aware of where the exits are,” he said.
Waverly High School graduate Armon Caston, 26, said when he is performing drag that his goal is not indoctrination or some nefarious plot to brainwash children. He wants to bring “love, light and laughter,” to those attending his performances. His drag persona is Aurora Manifesto. But he has a clear message for protesters who may try to disrupt drag performances or events.
As to the backlash against drag and trans people, he said, “It’s not cool. That kills the young minds that are trying to become themselves.”
For a community that kicked out the closet door with a three-day riot in 1969 — known as the Stonewall Rebellion — led by a group of street sex workers, drag queens, butch lesbians and transgender women, LGBTQ+ Americans have seen a sea change in the world, all acknowledged.
Ashby called the world a frightening place for the LGBTQ+ community, but she also sees the resilience.
“Leaving the house every day these days almost seems like an act of courage,” she said. “And when you get home, it’s just like a sigh of relief. But I can live to see another day. Nothing happened to me today.”
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