Greater Lansing’s LGBTQ+ Past

The trauma — and community — of the 1980s and ‘90s

This is Part III of a four-part City Pulse series to commemorate Pride Month.

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A pair of Lansing State Journal headlines capture the paper’s evolving coverage of Lansing-area queer folk in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“42 Named in Sex-Count Warrants” from March 19, 1986, was a report on an undercover police sting of homosexual activity at the U.S. 123 rest area in Holt. The crackdown added to the weight of trauma in the midst of harassment and hate, pestilence and loss experienced by people we now include under an LGBTQ+ umbrella.

As it had in 1955, the paper printed the names and addresses of those arrested. Among them was David Kimball, executive assistant to Michigan State University President John DiBaggio. Kimball was forced to resigned.

“Rally Asks for Dignity for Gays” from June 25, 1989, led the front-page coverage of the first statewide gay march on the Capitol since the early 1970s, when the Michigan Organization for Human Rights moved its annual Pride celebration to town. The event helped mark a new era of LGBTQ+ community growth.

With the 1989 march, Lucile “Porty” Portwood dispensed with the discretion she demonstrated 30 years earlier when she gave her terriers suggestive gay names. “I’ve been a practicing lesbian for about 60 years and I’m glad to feel free to walk down the street today,” she told the LSJ.

Enduring trauma and building community defined much of local queer life in the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton years.

The recurrent trauma felt by many in the local LGBTQ+ population included two fires at Lansing’s Lesbian Center. The first fire, in July 1981, gutted their rented building at 427 Spring St. and interrupted publication of the Lesbian Connection for six months.

The second blaze, in June 1990, did less damage, yet it still fueled painful emotion. An unnamed Ambitious Amazon told the Feminist Bookstore News, “It’s scary being reminded of just how fragile we all are, but this time we’ve had much less damage, and there’s no way this will stop us.”

At Michigan State, gay senior Jerry Mattiolo had his dorm room torched in May 1989. The same week, Aryc Mosher found his car doused with gasoline. A straight former MSU football player assaulted Gary Dennis at an area nightclub in 1994. A small group attacked Kieran O’Malley, a transgender senior, outside the Union on Halloween 1996.

Sometimes trauma turned deadly. The anti-gay murders of Lansing State Journal sportswriter Bob Gross in 1996 and remodeling contractor Alden Judge in 1999 shook the community with menacing heartache.

The suicide in November 1995 of Lansing poet, writer and activist Terri Jewell, a featured speaker at the 1989 and 1994 Pride rallies at the Capitol, left an irrevocable void. “Terri was open, she saw, she felt, and she suffered for it,” Annie Courtney said in eulogizing Jewell at her memorial.

Then there was the tsunami of loss brought on by HIV and AIDS, richly detailed in Todd Heywood’s look back at local responses to the epidemic 40 years ago in the June 2 City Pulse.

The sheer scale of loss is suggested by an affidavit written in 1991 by MSU alum Jon Nalley to explain his participation in an ACT UP protest. In the document, Nalley remembered 12 friends from college whom he had lost since graduating in 1982. “These are not numbers, but people I loved and cared about,” Nalley wrote.

Among the friends Nalley lost was local activist Rick Rapaport, who played a prominent role in building queer community. Particularly notable, Rapaport produced a four-part locally focused documentary, “Lesbians and Gay Men: The Eighties,” that was broadcast during Pride Week 1981 on Lansing and East Lansing cable access channels.

The Lansing Association for Human Rights stood at the forefront of much activism, making headway in 1980 under the leadership of Mary Hartshorn in challenging police harassment of Covello’s and Trammpps’ customers ticketed for jaywalking after leaving the bars.

Later in the decade, LAHR helped secure passage of a Lansing ordinance that would protect residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing. Mayor Terry McKane vetoed the measure.

Twelve years after that, the City Council approved and Mayor David Hollister signed a more sweeping gay rights ordinance. This time a group calling itself Majority Opposed to Special Treatment forced the issue onto the ballot. Voters rescinded the ordinance.

“Hate is a very difficult thing to beat,” Bob Egan, Lansing Equal Rights Task Force co-leader, told Between The Lines.

Despite some setbacks in Lansing, campus activism at MSU saw significant breakthroughs. The Board of Trustees enacted a new bylaw in July 1990 to protect students, faculty, and staff from discrimination based on sexual orientation. In September 1997, the board reversed a decision and extended benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of MSU employees.

Eight undergrads pledged Delta Lambda Phi, a new gay fraternity in fall 1991. MSU administrators hired Brent Bilodeau as assistant for Lesbian-Bi-Gay Concerns in fall 1994. And the Lesbian-Gay Council, later the Alliance of Lesbian, Bi, Gay, & Transgender Students, remained one of the strongest organizations on campus.

Back in Lansing, an eastside neighborhood attracted such a sizable concentration of lesbian residents by the mid-1990s that it became known as Dyke Heights. The late singer-songwriter Alix Dobkin even gave a shoutout to its zip code, 48912, in her 1989 song “Lesbian Code.”

Local LGBTQ bar life was changing and flourishing. At the beginning of the 1990s the city targeted a block of sex businesses along Michigan Avenue and demolished Joe Covello’s and Trammpps. The site is now Jackson Field.

The night after Trammpps closed in 1992, Club Paradise opened as a new premier gay dance spot. Two additional bars joined it on Washington Square in the early ‘90s, JB’s and Steve’s Downtown, both short-lived. Beyond downtown, other bars enjoyed longer durations: Club 505 and Esquire opened in 1994, and Spiral opened in 1998.

Local gay commerce thrived in other ways as well, especially retail. Real World Emporium on Turner Street, operated by Cheryl Van De Verkhove and Cindy Lehmkuhle, provided a vital community anchor between 1994 and 1998.

Contacted via Facebook last week, Van De Kerkhove recalled that Old Town boasted more than a dozen LGBT-owned businesses during that time. “Those were truly the Gay 90’s in Lansing!” she said.

(Historian Tim Retzloff teaches LGBTQ Studies at Michigan State University.)

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