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Black, queer figures from Michigan that have influenced history

February 10, 2023
Photo Illustration.
Photo Illustration.

Tim Retzloff is a history professor at MSU who focuses on Michigan history, LGBTQ+ history and LGBTQ+ studies.

Retzloff is the co-author of “Come Out! In Detroit: The Story of Christopher Street Detroit ‘72 from Eyewitness Sources,” a comic that explains the backstory to Michigan’s first-ever LGBTQ+ pride celebration. The book refers to the Stonewall Riots, the drag community in Michigan, Gay Pride week and more events and aspects of LGBTQ+ living that started social change. 

Through these studies and work, Retzloff has accumulated a list of impactful Black queer figures — whom he sat down with The State News to discuss.

Although there have been so many influential figures in American history, Retzloff believes there is a large list of trailblazers from Michigan, specifically. These individuals have impacted people in Michigan’s lives as well as people across the country.

Here is a list of influential Black, queer figures from Michigan, and the way their actions have inspired change. 

Ruth Ellis

“Ruth Ellis was a Black lesbian who arrived in Detroit in the late 30s from St. Louis,” Retzloff said.

Ellis was eventually the subject of “Living with Pride,” a 1999 documentary. She lived to the age of 101. Retzloff said queer life in Detroit in the 1940s was “all parties and socializing.” However, there was a lot of discrimination, many bars did not allow Black people.

Because of this, Ellis and her partner “threw house parties in their home and that became a key vital hub for the African American community,” Retzloff said. She was later adopted by the lesbian community in the 1990s in Detroit as the “grandmother” to the community. There is currently a center for LGBTQ+ homeless youth services called the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit.

Floyd Dunn

Floyd Dunn was known as a civil rights activist and a 1980s leader in the Detroit Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, according to a report by Pridesource. After his work with the coalition, Dunn directed a non-profit organization called Project Survival, which helped Black LGBTQ+ members who dealt with AIDS. 

Dunn was an advocate for equality and the ending of discrimination against men and women of color, especially for “clinical trials” during AIDS testing. He eventually died from AIDS-related issues when he was 45.

Bobby Calvert

Calvert was a co-owner of a bar named Todd’s which was “one of the few bars that were kind of racially mixed at the time," Retzloff said. It was hugely popular, and according to Retzloff, it was very accepting and popular with the LGBTQ+ community.

“It was really a vibrant music scene but also this major queer institution,” Retzloff said.

Calvert later testified at a hearing when the Detroit City Council wanted to enact the Human Rights Ordinance. The law would end discrimination and make sure people had equal access to services and goods. Calvert was known to be a person who “pushed for change,” Retzloff said.

LeRoy Foster

LeRoy Foster was a Black, gay artist from Detroit. He often threw house parties and was very good friends with Ruth Ellis. 

Foster painted large murals in Detroit, including his “The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass,” on the Detroit Public Library’s Frederick Douglass Branch and “Renaissance City,” at Cass Technical High School.

Shawne Parker

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Shawne Parker helped start the Hotter Than July! project. The program is a week-long pride celebration in Detroit offering safe spaces to teach people about the LGBTQ+ community and showcase its culture. 

The annual Hotter Than July! has attracted thousands of attendees. This year's event will be held on July 14-16. 

Billi Gordon

Billi Gordon was a drag queen, whose stage name was Madam X.

Gordon was a famous performer and comedian who was born in Michigan and attended the University of Michigan. He wrote four books and was an actor in two movies in the 1980s. He often talked about mental health, how it affects peoples' daily lives and how improving his mental health improved his life greatly. 

Terri Jewell

Terri Jewell was a Black, lesbian poet. Her work appeared in more than 70 publications, according to Pridesource

During college, Jewell participated in marches for feminist issues. In her "An Alliance of Differences," she shared her experience as a Black lesbian impacted by politics and class in her relationship with a white woman. In 1994, Jewell was awarded with the Prism Award for her work with the Lansing LBGTQ+ community.

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