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Stonewall At 50: Examining Michigan's Gay History

Tim Retzloff photo
Scott Pohl
Tim Retzloff is with the MSU Center for Gender In Global Context.

The police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City fifty years ago this week, and the ensuing violence, is often credited with sparking the modern gay rights movement. To mark the 50th anniversary, WKAR is exploring gay life in Michigan in those days.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks about that with Tim Retzloff of MSU’s Center for Gender in Global Context. He’s a historian who has done extensive research on gay and lesbian history.

Dr. Retzloff’s research on Michigan’s gay history has produced an encyclopedic knowledge of gay and lesbian life in the state. His information trails from interviews and publications have brought him stories from all over the country. While his work has focused on southeast Michigan, Retzloff’s efforts have led him to stories in the Lansing area, too, including one from Michigan State University. “There was evidence that an archivist found in the President’s papers from ’57 where a student was arrested, and then forced to name names," Retzloff recounts. "This was a kind of constant harassment and surveillance that everyone was subject to.”

Michigan liquor control regulations made it unlawful to operate a bar where homosexuals gathered until 1979, ten years after Stonewall. There were laws against soliciting and gross indecency, too, and some people served jail time as a result. “Up until 1969 and 70 and this period right after Stonewall, when things started to change, people living what we would now call LGBTQ life," explains Retzloff, "back then, they just would have said gay life, so we’ll call it gay life, lived largely closeted existences. They weren’t out to their family by and large, they certainly weren’t out at work…they might be fired for that. They weren’t out publicly. No one that I found was out before 1969 in Michigan.”

Still, Retzloff says Michigan didn’t tend to have police raids on bars like what happened at Stonewall. Even so, house parties were a safer environment.

Commercial options were also limited for African Americans. Retzloff tells the story of Ruth Ellis, who hosted such parties. According to Retzloff, “This was a very important kind of space that was created, and because she owned her own business, she was a printer and had her own home, she was able to have these parties where they could dance freely. Sometimes it was pot luck or BYOB, and because it was private space, there was a little more security.”

Stonewall wasn’t initially big news in Michigan. The New York Times coverage was, in Retzloff’s judgment, buried, and other New York newspapers didn’t widely reach Michigan. One that did, though, was the Village Voice, which produced extensive coverage. As the news slowly arrived in Michigan, Retzloff says Detroit’s gay community began to catch up by late October 1969. “Someone placed an ad in a radical newspaper, an underground newspaper in Detroit called the Fifth Estate, that was a personal ad. Someone in New York saw the personal ad and contacted him and came to visit and said ‘really, what you need to do is start a gay lib group.’ Starting in January 1970, the Gay Liberation Front in Detroit had its first meeting.”

The GLF in Detroit was completely above ground, made up of younger, racially and ethnically diverse people, both men and women, seeking to effect change through direct action. Similar groups started to spring up at colleges and other cities around Michigan.

Retzloff credits that kind of activism for leading to the landmark 1972 decision made by the city council in East Lansing to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, the nation’s first such civil rights protections.

Tomorrow, WKAR News will have the story of a gay man who was living in Lansing at the time of the Stonewall uprising.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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