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Mid-Michigan LGBTQ group celebrates 20 years of connections and visibility

Suits and the City, an LGBTQ+ networking group, held their 20th year celebration this month in Lansing. The group hosts monthly gatherings to help build visibility and connection among Mid-Michigan's queer community.
Melik Brown
/
Courtesy of Suits and the City
Suits and the City, an LGBTQ+ networking group, held their 20th year celebration this month in Lansing. The group hosts monthly gatherings to help build visibility and connection among Mid-Michigan's queer community.

Suits and the City celebrates the anniversary as Pride festivities continue throughout June.

Inside Lansing’s UrbanBeat, the atmosphere for Suits and the City's 20th year anniversary is filled with chatter and laughter, glasses clinking and plates clattering as guests indulge in drinks and appetizers. The space is already crowded, and more people are filling in for the celebration.

Cole Pauley and his friends are sitting on couches in the corner taking in the environment. Pauley recently moved to the area from a small town in Northern Michigan and it’s his first time attending a Suits and the City event. He says he appreciates the ability to connect with other queer professionals.

"I think everybody's been super nice. I think that the networking opportunity is really great, I think it’s super important," Pauley said.

All evening, a photographer has been weaving around tables and clusters of people, snapping photos. But back when Kent Love-Ramirez co-founded Suits and the City in 2004, that kind of documentation was against the rules.

“So that folks knew that they could come and not be at risk of having their employer find out that they were they were gay and attending such an event and be at risk of losing their job,” Love-Ramirez said.

Love-Ramirez said Lansing always felt welcoming to him as a gay man, but he never felt truly represented within the business community. That was the impetus for starting the organization.

As an homage to the HBO series Sex and the City, Suits and the City would be a classy affair with a business twist, hosting monthly events for queer professionals in mid-Michigan. Love-Ramirez says at the inaugural gathering, the demand for community was high.

“We arranged everything not having any sense of how many folks would show up whether no one would show or 50 people would show," Love-Ramirez explained. "We were pleasantly surprised that that first event 68 folks showed up.

Jeffrey Venn (center) is a regular attendee of Suits and the City's events. He attended the first event in 2004 and says the events have always provided a safe and inclusive environment for everyone.
Melik Brown
/
Courtesy of Suits and the City
Jeffrey Venn (center) is a regular attendee of Suits and the City's events. He attended the first event in 2004 and says the events have always provided a safe and inclusive environment for everyone.

Over the next two decades, the group managed to maintain a steady following, increasingly focused on education and advocacy.

Jeffrey Venn, a regular attendee, says he’s watched the organization evolve, becoming less formal and more diverse. But the emphasis on exposure and inclusion has remained the same.

"This might be their first exposure to a group of people that they might have, in their own minds, have classified and with certain stereotypes. And then they have this group that comes in and they realize, 'Oh, my gosh, these are just normal, regular average people,'” Venn said.

Melik Brown
/
Courtesy Suits and the City
Suits and the City board chair Linda Sarnelli stands with fellow board members Lorenzo Lopez (far left) and Ben Dowd (one from left) and friends outside the 20th celebration event in June. Sarnelli credits the hard work of fellow board members for making Suits and the City successful.

Suits and the City’s current chair Linda Sarnelli says the events are open to everyone, and that openness is what allows the LGBTQ community to be integrated with the broader mid-Michigan community.

"We have a lot of non-LGBTQ people who come to our events. And the reason they come is because they make good friends, and they have a good time," Sarnelli said.

Sarnelli said the board works hard to make sure everyone feels comfortable and that’s what’s made the organization last.

Back at UrbanBeat, it seems as though Pauley is feeling exactly what the originators had intended.

"It’s easier to fit in, and just find more like-minded people and not feel as on- edge just going about your day to date life. It’s safer I think,” he said.

As Suits and the City journeys into another decade, the organization plans to take on more advocacy work.

The group has already begun offering sensitivity trainings to improve how others interact with the LGBTQ community. Most recently, the group has worked with the Lansing Police Department.

Melorie Begay is the local producer and host of Morning Edition.
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