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Some people wore bags on their heads at the first Pride in Grand Rapids: Resisting the homophobic, transphobic and heterosexist culture of West Michigan Nice

June 9, 2019

Later this week there will be the annual Pride Celebration in Grand Rapids, making it 31 years since the first Pride event. In addition, there are two other events being hosted during the week, also centered around the LGBTQ community.

First, on Wednesday, there will be an event to commemorate the queer and trans identifying Latinx and Black people who were killed at the Pulse 49 Club in Orlando, Florida, three years ago. 

Lastly, there is also a Take Back Pride March – End Police Violence action, hosted by Grand Rapids Anti-Fascist Action. 

Thirty one years ago, people in the LGBTQ community organized the first Pride event in Grand Rapids. It was held in the old Monroe Amphitheater, now known as Rosa Parks Circle. Someone video taped about 90 minutes of the very first Pride in Grand Rapids, which you can watch here. Members of the Christian community came to harass those gathered for the Pride Celebration, engaging in hate speech and publicly condemning those gathered.

There were also numerous organizations from around the state who were tabling at the first Pride in GR and several of those groups got up on the stage to speak about their work. The mayor of Grand Rapids, Gerald Helmholdt, did not support or endorse the first Pride Celebration, in fact he spoke rather disparagingly of the “gay community,” something that Jeff Swanson talked about in the interview we did with him for the People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids documentary. 

There were also people who came to the Pride event who wore bags over their heads, for fear of losing their jobs. While there is more room for people to be public about who they are, Grand Rapids and West Michigan still is not a very safe space for those who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer. This is especially the case for  those in the LGBTQ community that are black or latinx, part of the immigrant community or queer youth.

What follows is an overview of some of the history in Grand Rapids, based upon the lived experience of the LGBTQ community. This history can also teach us about how deeply homophobic, transphobic and heterosexist the Grand Rapids community has been and continues to be since the first Pride in 1988.

AIDS Quilt founder spoke at the 1990 Pride event in Grand Rapids

1991 GRTV show with members of the LGBTQ community. 

Anti-Gay businesses in Grand Rapids and the defeat of the first attempt to get an anti-discrimination ordinance in 1991. 

1992 video conversation with members of the Network in Grand Rapids. 

The Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission, the LGBTQ community and the 1994 anti-discrimination ordinance.

Rich DeVos and the AIDS crisis.

Dennis Komack was fired from his job at the Grand Rapids Art Museum because of his involvement with Sons & Daughters, a LGBT bookstore/cafe that used to be in Grand Rapids. (see the section on Sons & Daughters in the People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids.)

GVSU LGBT Faculty were denied domestic partner benefits in 1995 because Rich DeVos and Peter Cook threatened to withdraw financial support for new Health & Sciences building in Grand Rapids. (also documented in the People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids.

What is important for me, as someone who is not part of the LGBTQ community, is that those of us who identify as straight, need to understand, expose and fight the systems of oppression that those in the LGBTQ community face on a daily basis. Attending Pride and changing our FB status to the rainbow flag are cool and all, but one of the most important things we can do as allies is to resist and dismantle the very systems of oppression in this community that translates into queer youth being homeless, that uses state violence against LGBTQ communities of color and perpetuates severe spiritual violence in the CRC land.

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