Jaye Spiro, 74, already knows what she’ll be wearing this Sunday: white Levis, white tennis shoes, a white shirt and a rainbow sash – “looking very butch” and paying homage to the all-white garb of the suffragettes

The look will be on display for thousands of revelers attending the 50th Motor City Pride celebration in downtown Detroit. Spiro is leading the parade as its grand marshal. 

Owner of the Mejishi Martial Arts school in Ferndale and a founding member of the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation, Spiro was chosen for the role at this year’s Pride in part because of her long history in the Detroit area’s LGBTQ+ community. She planned some of the arts programming for the first Pride event in Michigan, in 1972, which included a march down Woodward on June 24, followed by speeches, all-night dancing and a picnic the following day in Palmer Park.

Some of Spiro’s memories from that event can be found in a free comic book released last month, “Come Out! In Detroit.” Written by Michigan State University historian Tim Retzloff and illustrated by College for Creative Studies graduate Isabel Clare Paul, the comic relies on research and oral histories to tell the story of that first Pride. (Get your copy at Pride, or other sites around Detroit listed here.)

Ahead of this weekend’s celebration – and as LGBTQ+ rights continue to come under attack – we chatted with Spiro about the honor of being grand marshal for the parade, what’s changed since 1972 and what it means to become an elder of this movement. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Detour: What are you looking forward to at Motor City Pride this weekend?

Spiro: Well, it’s a celebration of the 50 years – that this movement has been alive in Detroit that long is a milestone. And it’s just an honor to be the person who is representing hundreds of others who had the courage to be at that first event. 

My wife, Sue Ferrari, and I went down to Ferndale Pride last weekend to distribute some of the comic books. We talked to people who would say, “Thank you so much.” It felt good, sort of like when you go to a Memorial Day parade, and everybody goes to the veterans and they say, “thank you for your service.” It’s kind of like that to me. People kept going, “Thank you for having the courage to do that.” So that meant a lot to me. 

You were chosen to lead the parade on Sunday as the grand marshal. What was your reaction when you found out?

I was pretty excited. I’ve just been calling all my friends from that era and telling them about it. I’ve been a continuous “out” face. Getting recognition – I mean, for a lot of years, that would have been really scary to have any recognition for that – it’s just a profound experience.

A photo of Jaye Spiro, from around the time of the first Pride march in Detroit in 1972. Courtesy photo

I feel really bad about some of the people who I feel are very deserving, but couldn’t share the honor with me. A lot of these people from the early days have either gone, some of them have died, some of them moved away.

Merrilee Melvin, who still lives close by, was actually hired for $25 a week or something, to be the organizer for [the 1972 march]. My role was with the Detroit women’s street theater. We had our march and we had our picnic but we also had performances, and I was putting that together. 

I’ve never heard of the Detroit women’s street theater group. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

We got together probably in the beginning of ’72. The first show we did was a women’s history “cranky.” You can see an illustration of it in the comic book. It’s like a huge cardboard box with a scroll of butcher paper we cranked that tells the story of women’s history, and we sang a song about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and we did the Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. This is a time before there was women’s studies, when nobody had heard these names. And we did this whole “cranky” about that. But the show we did specifically for 1972 was a story about two young women in high school who fall in love. It was very powerful for the audience, many who were just coming out. It was very difficult to come out in 1972. It was a very, very different world. There were maybe 300 of us at the whole march. So we did stories from our own lives.

The most important thing to understand about 1972 is that it was this really hostile world. There was a lot of fear and it took courage to come and say, “we’re gay and we’re proud.”

An illustration from “Come Out! Detroit,” a comic book written by Tim Retzloff and illustrated by graduate Isabel Clare Paul, depicting the Detroit women’s street theater performance at the 1972 Pride event. Courtesy image

How has that hostile environment changed for Detroit’s LGBTQ+ community? Is fear still something that kind of marks the celebrations in different ways?

Well, there are always a lot of young people who are just figuring out who they are. Now we have a lot of trans kids and people are defining themselves in new ways, and families are not always accepting of that. The culture in America has changed in some places. I mean, we still have family members who looked the other way when they heard that I was the grand marshal – and we have family members who are like, “yay!” It’s still not a complete celebration in America. But it’s a lot safer than it was. 

The movement has been around so long and there are people who identify with it who are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. Back in those days finding our elders was harder.

I don’t know if you know Ruth Ellis, she died in 2001, but she was [known as] the first openly out Black gay woman in Detroit, a lesbian. I was very close to Ruth. When we met, she was in her late 70s. Ruth lived to be 101 and she was like our godmother, our foremother, and that was important. 

We figured out how to live our lives and in a productive way, but then there’s some who never made it. They died of AIDS or they were damaged by the suffering of homophobia.

In a 2003 interview, you talked a little about meeting Ruth Ellis as a younger woman and it opening your eyes to living life as an older, out lesbian. What has it been like to take on a role as an elder in the movement yourself?

I’ll be 75 this year, and I’m very energetic, I’m blessed with a wonderful life, a wife who’s just by my side and helps me in every way, with my business and keeping myself vibrant. Through martial arts I have empowerment, self-defense. I know it’s really good for the community and it keeps me strong. So, I sometimes don’t think of myself as the elder, but I think this might be my transition into elderhood. Riding in the parade, my transition to elderhood.

For those who have never been, why should they come to Motor City Pride?

I think people should come to Motor City Pride in order to experience and embrace diversity. There are so many ways to be who you are, with gender and sexuality. Sometimes we feel a little isolated. We feel like, “Oh, this is so personal,” but really the gay pride movement kind of opened it up to, “Hey, whoever you feel you are is fine.” As long as you’re not out there hurting people. You want to love people, and love is love. I mean, that was one of our slogans. 

Back in the early days, it was “Come Out!” – “come out flaming.” It’s like just, be proud of who you are. And young people are always – you’re always trying to figure out who you are.