When the Woodward Bar & Grill burned down earlier this month, metro Detroiters mourned the loss of a space that had “always been a home to the Black LGBTQ+ community,” Affirmations project manager Kyra Smith told the Detroit Free Press. The New Center bar began attracting gay patrons soon after it opened in the 1950s, and its destruction comes as the number of bars specifically catering to LGBTQ+ patrons is declining nationwide.
In Detroit, which had about four dozen gay bars in the 1980s, that decline is particularly acute. The city now has fewer than 10 bars that cater first and foremost to the LGBTQ+ community.
“Black and queer spaces, specifically Black lesbian-centered spaces, have been disappearing — there’s an erasure of them,” said Jess Jackson, who with her wife Cara Jackson co-owns Copper House Detroit, a cannabis-friendly short-term rental, or “bud and breakfast.”
Those closures may in part be spurred by less need for traditional gay bars as society has grown more accepting, particularly of white and cisgender men, according to some who follow LGBTQ+ bar closures nationally. But Jackson and others said spaces specifically for queer Detroiters are needed so people can have a place to safely be themselves — and they have taken it upon themselves to create those spaces.
“Safety is more than just making sure no one’s physically harmed but making sure people are respected. Making sure people are not misgendered or things of that nature,” said artist, curator and DJ Darryl DeAngelo Terrell, who has found community in online spaces as well as art and music events.
For Jackson, lesbian bars were where she first approached a woman and met close friends.
“There’s a loss of vulnerability, risk, humanity, as we lose those social spaces,” Jackson said. “A lot of times in the queer community that’s where you learn to be yourself. That’s where trans folk might go out with their heels, and take those personal risks to live more fully in themselves and their bodies. And so with the erasure of those spaces, folks are not finding places to be themselves.”
She is also working to create new, radically inclusive spaces. Jackson works in inclusion activism. She tries to “create work environments, business practices and spaces that are inclusive to marginalized people,” she said. (Editor’s note: Jackson was a 2019 Detour Detroit Emerging Voices fellow.)
At Copper House, located in Detroit’s Bagley neighborhood, that has meant “being very direct and upfront, like, ‘this is a queer-owned space,’” she explained, even though the bed and breakfast doesn’t serve an exclusively LGBTQ+ clientele.
“We want you to be able to get cozy, and be who you are,” Jackson added. “We want to provide a safe and welcoming space in everything that we do.”
She said that’s particularly important for Copper House’s queer travelers, who might struggle to jump into the city’s LGBTQ+ scene.
“Detroit isn’t the most welcoming to queer communities, to be honest. We’re kind of old-school and traditional,” Jackson said. “Folks don’t know where to go and how to engage and how to be out here.
“Folks navigate their own version of the city that is welcoming. I think that we find our own little pockets and hubs, whether that be creatives that meet up for a writing group, or book club, or the brunch crew that goes out and gets brunch on Sundays, or the party crew that meets up at Lesbian Social Detroit.”
Queer event series center comfort, community and connection
The latter project was founded in 2017 by Chelcea Stowers, who started hosting events downtown after seeing a lack of options for lesbians to come together.
“I wanted to create that space for us … for women to be able to come together to connect, meet, do it in a safe space,” Stowers said.
In the last couple years, Lesbian Social Detroit has grown, and Stowers now hosts events at venues around downtown that can attract several hundred attendees at a time.
“I feel like more venues in the city are starting to realize that there’s a huge community in the city that they really need to tap into,” she said. “We’re kind of increasing our presence, to where we aren’t just hiding in bars in the neighborhoods. We’re actually in the city, just living and enjoying ourselves. We’re starting to pretty much just live our truth.”
Stowers aims to help attendees connect in and outside of the club.
“We need community. You need those like-minded people or people that you can relate to,” she said. “Even when I go to parties outside of the LGBT world… I just feel safer when I’m around my community, and I feel like I can just be myself.”
Terrell said the pandemic was a catalyst for Detroit’s queer community to form new bonds over social media. Some of those networks have turned into more in-person events, including a half dozen art and music shows Terrell participated in this Pride Month.
“In my 31 years of being a queer Detroiter — or at least 15 years being a queer active Detroiter, I should say — there hasn’t really been a lot of programming or anything that was centering or catering to the Detroit queer community,” said Terrell, whose pronouns are they/them.
Terrell typically plans to attend events where they know their community will be present.
“I typically only go to things that I know: one, I won’t be the only queer person at, and two, that it’s gonna be good music,” Terrell said. One of those events is Blueprint, a residency series that celebrates women and queer musicians and has hosted events at UFO Factory in Corktown.
“I felt not only extremely safe but comfortable, and seen, and held,” Terrell said. “It’s truly the Rainbow Coalition, like in every way possible — you can find people of all different nationalities, you are gonna find queer people. You can find drag queens, drag kings, hetero people who are allies. And the music is also good sh*t. In that space, it just feels right. It feels comfortable.”
Another space Terrell frequents and has performed at is Paramita Sound, a downtown wine bar, record store and venue, where the owner, staff and atmosphere are “extremely welcoming,” they said. “I don’t feel like I’m on edge in the space. I don’t feel like I have to keep my guard up or be ready to fight, as I do in some places.”
‘Not the time to be silent’
There are actions that venues and event promoters can take to foster a welcoming, safe and inclusive environment for queer Detroiters, Jackson said. The City of Detroit now has a program for businesses to register with the LGBTQ Employee Resource Group as LGBTQ-owned or LGBTQ-friendly and receive a Pride flag decal for their windows. Businesses can donate or show their support for long-running organizations like LGBT Detroit or the Ruth Ellis Center, Jackson said, or sponsor Black queer events like Hotter in July.
She also looks at businesses’ staff — who they work with and how they treat their queer and trans employees — though warned owners against tokenizing queer staff by making them the face of allyship efforts. There are also less formal indicators of welcoming spaces, she said, like how the Avenue of Fashion, lesbian-owned bakery Good Cakes and Bakes carries copies of a niche lesbian magazine.
“We just had our Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade,” Jackson said, noting that the Court’s decision that eliminateed the right to abortion also threatens other rights, including same-sex marriage. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that previous decisions that established those rights should be reconsidered.
“So now is not the time to be silent or complicit in your advocacy,” Jackson said. “Now is the time for taking very public stances about how you expect your neighbors and your clients and your people to be treated humanely.”
For Stowers and others, the need remains for dedicated queer spaces. In the next few years, she hopes to expand Lesbian Social Detroit to include a brick-and-mortar space in the greater downtown area.
“Even bigger, I would love for it to be part of an LGBT district in the city, but that’s down the line,” she said. “My next step is to create something permanent.”
Stowers, Jackson and Terrell, as well as Detour readers, shared more recommendations for other queer and inclusive spaces in Detroit. See the list here.