Q&A with Scott Ellis, the new leader of Perceptions

Scott Ellis was recently named Executive Director of Perceptions, the Great Lakes Bay Region’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) nonprofit organization. Ellis graduated from Saginaw Valley State University and previously worked as Marketing Director for BaySail. He grew up in Atlanta, Michigan. Ellis has been active in Perceptions for years as a board member and director of the Great Lakes Bay Pride Festival.

Q. Tell me a little bit about Perceptions.

A. Even though Perceptions has been here for 18 years and somebody has held the executive director position, it’s always been a volunteer. Having somebody full time who is really able to devote their daylight hours to Perceptions is a wonderful, new experience.

Right now, our biggest program is our transgender support group, which meets monthly. The support group also holds social gatherings for people to get together to play card games, or talk, have snacks, you know, just be themselves.

We would like to expand our programs for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, but we haven’t had as much demand for those types of support groups. We used to have a pretty robust men’s group that met in Saginaw, but participation declined to the point where we just weren’t able to sustain it.

Our biggest and probably most recognizable thing is, of course, the Great Lakes Bay Pride Festival, the after party, and the awards banquet. This year, we partnered with Hell’s Half Mile to introduce a Pride film series. We hosted screenings in each of the four major cities (Bay City, Midland, Mt. Pleasant, and Saginaw) of the Great Lakes Bay Region. We partnered with the Great Lakes Loons to hold a Pride Night at Dow Diamond.

You hear about Pride Month events in bigger cities, but we’re doing it right here in the Great Lakes Bay Region. It just has incredible support and has continued to grow year after year. I’m really excited to see where that goes.

Q. Why do you think the transgender support group remains strong while the other support groups have faded?

A. In the last couple years, there’s been a lot of interest in the transgender community and a lot more visibility. I think that has led the group to grow and expand. We have found that gay men and lesbian women are not facing the same sort of issues that they may have been facing 15 or 20 years ago. But it’s a whole new world for the transgender community with a lot more people coming out and trying to navigate their daily lives. Of course, we want to provide resources for everyone, but right now that’s where our focus has been.

Femi Redwood, weekend anchor at NBC25/FOX66 News, was the keynote speaker at the 2019 Great Lakes Bay Pride Awards Banquet.Q. What are your plans for Perceptions?

A. As with any organization, we’re always evaluating where we’re moving in the future. Right now, we do have some big, ambitious goals that are a result of a grant we received a couple years ago to do some feasibility studies about what exactly the LGBTQ community in our region needs. One of the overwhelming results of that survey was people are looking for a space where they can feel welcome and included and able to be themselves. Even for the Perceptions board, this is an issue. We don’t have a regular place for board meetings or committee meetings or support groups. We’re very fortunate to have partners who work with us and provide us space in different areas. Finding a dedicated space is a priority.

We also found that people in our community were looking for referral information as far as health care providers, educational opportunities, really any kind of service provider. Everything from car repairs to plumbers to electricians. They are looking for vetted resources, specifically for people who come into your home and you have to know you can trust them. And so, this idea of a really robust referral network was born.

Q. You’ve said in the past that you feel safe here, but this community may not feel as safe for people in the transgender community. What’s being done to change that?

A. When it comes to service providers, that’s something we are focusing on heavily. We want to make sure people feel safe in their own homes when they’re contracting for a service. We also want to identify businesses and organizations that have non-discrimination policies that specifically say they’re not going to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. That’s not a part of standard anti-discrimination language. There’s no state or federal law that requires that to be there. Many businesses take the stance that it should be there and include it. We want to recognize that and say OK, this business or organization has a non-discrimination policy that covers everyone.

This conversation reminds me of a person who inspired me a few years ago. When I first got involved with Perceptions, I started producing social gatherings. We had lost our gay bar, The Mix in Old Town Saginaw. There was a real lack of access to social gatherings. I remember I hosted a gathering at the former Bourbon & Co. in Saginaw, which was in the news for having gender-neutral restrooms. It was a big deal that you could go into either restroom without having to worry. I remember leaving and a transgender individual said to me, almost in tears, that they were so happy they had come to the event because it was the first time they had been out in a bar presenting as they were and were able to just have an enjoyable time without fear of retribution. That was so powerful. Honestly, that guided me for years, just thinking about why am I doing this? I said to myself, ‘Well, this is one opportunity that you provided. You need to provide more opportunities for people to be able to be themselves and feel safe.’ That’s what I want to do in the entire region.

Q. What are some upcoming events for Perceptions?

For a number of years, we’ve had the tradition of holding a Thanksgiving potluck the week before Thanksgiving. This year, it will be at the SVRC Marketplace in Saginaw.  We provide all the main items you’d expect at a Thanksgiving dinner and ask people to bring a dish to pass.

Then, on Dec. 14, we’re going to have our 18th annual Perceptions Holiday Gala. It’s a really exciting time to get together and celebrate. This year, it’s at the Bay City Country Club. We’ll have a DJ and dancing and raffles. It’s a really great night.

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