LGBT-friendly Ann Arbor: 45 years of change

Trying to explain the concept of a "gayborhood" to a friend, Keith Orr referred to Wikipedia for assistance. As he scrolled through the site's list of major LGBT social centers worldwide, he was surprised to see Kerrytown listed.

"I was like, 'Wow,'" says Orr, co-owner of the Aut Bar in Kerrytown. "I hadn't really thought of it…And yet we have a huge LGBT population. They just tend to be a little bit more like, 'I'm comfortable living here, and I go about my daily business being a husband, father, worker, shopper, whatever, without having necessarily as large of a public identity as a member of the LGBT community.'"

According to the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality index, Ann Arbor ranks as the second most LGBT-friendly city in Michigan, behind only East Lansing and ahead of even the noted gay center of Ferndale. That comfort hasn't always been so accessible to the local LGBT community, but in the mind of one of Ann Arbor's foremost LGBT activists the road to it has been swift.

Jim Toy has been consistently involved in Ann Arbor LGBT activism since the inception of the national Gay Liberation movement in the early '70s. He was a founding member of the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front and a driving force behind the 1971 establishment of what is now the University of Michigan Spectrum Center. Toy recalls a time when gays and lesbians were largely regarded as "psychopathological, criminal and sinful" nationwide, when Ann Arbor police were still distinctly hostile to the LGBT community and when the community's only meeting place was a "dark, dingy, closeted establishment" called the Flame Bar. Toy is amazed at the change that's since occurred in Ann Arbor and nationwide.

"If I were living in 1970 I could never have predicted that the positive changes that have come about would have been brought about," he says.

According to many LGBT Ann Arborites, the Aut Bar's opening in 1995 was a major milestone in that progress, and it remains a cornerstone of the community. Joe Posch, former author of the blog Supergay Detroit, moved from Ann Arbor to Detroit in 2005. In the 10 years he lived in Ann Arbor, he says he was consistently impressed with Aut Bar and its co-owners, Orr and Martin Contreras. The pair also own the Common Language LGBT bookstore and are landlords to the LGBT-focused Jim Toy Community Center, both located alongside Aut in Kerrytown's Braun Court.

"[Orr and Contreras] are super-involved, and they have been for a long time, in the gay and lesbian community," Posch says. "You could consider them leaders in the gay and lesbian community of Washtenaw County. So I think they had a lot of goodwill going because of that, and I don't think they did it as a tactical move."

Contreras says he and Orr have worked from the start to make Aut an open and visible community center, as well as a friendly location to straight customers. Aut remains the only dedicated gay bar in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti. While gay events at other establishments come and go, Contreras attributes Aut's success to its connection to the community.

"So many bars and restaurants give the appearance of, 'It's a slow Thursday. Let's do something to bring in the gays,' whether it's a drag show or a straight club that now has a gay night," he says. "It just seems like it's more of an economic decision more than trying to meet the need of a community."

Angie Martell is the founder of Iglesia Martell, an Ann Arbor law firm that specializes in LGBT issues. Martell, who has been out since she was five years old, says Aut remains the sole go-to destination for many LGBT community members in the greater Ann Arbor area.

"I have clients who are afraid of being out, especially if they work for a governmental entity," she says. "The one place that they can go to congregate, that they know they're safe, is Aut Bar or the Jim Toy Center."

While most LGBT Ann Arborites agree that the city itself is generally very LGBT-friendly, Spectrum Center interim director Will Sherry says there are still "a lot of safety concerns" here for LGBT people of color and those who identify as genderqueer.

"I think that oftentimes the basis of how safe a place is is based on the most privileged people's experience of that space," he says. "As a transgender man who is often seen by others as a man and not necessarily recognized as being transgender, as someone that is white and married to a woman, I find Ann Arbor to be a pretty safe place."

Another challenge noted by some local LGBT Ann Arborites is the difficulty of bringing the community together for the purpose of activism. Common Language, once a center for LGBT organizing, has struggled for years. Contreras says Aut Bar often "underwrites" the bookstore, now one of only a handful of self-identified LGBT bookstores nationwide.

"We haven't really captured a younger audience," he says. "Unlike the sort of past radical men and women and feminists and activists who would rally around the neighborhood bookstore, nothing has replaced that."

That may be due in part to an LGBT youth community that's more segmented than in years past. Sherry notes that there are about 20 LGBT-specific registered student organizations on the U-M campus. While those groups present a rich range of resources for varying student needs, Sherry says the organizations aren't particularly well-connected.

"That's something positive, that people aren't feeling the need to all come together against something, in some ways," he says. "But I also think a lot of our individual groups have certain needs, and they aren't necessarily able to connect around those needs. So sometimes you can't see the fullness and the full vibrancy of the queer community on campus because there are so many packeted efforts going on."

Goals in activism are clearer for Ann Arbor's adult LGBT community. Many are involved in efforts to repeal Michigan's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and to legalize LGBT adoption in the state. But even then, funding can be a challenge. Jim Toy Community Center president Brad O'Conner says the center has secured funding to pay a contract worker to keep the building open for business hours, but is unable to fund other full-time staff.

"We're well-connected, we're organized, we're in a good place," he says. "But there's a lot of work to be done. There's a lot of people out there who we haven't reached yet, a lot of folks at risk in our community that need to be touched and need resources that we still need to provide them."

The center's namesake agrees. At 84, Toy is still heavily involved in LGBT activism, sitting on the board of numerous local LGBT-related organizations. He recites a little tweak he made to Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," which he says still sums up his approach to LGBT rights.

"I put it this way," Toy says. "'The closet's lonely, dark and deep / So we have promises to keep / And miles to go before we sleep / And miles to go before we sleep.' That's where I am with things."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

Hey! Like this story? Then you should "LIKE" Concentrate on our Facebook page.  Click here to show us a little like and... we'll like you back. OR follow us on Twitter @ConcentrateA2
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.