Recently deceased U-M alum's passion for queer community lives on in LGBTQ+ center "coming out fund"

Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman was interested in helping LGBTQ+ people steer through the experience of coming out, whether they were a celebrity or a University of Michigan student.
Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman was interested in helping LGBTQ+ people steer through the experience of coming out, whether they were a celebrity or a University of Michigan (U-M) student. It's fitting, then, that the recently deceased U-M alum's $1 million bequest to the U-M Spectrum Center, a campus resource center for LGBTQ+ students, is called the Howard Bragman Coming Out Fund.

Spectrum Center Director Jesse Beal describes Bragman, who died in February at 66 just 10 days after being diagnosed with leukemia, as one of the center's "greatest advocates." Spectrum provides advocacy and community, from a "lavender graduation" commencement activity to training and workshops for faculty and staff on how to make campus more equitable and inclusive, Beal says.

"Because his death was so sudden, we don't have the full picture about what will happen with the gift. It will take some time for his estate to be settled," Beal says. "But his family has been so kind. His husband and family asked for folks to donate to the Howard Bragman fund in lieu of flowers, so some funding has already been coming in."

Though Bragman was known for helping celebrities from TV star Meredith Baxter to football player Michael Sam come out publicly as gay, he was also happy to help in a less famous case: that of U-M's first openly gay student body president, Chris Armstrong.

"Chris was dealing with a pretty significant level of harassment," Beal says. "Howard came in and supported Chris and helped him navigate the media landscape that isn't always too kind to our communities."

Spectrum Center staff intend to use Bragman's bequest to address LGBTQ+ students' essential needs, in keeping with his wishes. Bragman purposely established minimal constraints on how his fund could be used, but Beal says center staff have a pretty good idea of how Bragman would appreciate it being used. 
Spectrum Center Director Jesse Beal.
Beal says that in their last conversation with Bragman, he brought forward two primary concerns. The first was mental health in LGBTQ+ communities. 

"His other concerns were around the current political climate, … the current rhetoric around queer and trans identities, and how that was impacting our students' mental health," Beal says.

Annual mental health surveys by The Trevor Project track mental health in LGBTQ+ youth. Beal says many respondents in their late teens to early 20s have noted strong feelings about current politics.

"Many queer and trans youth say the political climate is truly impacting their mental health," Beal says. "Howard knew that innately. You didn't have to show him a study."

In practice, fulfilling Bragman's wishes will likely include adding more programming and services in support of student mental health and more help with essentials. Beal says supporting mental health sometimes looks like policy changes on campus. In other cases, it might entail emergency aid because a student is having a rough time with family and suddenly loses financial support.

"Howard had an incredibly big heart and trusted us so much with this gift," Beal says. "But he certainly told us he wanted us to prioritize making sure students have what they need to thrive on campus."
Spectrum Center Director Jesse Beal.
The Spectrum Center is more than 50 years old and was the first of its kind in the nation. Spectrum Center graduate intern Des Velazquez says that's what drew them to intern at the center.

"My undergrad didn't have a well-resourced or well-staffed gender and sexuality center, so I knew early on that I wanted to get connected to Spectrum," Velazquez says.

In their role as intern, Velazquez is preparing focus groups for queer and trans students of color to find out how the Spectrum Center can better help that population. They say that there might be a perception that "so much has progressed" that a center established specifically to support LGBTQ+ youth might not seem necessary, especially in an area like Ann Arbor that tends to be progressive.

"But at the same time, students come from a wide variety of experiences," Velazquez says. "They may be coming from a family situation or another state that is incredibly hostile to queer and trans folks. Spectrum Center serves as a place where people can come and breathe [and] relax. It's a space I can show up as myself in whatever way I need to, and a safe space to explore."

Beal says that's exactly the role Bragman would have wanted the Spectrum Center to play for the next generation of young LGBTQ+ people. They describe Bragman as "loud," "funny," and "beloved."

"He built authentic connections. Howard could throw the best party on earth, but he could also talk to you about what really mattered," Beal says. "His loss is so incredibly heavy on my heart. He was our champion. He was larger than life."

More information about the Spectrum Center is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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