Thursday, July 28, 2016

B-side: Coach Robbie on LGBT life in Detroit

Earlier this week, I published a piece in Model D about LGBT spaces in Detroit that featured some powerful thoughts by queer Detroiter, activist, and fitness instructor Robbie Dwight.

I met Robbie a little over a year ago, when he was the guest instructor at a gay fitness class I was regularly attending. The class was organized by Kimo Frederiksen at his Corktown gym True Body Fitness. Billed as "Gay Boy BootyCamp," it was a once-a-week, summer-long fundraiser for Affirmations and the Ruth Ellis Center, two important local LGBT community organizations, and it turned out to be super meaningful to me.

Photo by Kimo Frederiksen

It wasn't until I started going every week that I realized how much I was lacking social activity with other queer dudes that wasn't oriented around drinking. And not only was it not about drinking, it was about getting fit...basically the opposite of drinking. It addition to the fact that we were getting together for a good cause, it felt really special to be in a productive gay social space, not a consumptive one. (Why is that such a rare thing?)

So it was really great, and I looked forward to it every week. I was bummed when it wrapped up for the season, until I remembered that the week Robbie guest-taught the class, he'd mentioned that he also taught a weekly class over at Detroit Tough, another small gym nearby. So I started going to his kettlebell class there every Sunday morning. Several months in, Detroit Tough's ownership changed, resulting in a shakeup that prompted Robbie to move over to Proving Grounds, where I followed him, and where I continue to catch the Sunday morning kettlebell sweatfest whenever I can.

I really like working out with Robbie. His energy is huge, and he's bright, motivating, and knows what he's doing. He's also hilarious. But more than that, he's incredibly welcoming. While his classes aren't billed as fitness for gay or queer people (and in fact, they don't seem to be attended by a majority queer group), by sheer force of his personality and his everyday activism, he takes what is traditionally a pretty oppressively hetero, "masc" environment -- the gym -- and queers it, making it welcoming to all. As a high-energy, unapologetically loud and proud queer dude, he makes it clear that his classes -- and by extension, fitness in general -- are for everyone, without actually having to say a word to that effect. It's just...apparent. That's a pretty special thing in gym culture and in Detroit, where homophobia is still alive and well.

In fact, I was recently struck by how far we still have to go when I attended another fitness class a couple of weeks ago elsewhere in town, led by another very energetic and motivating trainer, who totally lost me at the end of class by saying, as people were getting together for a group photo, that he "doesn't touch dudes" and that he wanted us to line up "guy-girl, guy-girl." It was disheartening how casually he threw his homophobia and retrograde heteronormativity on the table -- assuming we were all in the same club, so to speak -- and how immediately his words made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Anyway, when I first started thinking about my article on queer spaces in Detroit, I figured Robbie would have a perspective (and boy, did he!). We had a hard time finding a good time to chat in person, so we ended up talking over Google hangouts one night, while he was driving home from his day job (and then while he was sitting in his driveway).

I recorded the conversation so I could transcribe it later, which is when I realized that in it, Robbie just drops one piece of really powerful knowledge after the other, all in a really entertaining and accessible way. It's both a great performance (I really love that he's driving) and a pointed critique. Of what? Well, of the city/suburb divide, heteronormative patriarchy, racism and xenophobia within the queer community, of division, complacency, and fear. It's also a rousing call to collective action, on the part of queer folks and straight allies alike. I thought that Robbie's words deserved to be heard in an unedited form by anyone with interest, so without further ado, here they are:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The past, present, and future of Detroit's LGBT spaces

(originally published 7/25/16 in Model D)

This article is dedicated to the memory of Jeff Montgomery, longtime Detroit LGBT activist and founder of the Triangle Foundation, which worked to combat anti-LGBT crime and discrimination nationwide. He died last week.

In the aftermath of last month's attack on Pulse in Orlando, many LGBT people took time, amid our grief, to reflect on our experiences in gay bars, the spaces we'd always thought of as "safe." We wrote or posted on social media about our first gay bar, about the thrill of being suddenly surrounded by people like us, about dancing until 4:00 a.m. We discussed how our communities were built and sustained in these spaces. We talked about the clubs that have come and gone, and the ones that have persisted. Our conversations were something good that emerged from something horrific. They presented opportunities to celebrate and honor a part of our culture that we might otherwise take for granted.

The notion of the "safe space" dates back to the women's and gay liberation movements of the 1970s. And while the murderous rampage at Pulse reminds us of the literal physical danger that so many in the LGBT community still face, "safe" in this context also means something other than safe from the threat of violence. It means safe to be yourself, to express yourself—or, perhaps, to express parts of yourself that you might hide in other places. Safe to touch someone you care about without worrying who might see, and what they might say or do if they did. It means being released from the otherwise unblinking gaze of what we have learned to call heteronormativity: the destructive, socially reinforced illusion that "straight" is good and right and true, while "queer" is wrong. A secret. A shame.

While LGBT Americans have made great political strides in recent years, the need for our own spaces has not diminished. Not only have those advances been unevenly distributed among our people, many of us still face discrimination (some of which remains enshrined in law in Michigan), as well as isolation. And let's face it, even if all of us get all of the rights to which we're entitled and feel 100 percent socially accepted all the time, we're still going to want to spend time among our own people, our queer family, with whom we've shared so much.

In Detroit, many LGBT people will tell you that we don't have as many spaces in which to be our full and authentic selves as we ought to. But the folks who've been around for a while will remind you that this was not always the case.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Mel Rosas @ Wayne State

I'm currently at work on my next Essay'd essay, about the painter Mel Rosas, who was born in Des Moines, IA but who has been a part of the Detroit art scene since he moved here to teach at Wayne State in the '70s.

He usually paints at his home studio in Royal Oak, but this summer, he's also working from an otherwise unused studio space at Wayne, where I visited him last week.

Rosas is a master painter, known for his rich, evocative, and surreal Latin American street scenes/dreamscapes.

Caribbean Dream, 2010, oil on panel, 30 x 42"

Look for the essay, along with several other images of his lush oil paintings, in the coming weeks. For now, here's a portrait I snapped at the end of my visit: