In 2021, few bystanders will bat an eye at an LGBTQ pride parade, and cantankerous right-wing protesters often find themselves drowned out by a rainbow sea of bodies. While there’s work required toward LGBTQ acceptance forevermore, events like pride rallies, marches and parades become more normalized as each year passes. But this acceptance didn’t come from nowhere — it took decades of hard work and statewide networking and organizing efforts.
Michigan’s first annually recurring LGBTQ pride march and rally was organized by Craig Covey and the Michigan Organization for Human Rights, or MOHR, in 1985. The event was originally in Detroit until moving to Lansing, thanks to work from organizers like Bob Egan, in 1989. Eventually, as it grew larger in scope, management of the pride rally shifted from MOHR to its current organization Michigan Pride, a group that was founded solely to manage and organize the rally on a yearly basis. Michigan Pride cosponsored the 1994 rally with MOHR, and since 1995 it has solely put together the event annually.
Chuck Marquadt, a founding member of Michigan Pride, first began attending and volunteering with LGBTQ pride rallies and marches dating back to 1988, when he was 17. He remembers when outright hostility toward the LGBTQ community was commonplace.
“At that time, we were still being thrown in jail just for having sex. We were being harassed by the police. If you went to the gay bars in downtown Lansing, police were not your friends,” Marquadt said. “It was something you had to worry about.”
MOHR, which eventually splintered apart and became Equality Michigan, had a very wide scope of activism, as it tackled several social justice issues on top of organizing the big LGBTQ pride march. An idea was formed to create a new group in order to have better control over an annual event that was starting to regularly attract more than 10,000 attendees.
“We decided that the rally should be its own entity. Every year with MOHR we would have to go back and fundraise again. Any income from the parade went back into its operating revenue,” Stephanie McLean, another founding member of Michigan Pride, said.
“A core group of us decided that the pride march needed its own organization that did nothing but that. Organized all year, fundraised, all that good stuff. We made a proposal to MOHR and they agreed,” Marquadt said. “From then on, it’s been Michigan Pride to this day.”
In the early-’90s, Marquadt, McLean and many other volunteers with Michigan Pride, including fellow founding member Val Osowski, helped spread the word the old-fashioned way: word of mouth. The Michigan Pride crew would drive up and down the state hitting up different city and town’s known gay bars to let the locals know about the giant LGBTQ rally planned to go off at the Capitol.
“We were working on a shoestring budget to do this massive thing. Normally, we’d get between 8,000 and 12,000 people per year. It was a group effort all the way through, there were no divas,” Marquadt said. “It was these incredible women and men who put their heart and souls into making it happen.”
“We’d go to all the bars and dance on tabletops and sell T-shirts. It was very scrappy,” McLean said.
Osowski, an old friend of McLean’s, got involved during this transitional period through her friendship with Egan, who was an instrumental part in moving the pride rally from Detroit to Lansing. She would travel around Southeast Michigan, meeting new people and networking to drum up attendance and help further expand the rally.
“I got a lot of satisfaction and fulfilment from working on it. At the time, there was an increasing politicization of gay and lesbian rights, and it gave me a great way to be active and contribute to the movement,” Osowski said.
For the Michigan Pride volunteers, one of the most impactful aspects of organizing the pride rally was witnessing Michigan’s LGBTQ community converge at the Capitol from all different corners and regions of the state, whether they were traveling from Metro Detroit or an obscure small town where an LGBTQ person dare not out themselves publicly.
“There’s really nothing like it. It was such a powerful thing to stand on the platform at the Capitol, see the march kick off and then come down Michigan Avenue. All of the joy and pride gave me goosebumps. I can vividly remember that,” Owoski said.
A key difference between the early days of Michigan Pride and today was that the event couldn’t really be described as a parade. These days, pride events are recognized for having colorful floats, performers and an overall high level of showmanship. Marquadt describes the original Michigan Pride festivities as strictly being a march or a rally, a reflection of the more intense social environment facing the LGBTQ community at the time.
“They would come to Lansing for this event, and for many of them it was the only place where they could be in public and be out. Then they would go back to their small town and back into the closet,” Marquadt. “Pride marches at that time were so much more meaningful to me back then. We had no representation and we were actively being discriminated against in horrible ways.”
With the intense levels of prejudice the LGBTQ community faced, pride rallies immediately became an isolated sanctuary where one could finally find the joy of being themselves uninhibited by the fear of being outed, losing their livelihood thanks to workplace discrimination or being excommunicated from their family.
“While we were unified by tragedy, our lives were not tragedies. We lived wonderful lives that had this overlay. We were fighting this crap,” Marquadt said.”These events were joyful and once a year we’d have this amazing experience.”
Though Marquadt, McLean and Osowksi and several other original Michigan Pride volunteers, organizers and attendees have moved on to different states and careers, for them it remains powerful and reaffirming to see an event they helped build still going decades later.
“I think it’s a testament to the gay rights and lesbian activism, not only here but across the country,” Osowski said. “It all feeds into itself. The momentum, growth and evolution — both of the movement and people’s perspective on it — has grown over the years. We still have a long way to go.”