There should have been a banquet. Then came the coronavirus.
Each year, at Pride Week, City Pulse honors up to eight people from greater Lansing who have advanced the well being of the LGBTQ community.
It’s fitting that this year’s Inclusion Awards focus on health.
In former years, legal and political advances in the LGBTQ community have taken center stage. This year, as a deadly virus tears through the world and leaves economic catastrophe in its wake, the mental and physical resilience of our most vulnerable populations is being tested as never before. Six of our eight 2020 awardees are dedicated to improving the mental or physical health of their LGBTQ clients or patients.
Transgender people, especially trans people of color, still experience stress, anxiety, violence and a range of unacceptable health outcomes. Many of this year’s awardees are deeply involved in the push to bring the best health care, and the latest information, to people in the community, through their own clinics and practices and networks like Queering Medicine.
Although we can’t have an awards banquet this year, our community is still seeded with outstanding people who deserve recognition — people who are doing everything they can to help the LGBTQ community keep body and soul together.
To be considered for an award, a person must be nominated by a colleague, friend, admirer or supporter. Our editorial board narrowed the nominees to eight, which wasn’t easy.
The shadow of the pandemic loomed over every awardee in one way or another. Two of this year’s awardees, Isabella Copeland and Colleen Kelley, were chosen by virtue of their ability to create or host safe spaces where LGBTQ people could gather to socialize, be entertained or discuss various aspects of their lives.
Social life, for gay and straight alike, is still on hold, but we long for the return of welcoming places like Gone Wired Café, which plans to reopen in July, and LGBTQ gatherings like Queers Who Brunch and Thought Club, two of Copeland’s many projects.
Another striking thing about this year’s awardees is that some of them have only been in the Lansing area for a couple of years or so, but have made a disproportionate impact in that short time. The reputation of Michigan’s capital city as a welcoming place for LGBTQ people, and the growing strength, resilience and mutual support of the LGBTQ community here, is drawing energetic, enthusiastic young people who are working toward another growth spurt of equality and justice for all, pandemic or no pandemic.
Isabella (“Izzy”) Copeland
A live burlesque show at the do-gooding Allen Neighborhood Center, a place most people associate with fresh veggies, tai chi and healthy cooking classes, brought the concept of Pure Lansing to sublime heights last Dec. 7.
“Some performers were queer, some were black and they were big,” organizer Isabella Copeland said with a laugh. She could see from some visitors’ faces that it was their first experience with traditional burlesque.
“To have these amazing fat rolls and feathers in their faces — I could see their brains just expand,” Copeland said. “It was pure joy, electric energy, positivity through the roof. I was high off of that for days.”
The show was part of Queers Who Brunch, a series of get-togethers showcasing LGBTQ life and just one of the many events Copeland has helped to organize in the two years since she moved to Lansing.
When her partner came to MSU to study clinical psychology, Copleand didn’t know anybody in Lansing. She resolved to build her own community and host the kind of meaningful social events she herself would want to attend.
“I’m pretty sure I could go the rest of my life without small talk,” she said.
Gatherings like Thought Club, a monthly cocktail hour, and a monthly reading group featuring the poetry of queer women of color have had a major impact on the city’s cultural life, bringing hundreds of people together for thoughtful discussions, poetry readings and other events that fill a crying need in the LGBTQ community.
Copeland credits Phiwa Langeti, founder and director of the Salus Center (Lansing’s LGBTQ resource hub) and “man about town” Lorenzo Lopez, a highly visible local advocate for Latinx and LGBT people, for ushering her into the world of queer Lansing.
“Both of them welcomed me with open arms and taught me about what Lansing has to offer, which is amazing,” she said.
The groups allow space for deep conversations.
“We talk about things you might not bring up to a stranger sitting next to you at the bar,” she said.
“It’s about depth, concepts that queer people experience, especially queer people of color. That is unique and rare.”
Copeland is trying to keep the camaraderie via Zoom and other virtual events, including a virtual dance party, but she admits it’s just not the same.
“Things are going to look different, and that’s OK, too,” she said. “And this is not the end for me. I have other ideas.”
A few years ago, a patient told East Lansing physician Jessica Heselschwerdt she was transgender and requested hormone treatment.
“I never learned how to do that in medical school or in my residency,” Heselschwerdt said. “But I did learn how to take care of post-menopausal women with hormones, and men with low testosterone, treating them with hormones.”
Heselschwerdt told the patient she could either go to an endocrinologist or give her a little time to study up and do the treatment herself.
“She wanted me to go on this journey with her,” Heselschwerdt said. She went on line to research the subject and consulted colleagues.
“I learned a lot about disparities, barriers to care,” she said. “I thought it was really terrible and wanted to help.”
Heselschwerdt grew up in Jackson, went to medical school at Wayne State and interned in Austin, Texas. She’s always loved the idea of caring for families from birth to death, but there’s a strong note of activism in her love of family practice.
“I knew the medical system is not great and I wanted to be a supportive person in a system that frequently isn’t,” she said.
She cited a recent survey finding that about 23% of transgender people postponed medical care because of discrimination, 33% postponed care because they couldn’t afford it and 33% reported a negative experience with health care.
“Up to one half of transgender people reported having to teach their doctor about transgender care, which is totally not their job,” Heselschwerdt said. “It should be the other way around.”
She runs into some persistent misconceptions when she teaches students about doing physical exams and other aspects of caring for LGBTQ patients. She has also lectured on the subject for several residency programs in the region and at conferences such as the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians.
“Doctors who haven’t learned about this think that it’s hard, it’s complicated and it’s something they can’t do, but it’s very doable,” she said. “There are guidelines out there.”
Someday, she hopes, helping transgender patients will be a routine part of every physician’s bag.
“Sending patients to a specialist is just another barrier,” she said. “We know our patients best and they have the most access to us, so we primary care doctors should be doing this.”
Colleen Kelley has been involved in political action and activism for over 30 years, but her 15 years as owner of The Avenue Café were like graduate study.
“I’ve learned and grown so much as a person from the examples of members of the community,” she said.
Kelley is the embodiment of the inclusive, welcoming east side spirit.
The variety of events The Avenue has hosted over the years is staggering: hip-hop, punk rock, belly dancing, jazz, city planning brainstorm sessions, charity events, political campaign launches, drag shows — anything that makes people feel good, improves their lives, furthers a good cause or stirs up a beautiful ruckus.
The café’s scope and business model have changed a lot since Kelley bought the former camping supply store at 2021 E. Michigan Ave. and christened it Gone Wired Café in 2005.
It started as a coffee shop and cybercafe, but after the 2008 recession, student traffic began to dry up. It was clear to Kelley that her business model wouldn’t sustain a place that large.
“That really tested my survival,” she said. “It was tremendously difficult.”
She put in a generously proportioned bar to make the establishment “recession resistant” and made many other changes that took about four years in all to finish.
Typically, she deflects the credit for turning an old camping supply store into a critical community gathering place.
“The activists creating neighborhoods that are dedicated to inclusivity — that has been true for about 50 years around here, maybe longer,” she said. “We didn’t create the environment of inclusivity.”
She said The Avenue has made it through the spring lockdown “all right.” Careful plans are under way to reopen, probably in June.
“We have such a large space that even half capacity is still a lot of people, and we just want to make sure that when we reopen, it’s safe to do so,” she said.
A 16th birthday bash is tentatively set for Aug. 1, although it might be bumped to Oct. 1.
Kelley thinks of The Avenue as “a work in progress” and feels the same way about herself.
“The most important part has been being really vulnerable about where I needed to grow to be a more inclusive person,” she said. “What I’ve learned from the culture of the community is that being a person who strives toward inclusivity isn’t something you arrive at. It’s a constant journey.”
Is the news making you sick? You’re not alone. Jae Puckett is hip deep in a massive study showing a direct link between social and political shifts and changes in health for transgender people.
Last year, Puckett drove around Michigan and interviewed transgender people across the state. Many of them had never participated in a study before.
Busting out of academia and meeting people where they are is a big priority for Puckett, an assistant professor of psychology at MSU and an out gender-queer advocate.
Puckett’s findings are dispiriting. Most trans people reported spikes in stress after the 2016 election. Nearly 90 percent reported increased fear, social uneasiness and anxiety and 80 percent reported increased exposure to hate speech.
“The social climate is shaped by leadership, and without changes, we’ll continue to see oppression of trans people grow,” Puckett said. “It’s important to see people who are supportive and affirming of the trans community come into leadership positions.”
This fall and beyond, as the 2020 election arrives, the groundbreaking study will track the link between shifting political winds and public health.
“We will have data to show you what people’s experiences were like before the upcoming election, during it and after it,” Puckett said.
After three years as an assistant professor at the University of South Dakota, Puckett fled to MSU two years ago.
“It was very hard to live in South Dakota, as a trans person, and as a queer person,” Puckett said. “It’s very isolated, and there aren’t a lot of supports. Every year there was a piece of legislation targeting the trans population in some way.”
Puckett has taken on many roles at MSU, including teaching a class of 300 students, supervising a sexual and gender minority clinic with low-cost services and working with the Queering Medicine project to make information more accessible to the LGBTQ community.
Puckett is determined to right some historic wrongs.
“The field of psychology has a very negative history when it comes to LGBTQ people, a history of stigmatizing and pathologizing,” Puckett said. There are still clinical psychiatrists who try to “repair” or “cure” LGBTQ people, “which is very harmful,” Puckett said.
“If you can’t even go to the doctor without being discriminated against, that has implications for your health,” Puckett said. “We need to do some critical self-reflection.”
Nicholas (“Nick”) Royal
About 10 years ago, Nicholas Royal came out to his father. They had some long and difficult conversations.
Flash forward to late 2019, when Royal got a nudge from his supervisor at MSU’s Office for Institutional Equity. A youth detention center in Eaton County was looking for someone to train the staff on how to interact with queer and trans residents, and Royal had already done similar training at MSU.
“How often do we get a youth facility in rural Michigan wanting to make sure they’re doing well for their trans students?” Royal said. “It’s the first time I’ve experienced it.”
Royal found that Juvenile Division director Amanda Pollard and her staff were keenly receptive to his message.
“It was wonderful for me on so many levels,” Royal said. “They were ready to learn and we were ready to teach them.”
“Nick has opened eyes, educated minds and brought real change to our corner of the world,” Pollard said.
It gets better.
Joe Royal, a career law enforcement officer, is the probation supervisor for the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor —and Nick’s father.
His son had spent years working with queer and trans youth. Royal senior had decades of experience with youth detention facilities. It was only logical for father and son to work together on the training program.
“I think about coming out to my dad 10 years ago, and the worry that comes with that, and the conversations we’ve had since then,” Royal said. “I really got to see it come to fruition.”
Royal proudly watched his father dive into research with colleagues in the justice system on how best to serve trans and queer youth.
“He’s talking about the intersection of sexual identity and gender identity and race in a way he wouldn’t have 10 years ago,” Royal said.
These days, Royal bears the formidable title of civil rights investigator at MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity.
“I feel like I have to soften it, calling on the phone,” he said. “Hey, I’m with OIE, I just want to talk.”
He looks into claims of stalking, dating violence, sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment, discrimination based on membership in classes protected by Title VII and MSU, “which at Michigan State, post-Larry Nassar, is interesting work,” he said.
Mauricio (“Jimmy”) Franco
Mauricio “Jimmy” Franco is a leader in a 2-year-old group called Queering Medicine, a grassroots coalition aimed at helping LGBTQ people take their health care into their own hands.
Franco, a fourth-year medical student at MSU, wants ordinary LGBTQ people to have access to the latest scientific research and health practices.
Compiling a directory of LGBTQ-friendly providers is a small part of that work. Queering Medicine already has ties that extend all over the county, from MSU’s College of Human Medicine to the Salus Center and the Ingham County Health Department.
Through the Ingham County Health Department’s Ryan White Program, Queering Medicine collected masks, disinfecting supplies and other hard-to-get items to pass on to immune-compromised people in the LGBT community.
He’s also a part of Queering Medicine’s “Mythbusters” group, digesting a week’s worth of COVID-19 information — a daunting task in itself — and boiling it down to essentials.
“It was really important for us to lean in to the pandemic and figure out a way to leverage our access to information,” he said. “What is the virus actually doing? What do you need to do to keep someone safe? What do these terms actually mean?”
When he’s not studying or taking on some new task for Queering Medicine, he takes a minute or two to count his blessings.
“I’m a queer, Latinx person from Los Angeles with a large family that has supported me along the way,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, I’m quite lucky to be able to say that my biggest challenge is adapting to changes in medical school during the pandemic.”
It helps that his house is within walking distance of Sparrow Hospital.
“My walk home from the hospital allows me to kind of digest the day and the patients that I saw,” he said. A garden and a dog named Gizmo help him wind down.
“I try to spend as much time as I can with my husband,” he said. This year, Franco plans to apply for a residency in pediatrics and infectious diseases at Sparrow.
“We’re fortunate to be able to live in Lansing and to have a community,” he said. “It’s been nice, coming from out of state, creating roots here and meeting so many wonderful people.”
Hair is a very personal thing. You can bet there were tears — carefully dabbed away before they contaminated any hard surface — when owner Beth Sanford reopened Rubies Paradise Salon, 2316 E. Michigan Ave., after three months of lockdown because of the coronavirus.
It’s not the first time Sanford has felt like the practitioner of a potent, liberating ritual. The current surge in haircut lust reminds her of 2016.
“After Trump was elected, everybody wanted an emotional haircut, because they couldn’t control anything in their lives but they could control their hair,” she said. “It’s almost like a primal urge.”
For 15 years, Sanford’s salon has held aloft the rainbow flag of East Side diversity.
“We have men, women, nonbinary, transgender, young people, old people, people of color, kids,” she said.
Sanford’s staff excels at affirming their boldest choices.
“People think there are women cuts and men cuts, and there are not,” Sanford said. “People come in, and hem and haw — ‘I want a man’s haircut.’ No, it’s just a haircut.”
Sanford grew up in Alpena and came to Lansing in the early 2000s. Paradise Salon was around for about a year when she took it over and renamed it after her baby daughter, Rubie. Before long, the salon began to generate a very particular vibe, warm and kind yet fiercely protective. Everyone who works at Rubie’s and much of the clientele are a part of the LGBTQ community.
“We didn’t choose to run a woman-owned, queer business,” she said. “That’s just what it is, and the community embraces it because that’s what they all are too. They don’t get questioned, they’re welcomed warmly and they’re not getting the side-eye.”
Sanford once shaved the head of a client who was about to go into chemotherapy and wanted to take control of the experience. The woman showed up just as Sanford was closing up shop, but she stayed open, shaved her head and didn’t charge her for it.
Sanford has been able to pay the bills and keep the business alive during lockdown, but she knew she couldn’t pay for all of the cleaning supplies, ultraviolet sterilizers, masks and other paraphernalia needed to reopen the salon.
Reluctantly, she launched a GoFundMe campaign. The response was so swift and enthusiastic the goal was met within a few hours.
“The kindness has really come through during this whole ordeal,” she said.
Jennifer Briere’s advocacy for the mental health of the LGBTQ community has gone hand in hand with her own personal evolution.
Briere is coordinator of Adult Mental Health Services at the Community Mental Health Authority of Clinton, Eaton and Ingham Counties. She has worked at CMH for 23 years and been an active mainstay of its Diversity Advisory Council for almost as long.
She also has a private practice in therapy and serves on the Mental Health Advisory Committee for the East Lansing school district.
“I really love social work,” she said.
She was born and raised in metro Detroit, “in a pretty conservative Baptist family.” She went to Calvin College, at her parents’ urging, but quit after a year.
“It was just not aligning with who I wanted to be as a person,” she said.
The light went on for her in senior year, when she went on an alternative spring break and worked at a facility for men with mental illness and substance abuse issues.
“I don’t know what it was about that, but I was working on the street and I really connected with those guys,” she said. “I knew immediately that this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
After graduating from Western, she worked in group homes for people with mental illness in Kalamazoo. Shortly after moving to Lansing, she joined Community Mental Health.
Briere experienced another phase of personal growth when she helped several graduate students start the weekly Open Minds support group.
“We weren’t telling them how run it,” Briere said. “They were organically creating the group themselves.”
When grad students were no longer available, Briere ran the sessions herself. Open Minds sponsored a table at Pride Week, not just to promote CMH’s services, but also to spread the word about diversity in employment and hiring practices and information on foster parenting programs for same-sex couples.
Leading the group is one of the most rewarding experiences she’s had at CMH.
“I just have a heart for it,” she said. Along the way, she evolved from identifying herself as an ally when the group started to “identifying as a member the community.”
“I’ve been open about that, and that’s important, that they see people who are willing to identify with them and stand up for them. It’s just been a meaningful piece of my work.”
All profiles were written by Lawrence Cosentino