Detroit suburb weds gay couples, becomes thriving gay town
Driving past mom-and-pop businesses along an American flag-lined boulevard, a first-time visitor might not see much to distinguish this Detroit suburb from any small Midwestern town. But look around--at the rainbow stickers on shop doors, a church sign exhorting people to "celebrate pride," the "Hate-Free Zone" advertised from a basement window--and it's not hard to see why it is in Ferndale that some 15 Michigan couples are joining the legions of gay newlyweds on Saturday.
In just two short decades, Ferndale has gone from being a struggling, half-forgotten working-class town to a vibrant, hip city and a center for metropolitan Detroit's gay community. Mayor Robert Porter and the Reverend Mark Bidwell, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church, will perform the marriage ceremonies outside City Hall on Saturday. However, no marriage licenses will be issued because only the county can issue them. Oakland County has previously rebuffed same-sex couples who sought marriage licenses.
"We want to make sure others see that we're not freaks of nature, we're just normal," said Northville resident Kelly Rogers, 38, who will marry her partner, Melody, in Saturday's symbolic ceremony. "We pay taxes. We have a daughter. We do the whole soccer mom thing." Porter's participation in the weddings, which are part of the Motor City Pride festival, is the latest sign of how this city of 22,000 has gone out of its way to welcome gays and lesbians. "I believe in the right of someone who loves someone to make a commitment to that person," Porter said.
"Marriage in this country unfortunately fails 60% of time," he added. "When that happens, people have the aid of law and the courts and so forth to make sure someone isn't mistreated. The gay community doesn't have that."
Ferndale got its reputation as a gay mecca after people in Detroit's Palmer Park neighborhood, once considered the anchor of southeast Michigan's gay community, started moving out to avoid crime and poor city services in the mid 1980s, said Craig Covey, Ferndale's mayor pro tem and the director of
the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project. Former residents scattered throughout the area, but a handful of
people--including Covey--were drawn to the old, inexpensive homes of Ferndale. "Ferndale was a blank canvas," he said. "Downtown was empty."
Today, Nine Mile Road is full of restaurants, bars and bookstores, many of them gay-owned. Soon after Covey arrived, Ferndale's small gay population began organizing, he said, and by the early 1990s, the Affirmations community center and the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church had taken up residence in town. Some longtime residents of the blue-collar town were wary. "People were a little afraid--apprehensive--at first," said Jackie Leggio, a waitress at Como's, an Italian restaurant and Ferndale fixture. Now that fear is gone, she said.
"Straight customers and gay customers have become the best of friends," agreed owner Sicilia Grego, who opened Como's with her husband 43 years ago. The restaurant is a sponsor of this weekend's festival and is hosting several of the events. Grego credits the gay population for Ferndale's revival and the sharp rise of property values. "They're meticulous," she said of Ferndale's gay residents. "They
take pride in their houses."
Bidwell, the minister, concedes that not all his Ferndale neighbors welcomed him and his partner with open arms. But, he says, the couple's presence has helped to change attitudes. "They have seen me take my garbage out every Thursday night for 13 years," he said. "They have seen that I am just like every other person that they know."
In recent years, Ferndale's leaders have actively fostered the town's reputation as a gay-friendly place, said Jeffrey Montgomery, executive director of the Triangle Foundation. The Detroit-based advocacy group, which has been producing Motor City Pride for the past four years, has found an eager host in the town, he said. Still, southeast Michigan's gay populace remains very spread out, and it would be wrong to think of Ferndale as the region's sole gay center, Montgomery said.
He said gays in Michigan have always been relatively scattered, in part because they were historically more closeted than elsewhere in the country. "A lot of the gay people weren't comfortable living in something known as a gay neighborhood," Montgomery said. Today, there are strong pockets of gay life around the region, he said. "If one were to say, 'Ferndale sure is the big gay capital of Michigan,' you would immediately hear from gay people that live in Mount Clemens or Birmingham or Brighton or Saline or any number of places," Montgomery said.