First-ever gay exhibition at Detroit Historical Museum

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
Women who took part in the first-ever Detroit gay-pride march 47 years ago, "Christopher Street '72."

Here's a sign of changing times: The venerable Detroit Historical Museum has mounted its first-ever gay exhibition, "Invisible No Longer: LGBTQ+ Detroit," which will be up through Sept. 30.

This small but intriguing show documents local response to the June 28,1969 Stonewall uprising, the mythic rebellion when homosexuals and drag queens after a raid on the bar of the same name held the New York City police at bay for two days of violent unrest. 

"The show is a glimpse into rich LGBTQ history in Detroit that's often overlooked," said Tim Retzloff, a professor of history and LGBTQ studies at Michigan State University who was one of a number of people who helped with the exhibit.

"Many," he added, "don't even realize Detroit had this history."

Curatorial Assistant Billy Wall-Winkel, who's getting his master's in public history at Wayne State University, said the museum's response was enthusiastic to his proposal that they ought to do something to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall.

"The only worry was how late the idea came about," he said. "It was the end of January, and we usually like to give ourselves more lead-in time, particuarly when working with partners. We're lucky everything worked out."

Other contributors to the exhibition included staff at the newspaper Between the Lines, LGBT Detroit, and the Ruth Ellis Center for runaway, homeless and at-risk queer youth. 

Retzloff, who's been documenting local gay history for 30 years, said there was more gay life in Detroit in the late 1960s than most people would imagine, including a flourishing gay-bar scene.

"Even in the African-American community," he said, "there were house parties and a rich tradition of drag."

"Invisible No Longer" consists of about 30 photographs, as well as historical artifacts. Among the latter, said Wall-Winkel, was a t-shirt worn by a woman in Detroit's first gay-pride march, "Christopher Street '72," named for the street that's long been the heart of Manhattan's gay subculture. 

The shirt, he added, challenges "the longstanding myth that only men were at the march. It reads 'Come out,' with a butterfly shaped like a fist."

Stonewall had ripple effects across the country, not least in Michigan, where both Ann Arbor and East Lansing passed protections based on sexual orientation in 1973, and said Retzloff, Detroit voters "approved a city charter with similar protections."

Including that sort of language in what amounts to the city's constitution was, he noted, "ground-breaking, and made Detroit the first of America's largest-25 cities to have anything like that."   

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'Invisible No Longer: LBGTQ+ Detroit'

Through Sept. 30

Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward, Detroit 


9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Fri; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

(313) 833-1805