'We stand tall': Michiganians march again at Motor City Pride following hiatus
Detroit — For more than a year, Arleta Greer was not able to perform the most important part of her job, the one described in large block letters on her T-shirt: give a warm hug to young LGBTQ folks who may not be able to get one from their family.
This year, when in-person Pride parades gradually spilled back onto streets in the United States and abroad following a mostly virtual presence in 2020, Greer made it her mission to give out as many hugs as she could.
Motor City Pride 2021 was no different. The parade, customarily held during Pride Month in June but delayed because of the pandemic, kicked off Sunday at noon with a brief message from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Joined by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II.
Whitmer expressed her support for Michigan's LGBTQ community and cheered them on ahead of the march.
"If anyone thinks the last two years have worn us down, they are sadly mistaken," said Whitmer. "We stand true, we stand tall, and we are going to continue working together."
Greer, the state chair of the Michigan Branch of Free Mom Hugs and the mother of two LGBTQ children, joined thousands of people in downtown Detroit to march, sing, dance and embrace one another, the parade itself and during the ensuing festival with live music, drag shows, and food and drinks. Folks showed off their pride outfits with myriad colors to represent the many gender and sexual identities celebrated at the event.
"I could be a lot more nervous about (COVID)," said Greer. "I have my mask, but I don't wear it because I want people to be able to see my face. I want you to be able to see that I'm excited and delighted and I want to hug you!"
Free Mom Hugs, a nonprofit founded in Oklahoma in 2014, hopes to bring together parents and allies across the country and add their voices to the movement for LGBTQ acceptance.
"Our mission is to be visible, to celebrate the community," said Greer of the organization, which now has branches in all 50 states as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. "(We want to) give love and support, to educate and to show unconditional acceptance."
The 55-year-old Ypsilanti resident is also an elder in her local Presbyterian Church, and uses some of her Free Mom Hugs resources to hold educational meetings to inform the churchgoers of LGTBQ issues and create a space for them to ask questions.
During the pandemic, the group added care packages in the mail and pride drives to their regular programming to comply with COVID safety measures including social distancing, but Greer said those could not replace the real thing.
What did the first hug she gave in June feel like after a year of isolation?
"It was incredible, I just didn't want to let her go," she said. "And I guess I haven't."
Greer was talking about Lavinia "Vinnie" Hangu, 21, whom she considers her "adoptive daughter." They met in Ypsilanti, where they live 10 minutes apart from each other, this summer, and have since become inseparable.
Hangu came out as a lesbian in April, and said Greer helped pave her way to self-acceptance. Pride events such as Sunday's parade in Detroit also help her, she said.
"(At Pride) I really have all this love and just wear a smile on my face. I can be my authentic self and just see everybody accepting me for who I am," said Hangu, adding that based on her experience at her first Motor City Pride, she plans to be return every year that she can.
Hangu is not alone in feeling that love and acceptance on Sunday. Sandy Alice Hass, 63, came out as a transgender woman in her 50s, and has since embarked on a crusade to spread love at Pride her own way: Hello Kitty.
That is, by having people draw kittens and sign their names on her plain white shirt while she proselytizes self-love to them, just like she does to her 85,000 followers on TikTok, where she goes by the name dandeliongirl1957.
"Do you know why people all over the country have drawn on my shirt?" asked Hass. "Because there's too much hate and fear in the world, and the only way to fight it is to spread love, and I spread Hello Kitty crazy love."
Over the years since her coming out, Hass has attended LGBTQ events all over the country, and said she had 38 shirts with over 4,000 drawings of kittens on them, 4,000 people with whom she spoke.
"See, my message is not just to LGBTQ (folks)," she continued. "My message is for every human being on the planet. If you do this one simple thing, you will have a great life: Give yourself love and thrive like a dandelion. Choose love every day. If we all did this, the world would be beautiful."