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The untold story of the gay rights movement in Detroit

Wikimedia Commons

Every movement has its landmarks and history, and that holds true for the gay rights movement.

LGBT history has landmarks in New York, with The Stonewall Inn, Christopher Street, and the theater district.

San Francisco has the Castro and Market Districts, and the San Francisco City Hall where Harvey Milk was assassinated.

Chicago has the Old Town Triangle District and the home of early gay rights leader Henry Gerber.

But what about Detroit? LGBT historian Tim Retzloff says there is a rich history of Detroit’s gay community that has not been properly told.

Retzloff corrected that omission with the dissertation that earned his PhD from Yale: two volumes, 680 pages, taking an exhaustive look at gay life and history in Detroit and its suburbs from 1945 to 1985.

“Detroit had a different story than what you are finding in New York and San Francisco, or even the other cities that had been done,” Retzloff said.

Retzloff said the difference in Detroit’s gay history includes all of Metro Detroit – inner city and suburbs. Gay bars in the city get a lot of their clientele from those who live in the suburbs.

Detroit was home to many different gay advocacy organizations. The first organization lasted about 17 months, and produced one of the first gay generated newsletters.

The second organization was called One in Detroit.

“One in Detroit was kind of this organization that actually bridged Stonewall and Gay Liberation,” Retzloff said. “And they were the old fogies in the early 1970s.”

He added that it was in 1970 that the gay liberation movement started in Detroit and soon became the gay liberation front in part with Stonewall.

Retzloff said he chose the timeline of 1945-1985 for his dissertation because WWII is considered a major turning point in the gay subculture nationally. The end point for 1985 was chosen because the mid-1980s saw the end of the trend toward the suburbs in Detroit and the early impact of AIDS.