Kalamazoo has a cool name and an even cooler downtown, with beautiful glass museum buildings, churches, a park, theaters. We were surprised. The GLBT youth group in town meets inside one of the big churches. We were invited to interview people there and were surprised by the happiness of the crowd.
By now, we’ve been all over Michigan. In many ways, Michigan is a neat microcosm of America. A pivotal state. You wonder if the people that control our destinies will listen to the things the people from Michigan have to say:
YGA: So tell us where you’re from…
BRAD: I’m from Watervliet, around 40 minutes East.
YGA: You drive yourself or parents drive you?
BRAD: I drive. I’ve been coming to group for about 3 weeks.
YGA: Are you out at home?
BRAD: Pretty much.
YGA: How’s that been?
BRAD: Not too bad. I haven’t been creamed yet like I thought I would be. I thought once one person knew it would spread like wildfire and I’d be pretty much the object of a… affliction. But that hasn’t happened yet.
KEVIN: I’m from Watervliet too. I’m not necessarily out. I just told a few of my friends, who wound up telling other people, and the word did spread quite a bit. I got a lot of hostility against me. A lot of it was from people who didn’t like me anyway, cuz I didn’t fit into their conformist lifestyle of drugs and drinking and beating people up for fun.
BRAD: Everything is very stereotypical there. Really small-town mentality. “All-hail the football players!” and what have ya.
YGA: What are the schools like?
BRAD: No support. I recently started talking with my school counselor, making preparations. Making sure the school board wouldn’t just stand by and let anything anti-gay happen at the school.
YGA: That’s a wise thing to do. Are you the only person out in the school?
BRAD: To my knowledge.
KEVIN: Everything outside of what’s considered normal there is looked down upon. Even if it’s good. Intellectual superiority, for example.
BRAD: If you’re smart you’re ostracized.
ANGELA: What kind of place is this? Pleasantville? I’m from here, Kalamazoo. I grew up here. People are a little more open-minded accepting of people here. When I moved away and came back for senior year, everyone was like “hey whatdya know, she’s a lesbian!” They were all OK. No one ever really picked on me. I had a whole bunch of friends and my senior year was breeze.
YGA: Do you have a lot of gay friends in Kalamazoo?
ANGELA: Tons. I have a big gang of girls that I hang out with.
YGA: What sorts of resources did you guys turn to when dealing with coming out, particularly if you’re from some of the smaller, more conservative, towns?
BRAD: I used the internet before I was able to come to group.
YGA: What sites?
BRAD: I’d just go into random chat rooms anonymously. I found out a lot. I used it as a way to make myself feel not so odd.
ANGELA: Me too.
YGA: Did you find answers?
BRAD: It made me feel more human. I met some really weird people too.
ANGELA: I met a couple over the internet from Puerto Rico, from an ad I put on PlanetOut. We talk and hang out online a lot. They wanted to know about gay bars in town; they have a baby together. They’re really cute. I guess what I’m trying to say is despite what people think, not everyone online is 40-year-old skanky men.
ERIC (under his breath): We met on the internet.
YGA: What was that?
ERIC: Heath and I met on the internet.
HEATH: It’s a long story.
ERIC: We knew each other on the internet and we didn’t hit it off very well.
HEATH: Because he saw my picture and I’m not photogenic at all, so it looked like I was 350-pounds plus. He was like “seeya.”
YGA: Is that right?
ERIC: Pretty much. See ya later, dude.
HEATH: Hi. Click. Signed off.
YGA: So when did you actually meet in person?
HEATH: Four weeks ago. After a year had gone by.
HEATH: At the Outspoken gay group on Western’s campus.
YGA: And now you’re dating?
YGA: Savannah, where are you from?
SAVANNAH: I’m from Kalamazoo.
YGA: You grew up here?
SAVANNAH: Mmm-hmmm. This is my second week coming to group.
YGA: What do you think so far?
SAVANNAH: It’s OK. To my knowledge.
YGA: Has the group been a help for you?
SAVANNAH: I call this my escape. I can’t talk to my family at all.
YGA: You’re not out to them?
SAVANNAH: Yea I’m out but they don’t believe me. They’ll tell all their friends that I’m gay but they won’t admit it to themselves. They’ll go around the house saying things like “I can’t stand gay people, they make me sick.” We fight about it all the time. I can recall times they’ve made me cry. I’m over that now, though. As long as I know who I am I’m going to be OK.
YGA: John, what about you? Where are you from?
JOHN: From a place called Marshall. It’s pretty quiet actually. Since I came out, it was like a week of rumors and they died down right away. Now I’m kinda like every str8 man’s Dear Abby. Every guy in Marshall has relationship problems with their girlfriends and they come to me. I’m like “yea Craig, maybe you should spend some more time with Hazel.” I’m everyone’s psychotherapist. I’ve only ever experienced one bad thing. This hard-core farmer screamed “Faggot!” and I said “That’s not what you said last night sheep-fucker!” His girlfriend was in the car and she got really embarrassed.
YGA: How did he know you were gay?
JOHN: I’m probably the only person in Marshall who has a rainbow steering-wheel cover.
YGA: Do any of you have role models you want to talk about?
BRAD: My cousin. He’s also gay. He’s the one who, when my mom threw me out of the closet, helped me find my legs again and reorient myself with the world.
CHRIS: My best friend Lacey, even though she’s younger than I am. We’re like brother and sister.
CRYSTAL: I like having my best friend be gay. He’s the only one I can take a compliment from without worrying about him trying to get into my pants.
BRAD: There’s less sexual tension.
YGA: Do you have any questions for us?
UTE: I do. Are you finding that people are coming out younger and younger? When I came out a few years ago and went to a gay youth group, most of the people were 20 or 21. Now there are a lot of kids who are 14 or 15 who come to group here, wearing gay jewelry, the whole deal.
YGA: Yea. It’s really awesome. We’ve met out kids who are 12 or 13 years old.
BRAD: Everyone always says “it must be really hard when you’re young.” Parents always say “how can you be so sure you’re gay you’re only 14!” But the answer is, “how can you be so sure you’re straight?
ANGELA: They say “how do you know if you’ve never had sex with a guy before??!”
BRAD: I like my dad’s question when I came out: are you sure you’re not bi?
YGA: What’s one thing you really like about Kalamazoo?
BRAD: It has the biggest mall.
ANGELA: No way! It sucks! Are you kidding me!
BRAD: OK, but go to our mall. It’s some nasty ghetto-mall that’s been dying for thirty years.
HEATH: You have to understand, I grew up four hours north of here. My town is not even a town, it’s a village. Literally. 250 people live there. Anything that’s a step up from a bar and a gas station is exciting to me. This is a haven to me. Where I grew up, the nearest neighbor was four miles away. I couldn’t come out, it was impossible, so I decided I’d make everyone like me straight. I played varsity football. I was prom king. In the end, that kinda made it harder because I was like “these people are gonna freak if they really know.” Coming to Kalamazoo was something huge for me.
YGA: What’s the name of your village?
HEATH: Barryton. Right here (points to his town’s location on the Michigan hand…aka…his palm.)
YGA: Did you have the internet up there?
HEATH: Yes, but not till I was 16. We didn’t have a service at all until I was 16. It was called Rural Net.
YGA: Rural Net?
YGA: So you got Rural Net when you were 16?
HEATH: Yea, and the world changed. Big-time. You have no idea.
YGA: Does anybody want to talk about September 11th or the War on Terrorism?
BRAD: I was really worried that it’d end up becoming a witch-hunt. I hear a lot of people who don’t want “those people” in America (Arabs). “Just deport them all!” they say. They’re Americans too. To take that kind of ethnic cleansing step. It seems almost Nazi-ish.
YGA: When you saw those couple days of video footage of the planes crashing into the buildings, did it worry you?
BRAD: I was really worried because I just turned 18. The possibility of another World War. I was worried about them starting up a draft.
SAVANNAH: At first I was scared. That whole day I sat in front of the TV the whole day, thinking “is he gonna come here?” My cousin was like “he don’t got the balls to come here.” I’m like “if he got the balls to blow up the world trade center he got the balls to come here.” Every channel showing all that death. I’m still mourning for those people. It made me appreciate what life is really about. I’m here, they’re gone.
KEVIN: For me it seems so surreal. It really never took affect on me at first, but the more I thought about it I realized the Great Lakes are the country’s biggest freshwater supply, plus we’re surrounded by nuclear power plants. That’s scary. But—and I kinda feel sad to say this–I kinda enjoy the hysteria. I took pictures of people lined up at the gas station afraid the gas prices were going to skyrocket.
YGA: What about patriotism?
KEVIN: It seems kinda ridiculous to me. So many people wouldn’t have thought about it at all. Now just because of this they’re like “YEA Let’s support our country!” At the same time, there are all these scams popping up all over the place, like people posing as Red Cross people for instance.
BRAD: The irony is most of those people who say they’re patriotic would rather beat you with a baseball bat than stand together with you.
YGA: What do you think when you hear the phrase United We Stand?
BRAD: It’s not true. It should be more like Birds of a Feather Flock Together. Or United with People who are Like You.
KEVIN: I think a lot of the recent patriotism is people putting off a front because you don’t want to look like you don’t support the government. Everyone’s putting on a big façade. The façade will crumble.
UTE: I put a flag on my car. I’ve never been patriotic. I’ve always been glad to live here, but never patriotic. I guess it made me feel more like a coming together in tragedy. I was seeing a lot of good things happening between people. Seeing all that happened in NYC, watching people change, for me it was a change in perspective. Things always can get cheesy and out of hand, but I think all in all it’s good