Old Town Lansing Times Staff Reporter
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community has been a big part of Old Town’s rich history and the acceptance of it is a big reason why those within the neighborhood and visitors feel a close-knit, family-like bond.
Acceptance is in Old Town’s fabric.
The tolerance for those that identify as LGBT can be seen as a symbol of the openness Old Town has for people of all colors, backgrounds, gender, sexual orientation, and beliefs. Maintaining the ability to express yourself and feeling welcome at all times is a huge part of the Old Town fabric.
General Manager of Spiral Dance Bar, Sam Courtney, says it’s important for Old Town businesses to promote a welcoming and a tolerant message.
“I’ve been involved with the LGBT community my whole life,” said Courtney. “Whether it’s fundraisers or marches or events, supporting a safe place to be out and be yourself or brining issues to focus around the LGBT community” has been important.
Being accepting of different is what makes Old Town who they are according to Courtney. Naturally those that embrace different will gravitate towards it.
“Old Town has always been funky, cool, cutting edge. It’s for someone that wants to try something a little different, and that’s what it’s always wanted to be,” said the general manager of the gay bar. “In the LGBT community there is art, expression, and self-expression and being yourself has always been an important thing for people in that community.”
Executive Director of the Old Town Commercial Association, Austin Ashley, has always known Old Town to be an accepting community.
“Old Town has always been a very open and welcoming community for anyone of any lifestyle, of any shape, size, color, preference you name it, you’re welcome here in Old Town if you’re willing to be apart of the family and work together with everyone else,” said Ashley.
Greg Rokisky has been involved with Old Town for two years now and admires the warm community feel of it. That feeling comes from the leaders of the community being very open minded.
“They’re (Old Town) very open and equality focused. From LGBT rights to gender equality. That comes from the people who sit on the [OTCA] board and embody Old Town,” said Rokisky. “I can’t think of a shop in Old Town that isn’t focused on being a welcoming community. You can’t be welcoming and creative without accepting and being open to all spectrums of people.”
Historian on gender and sexuality, Naoko Wake, is already seeing the long transformation process of accepting those that are LGBT through students at Michigan State University. She says students are showing they want to learn about something they might not have encountered until coming to a university.
“I’m seeing an increasing number of students wanting to take LGBT courses. Even with the two sections of the course we still can’t take in all the students that want to take the course,” said the associate professor at MSU. “I think this reflects and speaks well for increasing community acceptance for the LGBTQ members.”
Kirk Montgomery of Channel 10 news, says he has always felt comfortable in Old Town. He points to the fact that Zoobies Old Town Tavern was voted the second best gay bar by City Pulse and it isn’t even technically a gay bar. It shows the great lengths these businesses go to make people from all backgrounds feel welcome.
“After living in Denver for 15 years I made it a point to move back to Old Town. But it wasn’t even a gay thing, I just liked the vibe in general,” said Montgomery. “Whether you’re gay or not there is a neighborly connection. I think everyone is welcome there.”
Montgomery, although impressed with Old Town’s tolerance, feels it shouldn’t be listed as any kind of community whether that be LGBT or Art, Old Town is it’s own different breed.
“I’d think Old Town would want to be known for welcoming everybody. Not being labeled as a gay community,” Montgomery continuing. “I think anytime you put any kind of label on a neighborhood, even if your intentions are good, it can still maybe turnoff some people. I just think everybody feels welcome there.”
Professor Wake agrees with Montgomery in that there is no need to put a label on someone or a community because of their sexuality. One should label a community based off the different things it has to offer.
“For us to make a judgement about community members because they identify as LGBTQ is wrong,” said Wake. “When we as a society get over our biases, we don’t even have to say this is a LGBTQ community.”
History behind the tolerant community
Todd Heywood, a reporter from City Pulse, pointed out that the renaissance of Old Town was founded on being tolerant and there was a point made to get members of the LGBT community into Old Town. The first business in Old Town was actually a gay book store called The Real World Emporium.
“Robert Busby was the unofficial mayor of Old Town. In the 90s he started buying buildings and tried to bring the community back,” said Heywood giving a brief history lesson on Old Town. “He invited The Real World Emporium to open there as a way to say I want this to be an artist community. And that’s how Old Town got that attachment to the LGBT community. He invited the LGBT community in and said ‘let’s make a safe space here.'”
Courtney also spoke on how Old Town was once run down and unsafe but began a revitalization in the 90s built around being different.
“A lot of up-and-coming LGBT entrepreneurs and business people clustered around the area and together made investments into Old Town,” said Courtney who has been around the LGBT community since his mom came out to him when he was four. “The word went out in Lansing that Old Town was going to be the new area where everyone was going to try to move in and bring art and culture as well as make it a creative community. They wanted to create that safe area.”
“Old Town embraced the building of this artsy, funky place. There was a support system early. Business owners have continued to build on that history.” said Courtney.
How Old Town compares to Lansing in openness
Many see Lansing as always being a very tolerant city, Old Town exemplifies the direction Lansing has been moving in for many years.
“Overall Lansing is very tolerant and welcoming,” said Ashley. “It’s a good mid-western town that has that friendly mid-western spirit. I think Old Town is at the forefront of it, but not by much.”
Rokisky also agrees that Old Town is the one taking the first step to make Lansing an accepting area overall.
“Old Town is the first one that I see around Lansing to provide that open arms welcome to anyone that might feel discriminated against,” said Rokisky.
Wake went on to say that Lansing has always had a level of openness to it.
“Lansing has a long history of being open and accepting of LGBTQ community members. There are lesbian organizations (in Lansing) that existed as one of the earliest such communities across the country,” said the Excellence in Diversity Award winner. “There are a lot of gay friendly neighborhoods.”
According to Heywood, getting exact numbers from a census on how many people identify as LGBT in Old Town or even Ingham County isn’t accurate because 1. The Census didn’t even start asking about same sex couples until 2010 and 2. even then many would not identify themselves. But he say’s one does not need numbers to know that Old Town is very active in terms of being LGBT friendly.
“The numbers don’t reveal the deeper story,” said Heywood. “The deeper story is that this was a culture deliberately created and now it’s reaping dividends.”
Courtney shared a short, but powerful quote that really displays how far Lansing and Old Town has come in terms of accepting those in the LGBT community.
“It used to be the gay mailman, now it’s the mailman that’s gay.”
The focus needs to be on the qualities of these people not what they identify as. Old Town has done a wonderful job of making sure that is the way society is moving towards
“We need encourage people to see that this is the direction we are going,” said Wake