Ferndale Mayor Speaks at U of M Dearborn
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Members of the University of Michigan Dearborn Gay Straight Alliance wanted to know everything they could about Craig Covey’s experience as the first openly gay Mayor in Michigan. That’s why they invited him to speak at their Oct. 7, 2010 meeting.
The U of M GSA has been around campus for about 15 years, and got their own office two years ago. “It’s really a chance for students to feel comfortable and get together with others. We do picnics, a social night each Tuesday, and AIDS testing nearly every semester,” said GSA faculty adviser Linda Rapp. The group also watches films and hears from speakers such as local historian Tim Retzloff and Provost/author Kate Davy.
Covey was excited to be invited to speak to the group. He’s often invited to share his journey as a gay politician with various audiences, but speaking to students is a personal favorite. “I’m getting older and there is still a lot of change that can happen in the world, and here in Detroit. You young people are the ones who are going to pick up the ball and run with it. Your generation is going to make a lot of change; it’s up to you what that change will be. How will you make the community stronger? And how will you make it fun?”
“I began my career just like you,” Covey said. “I came out my senior year of high school. I couldn’t wait to get out of a small town – Canton, Ohio, to go to a big college in Columbus. The first thing I did when my father dropped me off the first thing I did was called the GAA – The Gay Activist Alliance, which was a group similar to this one, but back then the word ‘activist’ was used a lot more. The second year I was Vice President. The third year I was President. This is a great place to get your start if you want to do this kind of work. Any one of you can be a Mayor. Or even a County Commissioner, senator, governor or maybe even President.”
He enjoyed college life at Ohio State, but in 1981 went back out into the world disappointed. “After college there were no LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) groups to get involved with. There was a bar, and a group of us that socialized, but there was no organized movement.
‘That was a time where Jerry Falwell had come to Ohio to start a Moral Majority group. We got about 200 people to come and protest. A news station came out and was doing a story about the Moral Majority. The story really favored the Moral Majority and there were about a dozen of us in a house watching this and getting mad. So we started calling the station and complaining. Mind you it was before caller id. So we called them over and over until they finally took a look at their coverage, and the next day they did a positive story about the gay community and all the calls they received.”
After that Covey was hooked on social leadership. He was one of the founders of the first Gay Pride parade in Ohio, and helped to form a strong gay community.
“I remember I was in my early 20s and I went to a City Council meeting where someone stood up and said ‘What do you want to do, turn this into San Francisco?’ And I said yes. It was déjà vu years later standing before the City Council in Ferndale trying to pass a human rights ordinance and someone stood up and said the exact same thing. ‘Do you want to turn this into San Francisco?’ Hell yeah, it’s a nice place.”
In the mid-80s Columbus had the only Pride parade in the region and buses came down from Michigan to Ohio. “They kept trying to entice me to come up to Michigan and do what I had done in Ohio. But why would I want to leave the town I helped build up? I came up for a visit and they took me to big giant dance club called Backstreet. It was full of hundreds of cute boys, nothing like the little clubs in Ohio. I was amazed and I said – okay, I’ll take it.”
Covey moved to Detroit to be the Director of Michigan Organization for Human Rights. He settled in Palmer Park, an area where some of the LGBT community had started to buy homes. “It wasn’t all that pleasant and I lived there for about three years before I wanted to move back home to Ohio,” he said. “But then suddenly I started loosing friends. People I knew were dying left and right and I knew I had to do something. In the late 80s I formed the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project.”
For over twenty years Covey and countless of friends and volunteers organized and fought the spread of AIDS. His organization grew into the largest AIDS prevention agency in Michigan, and in 2009 they merged with Michigan AIDS Fund to form MAC (Michigan AIDS Coalition).
Simultaneously Covey built his political career. “In 1985 I moved to Ferndale when it was a dead little town,” he said. “There were a handful of gays and lesbians and I just had this inkling that Ferndale had the potential to be cool. My thought was that is there isn’t a gay center in Detroit, then I’ll create one. And that’s what we did. We tried to pass a human rights ordinance and that failed.
‘That’s when I decided to run for City Council,” he said. “There were five candidates for two offices and I came in dead last. That’s because even though I had done a lot, I wasn’t well known outside the gay community. So I got more involved. I got involved in everything I could so that I could really understand the different parts of what makes Ferndale Ferndale. I joined the Elks, talked to the Seniors, went to school functions, joined various committees, etc, etc, and when I ran again in ‘99 I won.”
Covey spoke about the importance of LGBT people being out and active in their physical communities and not just the gay community. Not only did being involved help him get to know the concerns of others in the city, it showed him how easy it is to change most people’s minds about their misconceptions of gay people.
From 2000 – 2008, Covey served as a Councilperson, and in 2009 he became the first openly gay elected Mayor in the State of Michigan. In his time on council, Ferndale passed the Human Rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, began performing gay commitment ceremonies on the front lawn of City Hall, and grew into a City where dance clubs rule the weekend nightlife and LGBT organizations and businesses have flourished.
Now Covey is now hoping to take his leadership skills and experience to the County level, by running for County Commissioner for the 25th District, representing Hazel Park, Ferndale and the south end of Royal Oak. He is running against Republican Richard Parisi of Hazel Park.
Although the GSA talk emphasized his involvement in the LGBT community, Covey says that good government comes from all people working together to better their neighborhoods and support each other. “We’ve made changes in a lot of areas of Ferndale,” he said. “We’ve made it a walkable, green community that people can be proud of. We’ve revitalized our Downtown and made it vibrant. And we’ve changed City government so it can be more accessible to all. Through his work at MAPP and MAC, Covey was able to help start two large events – The Ferndale Blues Festival and the Ferndale Pub Crawl – to help raise money for several local charities.
‘You can’t just be a one-issue candidate if you want to create change.”
Within the gay community, however, there are still problems to be solved. “The bottom line is in 30 years I’ve seen this huge evolution in the gay community. It’s so different than it was back then. Don’t ask, don’t tell will be gone in a few years. Gay marriage is happening state by state. The biggest enemy we face is ourselves. When we let people get bullied or commit suicide, we’re not doing our part. We need to reach out to people who are afraid. It’s fun to be campy and fun to dish, but when it comes down to it we need to support each other.”
Anthony Wagner of Dearborn was among the U of M Dearborn GSA members who listened to Covey speak. “It made me want to be more involved than I already want to be. It’s exciting,” he said. “I love hearing about other people’s experiences, and knowing what the possibilities are.”
For more information on the U of M Dearborn GSA, go to http://gsa.umd.umich.edu/index.php?p=updates. For more information about Craig Covey’s campaign for County Commissioner, go to http://www.coveyforoakland.com/about.htm.