Free comic book tells the story of Michigan’s first LGBTQ Pride celebration held 50 years ago

50 years ago this month, members of Michigan’s LGBTQ + community gathered for Detroit’s first pride celebration.

A new free comic book tells the story of that event using oral histories and first-person accounts. Come Out! In Detroit is being distributed at Pride events, libraries and several queer-owned spaces throughout the state.

Michigan State University is hosting an exhibit through August about the making of the comic and other library holdings connected to early university LGBTQ + activists involved in planning the 1972 Pride event. There is a public discussion scheduled for June 21.

The comic was put together by historian and Michigan State University professor Tim Retzloff and Isabel Clare Paul, an illustrator. WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke to the pair about the comic and how it came to be.

Interview Highlights

Retzloff on where the idea for the project came from

I think the germ comes from my own research and, specifically, from my dissertation about Metro Detroit but also broader Michigan LGBTQ history. I think I first learned about it probably over 30 years ago from some of my earliest interviews. Some of which were from MSU alums. And so, I knew this anniversary was coming up, and so that was kind of the germ of coming up with the project.

Paul on why a comic book was the right medium to tell this story

We really wanted the story and the history to be accessible to all sorts of audiences, and everybody loves a comic book. And making sure that, you know, this history was recorded and kept, but, you know, the real people that were featured in the story kind of felt alive and youthful, and sort of, like, they actually got, you know, make it feels like you were actually there with them putting on the parade.

Retzloff on the significance of the 1972 Pride event in Detroit

Because there were not corporate sponsors at the time, this was all kind of a community, grassroots event that involved students at campuses around the state. And, you know, this had not been done before. So in some ways, although they might have heard about events that happened in New York and Chicago, they were inventing the wheel in a new way that we wanted to kind of bring to life as well.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: 50 years ago this month, members of Michigan’s LGBTQ + community gathered for Detroit’s first pride celebration.

A new free comic book tells the story of that event using oral histories and first-person accounts.

It’s called Come Out! In Detroit, and it was put together by historian and Michigan State University professor Tim Retzloff and Isabel Clare Paul, an illustrator. They both join me now. Thank you for being here, Tim.

Tim Retzloff: Thank you. Good to be with you, Sophia.

Saliby: And thank you, Isabel.

Isabel Clare Paul: Yeah, thank you.

Saliby: Tim, I’ll start with you. Where did the idea for this project come from?

Retzloff: Well, I think the germ comes from my own research and, specifically, from my dissertation about Metro Detroit but also broader Michigan LGBTQ history. I think I first learned about it probably over 30 years ago from some of my earliest interviews. Some of which were from MSU alums.

And so, I knew this anniversary was coming up, and so that was kind of the germ of coming up with the project.

Saliby: And Isabel, why do you think a comic book was the right way to tell this story?

We really wanted the story and the history to be accessible to all sorts of audiences, and everybody loves a comic book.

Isabel Clare Paul

Paul: We really wanted the story and the history to be accessible to all sorts of audiences, and everybody loves a comic book. And making sure that, you know, this history was recorded and kept, but, you know, the real people that were featured in the story kind of felt alive and youthful, and sort of, like, they actually got, you know, make it feels like you were actually there with them putting on the parade. We thought a comic book would be the best way to get that done.

Saliby: You started to mention this, Tim, can you talk more about the process of finding and compiling these stories about this 1972 Pride event for the book?

Just for listeners, you know, you have illustrations done by Isabel, but then you have, you know, direct quotes from oral histories or from the event itself, news articles, things like that.

Retzloff: Yeah, I mean, this is just kind of the standard way of how historians do is take the deep dive into the sources. With LGBTQ history, it is often really crucial to use oral histories because so many lives were hidden 40, 50, 60 years ago, that you have to go to the individuals.

With LGBTQ history, it is often really crucial to use oral histories because so many lives were hidden 40, 50, 60 years ago, that you have to go to the individuals.

Tim Retzloff

But then there’s also, you know, some amazing documentary sources. You know, all of the facets of the press that existed at the time from the mainstream dailies had accounts that are included in the comic book, but also the student press were all, kind of, sources, and then underground papers, the Fifth Estate and the Joint Issueand then the Gay Liberatorwhich was a paper started in Detroit all had, you know, important coverage and first person, eyewitness accounts.

Saliby: Isabel, a major motif that appears in the comic is this symbol that was created as part of this first Pride celebration and the queer communities in Michigan at the time. Can you talk about this butterfly logo that was created for the event?

Paul: At the time of the first Pride event, the traditional, you know, rainbow flag that we associate with gay lib now wasn’t, it hadn’t really been around. It had not been popularized.

Courtesy

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Isabel Clare Paul

The butterfly logo was printed on t-shirts, stickers and buttons for those attending the 1972 Pride event to wear.

And so, they still wanted a symbol to kind of unite the community and have something to rally around, and so they came up with the butterfly with the fist in the middle. And it’s just, it’s so nice to kind of include that and make the, you know, make sure that history gets represented.

Like this was what they had before what we have now, that’s something that’s kind of can be applied to a lot of aspects of the comic book versus being gay today.

Retzloff: Well, I also want to add that there’s so many aspects of how they were organizing and promoting it, that kind of reflects what we would think of as a “do-it-yourself” kind of means of promoting the event. So, that they made their own t-shirts, the fact that they had buttons made and they had matchbooks made and stickers made to help raise money were really important parts of the story.

Because there were not corporate sponsors at the time, this was all kind of a community, grassroots event that involved students at campuses around the state.

Tim Retzloff

Because there were not corporate sponsors at the time, this was all kind of a community, grassroots event that involved students at campuses around the state. And, you know, this had not been done before.

So in some ways, although they might have heard about events that happened in New York and Chicago, they were inventing the wheel in a new way that we wanted to kind of bring to life as well.

Saliby: About two decades separate you two, I’d like to ask what you’ve learned from each other about working with the LGBTQ + community doing this process together. And I’ll start with Tim.

Retzloff: For me, it was a lens, a proxy for one of the audiences we hope to reach in terms of younger generations. I think she brought a lens of not having lived through the 70s and not having seen some of these spaces like Kennedy Square, she’s kind of bringing it to life in a new way. So, that was, you know, one of the things I learned.

The other thing that I learned was she was noticing things, some of the photos that we had to model after, she was noticing things that I had missed. One in particular was someone who was wearing a t-shirt that read “super gay,” or no, I’m sorry, someone was wearing a t-shirt that read “super queer.” And queer isn’t a term that we really associate with LGBTQ life until the late 80s, early 90s with the rise of Queer Nation, but that people were reclaiming it as early as 1972.

And that, you know, there’s an older generation that is uncomfortable with the word, but here, you know, some of that older generation, even then was actually reclaiming it.

Saliby: And Isabel, I’ll ask you that same question about learning from Tim.

Paul: Something that really stuck with me was, I just didn’t know a lot of this history because I’m much younger than Tim. A lot of the stories that are featured prominently in the comic book, I just had no idea that they happened at all.

Being able to kind of have access to all this history and all this research that Tim had done and use that as, you know, direct reference to help me with the illustrations, it meant a ton.

Isabel Clare Paul

And so, being able to kind of have access to all this history and all this research that Tim had done and use that as, you know, direct reference to help me with the illustrations, it meant a ton. And I’m still really thrilled that I got to like, dig through all the photos and all the news and all the sources we have and just kind of get a better grasp of what it was like.

Because it’s, you know, I could draw it, but it wouldn’t be quite nearly as impactful if we hadn’t, you know, shared that sort of history and making sure it’s like, “Here’s what we’ve got, how do we tell this story as best we can? “

Saliby: Tim Retzloff and Isabel Clare Paul put together the comic book Come Out! In Detroit. It’s being distributed at Pride events throughout the state this month. Thank you for joining me, Tim.

Retzloff: Thank you, Sophia.

Saliby: And thank you, Isabel.

Paul: Thank you, Sophia.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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