The time was March 1978; the setting was American Legion Post 374 in Berkley, a few miles north of Detroit; the event was a dance. In many ways an ordinary Saturday night in suburbia; yet not ordinary at all. The dance was sponsored by a gay organization called the Association of Suburban People, and it allowed the 150 or so attendees, mostly closeted, to stake a claim, temporarily and discreetly, to public appearance in the middle-class Republican stronghold of Oakland County, Michigan — and to do so in a time of entrenched homophobia and national anti-gay campaigns. The ASP newsletter boasted that the group had “liberated one American Legion Hall.” In an era when it was assumed that gay space was urban space, the Association of Suburban People sought to assert its presence beyond the Motor City — and ultimately to recast the relationship of gays with suburbia. To borrow a phrase from Michel de Certeau, “they escaped it without leaving it.” 1
The ASP was sparked by a mix of pride and defiance. In the fall of 1975, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department staged a sting operation targeting men engaged in homosexual liaisons in Hines Park in suburban Plymouth. One of the men was a thirty-two-year-old telephone lineman for Western Electric named Wes Rogalski. Months earlier Rogalski had discovered the gay social scene in the picnic shelters of the park. “You see guys in the park; you’d see them all the time … so you sit there and talk. You’d sit there in the evening, at the picnic table, and talk about what’s going on, who’s the latest tricks,” he recalls. 2 Soon Rogalski began to notice that the men were no longer there “all the time”; in fact they were starting to disappear. In just a few months plainclothes officers arrested seventy-two men and charged them with accosting and soliciting; the arrestees ranged in age from eighteen to sixty-three and included an engineer, a salesman, a student, and a minister. Rogalski, an Army veteran and member of the National Rifle Association, was eventually apprehended as well. One afternoon, an undercover deputy approached his car after Rogalski had parked near the picnic shelter. “He asked to sit in [the car],” Rogalski says. “We sat and talked for a long time, and then he said, ‘Well, you want to go into the building?’ I said, ‘Okay’ … The minute I [walked into the shelter] he pulled out his badge and said, ‘You’re under arrest.’” Because he never actually solicited the officer, the misdemeanor charges were dropped, but the arrest forced Rogalski to reveal his sexuality to his mother. 3
The wave of arrests, coupled with the harsh sentences meted out by the trial judge, motivated Rogalski and others to take action. One of the activists was Royce Dew, then an interior decorator in Westland. “We met at Wes Rogalski’s, around his kitchen table,” he recalls. “That night there were five of us, and we each put in twenty dollars — so there was a hundred-dollar kitty, and that was to be a bail fund. From [then on], we decided [to be] a social group.” 4 Thus was begun the first substantial, non-religious gay organization to form in metropolitan Detroit since an earlier wave of liberation activism. One of the benefits of belonging would be access to the bail fund, and early membership cards included Rogalski’s telephone number, just in case. Originally called West Wayne Men, the group grew quickly through word-of-mouth recommendation, 5 and soon dubbed itself the Association of Suburban People.
The name was carefully chosen: it emphasized the group’s goal of challenging the sexual conformity of suburban society and also invoked the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble — yet avoided any reference to either homosexuality or Detroit. As Rogalski notes, “It was politically expedient to pick a name … that wasn’t threatening.” Before long the group was promoting itself on the local radio show, Gayly Speaking. “Gay people in Oakland and western Wayne County no longer have to feel isolated in the desert of suburbia,” said Herbert “Bo” Taylor, the group’s first chairman, in an interview with host David Krumroy, another ASP founder. “We saw a need to organize not only for social reasons but for political reasons, for reasons of self-protection.” ASP was, he said, sparking “a new consciousness” and raising “a new awareness of the numbers of gay people in the suburbs.” 6
Save for Taylor, an African American, the founding group was all white — much like suburban Detroit. “My gay world was almost exclusively a Caucasian world,” says Steven Kalt, whose family travel agency in Royal Oak became an ASP meeting place. Some members were heterosexually married and leading a double life — not uncommon in those years, especially in suburbia. Members sometimes teased each other about the boundaries of their identity (a gossip column in an ASP newsletter wondered if one man had “gone straight” when he was spotted with “someone’s real wife” at an office Christmas party). But such teasing aside, the group was grounded in an ethos of mutual protection and dedicated to providing a setting — very rare back then — for gay socializing and sexual camaraderie. 7 And in fact most ASP members were bachelors, either unmarried or divorced, and many had nice homes and good white-collar jobs. The group included a corporate librarian, a Mercedes service agent, two literature professors, the personnel director at the General Motors Tech Center, the owner of a medical textbook store, and a prominent rabbi. Some factory workers were members as well. Participants differed in the degree to which they were out about their sexuality, but ASP provided a haven where gay suburbanites could be themselves — and for some a forum that encouraged greater openness. Invested in their suburban lives, ASP members learned when and where to selectively reveal themselves. 8
The Raunchy Western Revue, an extravaganza of cross-dressing and camp, became an annual tradition.
The membership of the Association of Suburban People was more than eighty-five percent suburban in its first year, but the group soon attracted residents of Detroit proper, and over the years the proportion of suburban to urban members would vary. 9 By 1985, when the group changed its name to the Southeast Michigan Gay and Lesbian Association, it was still more than seventy percent suburban — a demographic that reflected not only white flight from the increasingly beleaguered city but also a gay exodus as well. 10 Yet no matter its geographic range, the group tended to concentrate in certain suburbs, in particular Dearborn, Royal Oak, Troy, and Westland, and to hold events in private homes. As Royce Dew remembers, “I opened my home to functions, and that’s what they were called: functions. Friends would laugh, ‘Oh he’s having a function.’” And there were a lot of functions, including post-meeting open houses; holiday dinners; euchre, pinochle, and backgammon nights; pajama parties; and screenings of films both erotic and mainstream. In the privatized landscape of suburbia, these activities were alluring not only for the various programs but also for the opportunity to freely express gay sexuality — and in your very own suburban backyard. Sometimes literally; the Raunchy Western Revue, a frontier-themed extravaganza of cross-dressing and camp that began in one member’s secluded backyard, became an annual tradition. ASP members even hosted Tupperware parties, tweaking gender expectations and poking fun at their domestic surroundings. 11
Beyond queering suburban homes, ASP co-opted dozens of public places for its own ends. In June 1976 the group was planning a public benefit — a disco dance — for the bail bond fund, and members approached staff at the Hilton Inn, in Plymouth, with trepidation. “We were petrified … sitting across from the banquet manager and having to say we’re a gay group, we want to have a gay dance in your hotel,” says Royce Dew. “But they were open to it. [The manager] might have been gay; I don’t know.” Eventually ASP held successful dances at the Sokol Cultural Center in Dearborn Heights; at the Holiday Inn in Farmington Hills; at the Al Matta Hall in Dearborn; and, in conjunction with Dignity/Detroit, at the Hayride Lodge in Rochester. As Dew’s comment suggests, the group may have been aided by closeted gays in the hospitality industry. Still, friendly welcome was not always forthcoming. The Ramada Inn in Southfield, for instance, quoted ASP a higher than usual rental rate for its ballroom; in response — to show that gays were model customers — ASP carried through with the event, and then took its business elsewhere. 12
ASP held general membership meetings twice monthly, on Sundays. The settings were various banquet rooms in the Detroit metropolitan area — ostensibly heterosexual spaces including Hudgen’s House in Livonia, Uncle John’s Pancake House in Redford, the Botsford Inn in Farmington Hills, the Canton Inn in Roseville, and the Howard Johnson’s in Madison Heights. These were shrewd choices. As a private group holding private events in places that epitomized the suburban folkways of “family dining,” the ASP was shielding itself from the public scrutiny it might have attracted with a fixed, official address. 13 Sites were selected based on personal familiarity and reflected what Michel de Certeau calls the “tactics of consumption,” by which subordinated people appropriate the property of others to further their own ends.
Indeed, ASP members had keen antenna, and intuited whether a suburban business in their orbit would be welcoming. And no matter how much (or little) the proprietors understood in advance, once an ASP meeting was underway, the sexuality of attendees became apparent, either from the discussion topics or from unabashed displays of affection. Many proprietors appreciated the business and welcomed ASP back. 14 Other public events included an ice-skating party at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren; roller skating at rinks in Livonia, Canton, and Dearborn Heights; horseback riding in Lake Orion; and a group trip to the “Teen and Junior Mr. Michigan” contest in Redford. In summer the group held weekly volleyball games, and on Memorial and Labor Days it hosted picnics in Hines Park, where Rogalski and others had earlier been arrested. Here too, the venues underscore that ASP was making strategic forays into foreign territory — forays at once overt and covert, daring and cautious, visible and closeted, and which nonetheless epitomized the gay rallying cry, “We are everywhere.” 15
ASP also sponsored excursions to gay bars in Detroit (the suburban jurisdictions tended to ban them). Monthly club nights not only attracted new members; they also cultivated support from bar owners. To Daniel Sivil, a Troy resident and computer analyst for General Motors who presided over ASP in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, negotiating with bar owners “on a mutually satisfactory basis” was crucial to advancing the gay cause. Besides directing business to gay-owned establishments, ASP club nights introduced the group’s more circumspect members to a vibrant aspect of metropolitan gay culture. Save for a rare, token outing to a lesbian bar, such as Lady’s Love Five West, most ASP club nights were held at men’s bars like the Gold Coast, the Gas Station, the Outlaw, and the R&R; and events such as the Hottest Hairy Chest contest at the Interchange, and Uniform Night at the Ramp, encouraged masculine gay self-presentation. The flyer for an ASP Halloween party at the Interchange stated emphatically: “No drags allowed!!!” Club nights rounded out a social agenda that aimed to remedy the isolation experienced by so many gay suburbanites, and at the same time reinforced a gay cultural style informed by the implicit suburban edict of passing as straight. 16
ASP’s focus was educational as well as social. Meetings featured speakers on a range of topics, from a male-to-female transsexual describing her transition, to a martial arts instructor advocating for gay self-defense, to filmmaker Greta Schiller discussing her documentary Before Stonewall. In the early ‘80s, the educational agenda took on new and somber significance. Starting in January 1982, when the ASP newsletter first reported on the emergence of a mysterious and terrifying “gay cancer,” and continuing over the next half decade — years when most media were silent on the topic — the organization was a crucial forum for information about HIV and AIDS in metropolitan Detroit. In November 1982, for instance, the organization held a benefit at the Detroit Institute of Arts in support of the newly formed Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York. 17
In a similar vein, in the early ‘80s, ASP hosted a symposium, “Developing a Positive Gay-Lesbian Identity,” in cooperation with the Los Angeles-based Whitman-Brooks Clinic. Held initially at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the gathering , which would become an annual event, included workshops on gay self-help, political skills, and community solidarity. Later symposia featured keynotes by author Edmund White — whose novel A Boy’s Own Story appeared in 1982 — and pioneering lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. 18
Given its origins in the Hines Park arrests, it isn’t surprising that from the very start the Association of Suburban People pushed for political change — but in its own style. “We’re not talking about a radical politics,” co-founder Bo Taylor explained during an interview on Gayly Speaking in the ‘70s. “We’re talking about a conservative method of implementing a liberal cause. In other words, we intend to work through well-established political parties and [use] tried political methods to achieve these political goals.” Unlike the gay liberation movement, and akin to an earlier tradition of homophile activism, ASP collectively mobilized for reform rather than revolution. 19 In the quest for sexual freedom, the group mixed grassroots and electoral politics and infused these with patriotic language and imagery. The original logo depicted the initials “A.S.P.” with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The early goals were to repeal Michigan’s sodomy law and to counsel men arrested for homosexual activity in parks and at highway rest areas. In 1979, ASP chartered a bus to the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Since its membership was diverse — including Democrats and Republicans, NRA members and one-time gay liberationists — the group sought to be bipartisan. So some ASP members met with U.S. Representative William Brodhead, a Democrat from West Bloomfield, to press him to co-sponsor the federal gay rights bill; and others hosted a cocktail party for the first openly gay delegates to the Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980. 20
Henry Messer, a Dearborn Heights brain surgeon who in the 1960s had been involved in the Mattachine Society of New York, before moving to Michigan in the mid ’70s, pushed for ASP to engage in political lobbying. Eager to demonstrate the size and clout of the gay electorate, Messer devoted himself to compiling an extensive mailing list by encouraging people to sign in at meetings — a sensitive issue in those days. “If they didn’t want to, that was okay,” says Messer. But if members provided names, addresses, and phone numbers, Messer would record these on index cards. “We began to build a database that way.” The database, which was eventually computerized, formed the basis for letter-writing and fundraising campaigns that reflected a suburban, rights-focused brand of gay activism. 21 The group’s most fervently political faction asserted that gay influence would be achieved not only by attracting a large membership but also by pursuing strategic suburban visibility. Daniel Sivil stressed this in a 1983 letter to Messer, in which he justified attending a fundraiser for a non-gay cause and thus creating a “positive gay presence out in conservative Sterling Heights.” After all, Sivil wrote, “gay rights is going to have to be accomplished on many fronts.” 22
As ASP celebrated its fifth anniversary, in 1981, then-president Frank Martin attributed the group’s broad support to “the fact that we offer social activity, political action, and personal support on an equal basis.” Yet Martin warned that rifts were already forming. “As ASP continues to grow, I worry that it could become factionalized, due to the presence of pro- and anti-bulk rate people, pro- and anti-Club Night people, pro- and anti-whatever,” he wrote in his annual report for that year. Douglas Haller, during his term as information officer, in 1980 and 1981, witnessed the emergence of multiple fault lines that would later fracture the organization. Haller recalls disagreements between liberals and conservatives, between younger members and older members, between those who lived in the city and those who lived in the suburbs, and, what would become especially vexing, the “beginning of tension between male and female, between gay male and lesbian.” 23
In the mid ‘80s, the schisms intensified in a debate about how open members — and ASP itself — should be. Newcomers emphasized the crucial importance of visibility and argued that the deliberate ambiguity of the group’s name was damaging to the cause. Philip O’Jibway, an early ASP member who used the pseudonym “Phil Greene” to protect his teaching job, recalls that much sensitivity about the name stemmed from broader, racially fraught antagonisms between Detroiters and suburbanites. In 1983 the Association of Suburban People formally changed its name to “ASP, Inc.” A year later it promoted itself as “A Social and Political group.” And even as the group rejected a proposal to become the “Gay Lesbian Association of Detroit,” newsletter editor and future president Tom Smith argued for a name that truly reflected gay visibility — and that would thus give them “a new degree of credibility.” It was, he wrote “time ASP came out of the closet.” In the words of another, unidentified newsletter contributor, “We are no longer the Association of Suburban People. We should no longer wish to project that image with its many negative inferences.” To some members, the image of the white, closeted or semi-closeted gay suburbanite was now an obstacle to gay progress. 24
The move beyond suburbia was geographic as well as political. By this point ASP had moved its regular meetings to the Back Stage restaurant in Detroit, and opened an office on West McNichols Road in the city’s gay Palmer Park neighborhood. These changes attracted new members but alienated longtime suburban participants. Already in the summer of 1983, only ten of the original fifty members were still involved, and seven of these, including Wes Rogalski, dropped away over the next two years. “It got beyond me, it got beyond my interest,” Rogalski says. 25
Nita Firestone, a resident of Palmer Park, was the first woman elected to the board. “I don’t think the guys knew what they were getting into when they recruited me,” says Firestone, who was just starting her career at Blue Cross and was a decade younger than most ASP members; some female friends asked her why she would become involved in such a chauvinist group. In fact, the lack of lesbian involvement had long embarrassed many ASP members and handicapped their political efforts. Firestone embraced ASP, believing that its social, educational, and political aims were a strong counter to anti-gay animus in society. Nonetheless her vision differed from that of the old guard.
It’s great to have a woman on the board because you want to be diverse. It’s another thing to have [that woman] raise questions about certain things, like: Why do we have a P.O. Box? Why are we called the Association of Suburban People? Why are we doing the Raunchy Western Revue? Why are we having a bail bond fund for getting picked up in the park?[ footnote id=26]
Cumulatively all these changes — the loss of founding members, the shifting territorial focus and scale, the emerging generational and gender gulf — underscored that ASP was moving away from its original impetus and intention. “I never quite understood the suburban part, other than it sounded respectable,” Firestone says. In 1985, the Association of Suburban People finally came fully out of the closet and, with women in leadership positions, changed its name to the South-Eastern Michigan Gay and Lesbian Association, or SEMGLA. Thus the group emphasized that it had come to represent metropolitan Detroit, not just the suburbs. Despite its success — or really, because of it — participation dwindled. SEMGLA disbanded in 1988. 27
ASP was a form of coffee klatch activism.
The Association of Suburban People, rooted in the suburban landscape, was one of many male-dominated, rights-oriented organizations that historian John D’Emilio identifies as a primary branch of the U.S. gay movement after gay liberation. ASP marked a decisive grassroots shift in gay activism in the greater metropolis. The group flourished at a time when gay bars were confined to Detroit and when whites fled to the suburbs and Detroit became the largest black-majority city in the country. 28 Moderate and conservative gay suburbanites rejected the in-the-streets militant activism of the city in favor of a muted challenge to the not-in-my-back-yard culture of suburbs. At the same time, however, ASP also asserted a surprising sexual dissidence that defied the heterosexual sanctity of Detroit’s suburbs.
Despite its coy name, the Association of Suburban People provided vital social support to a widely dispersed membership and nurtured a new suburban-oriented gay politics. In a sense, ASP can be seen as a form of coffee klatch activism, providing an ironic counter-narrative to contemporaneous groups like the conservative Suburban Warriors in Orange County, California. 29 And even though it couldn’t quite transcend its own internal contradictions, ASP reshaped the gay political terrain of metropolitan Detroit, harnessing ascendant gay residential patterns to create a gay suburban politics that rivaled, and in some ways supplanted, the gay politics of Detroit. While the straight suburbs were never exclusively heterosexual, it took the Association of Suburban People to nudge secret gay lives into the open.