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Detroit, Michigan

Curtis Lipscomb

By Amy Kuras 
July 18, 2014

It can be easy, at least if you live in a fairly liberal, well-educated bubble as many of us do, to think that discrimination against LGTBQ people is a thing of the past. But that attitude is at best naive and at worst harmful; no matter how much your grandma loves Ellen or how many of your Facebook friends turned their profiles red for equality, the fact is that while we may have come a long way, we're not close to full equality yet.
"The pop culture may display signs that the country has swayed their opinions on some social issue, but the fact remains that more than half the states in America do not recognize people who are gay and lesbians equally, and Michigan is one of them," says Curtis Lipscomb, Executive Director and founder of KICK!, an organization which supports and advocates for African American gays and lesbians. As an illustration, he ticks off legal employment discrimination against LGTBQ people or people who may be perceived as such, HIV posing an enormous threat to life and health, violence among African American lesbians, and the current court stay against same-sex marriage as four major issues blocking full equality. "We have to organize, we have to address these issues and concerns," he says. "It's not sexy. It's not fun. It's not Will and Grace. This is real life."
Lipscomb formed KICK! in 1994. It began as a publication serving African American gays and lesbians in Detroit, at a very bleak time for the community. "It began at a time I call the gay men's Holocaust –the AIDS epidemic. Gay men were dying everywhere. We were overwhelmed with loss and grief." Out of that sense of urgency to do something to preserve the lives of the community was born both KICK! and Hotter than July, which launched in 1996 and is now the second-oldest event of its kind. It is a social justice rally for African American gays and lesbians, which celebrates and educates about their unique culture. Hotter Than July has grown into a multi-day event, with a boat ride, film festival, conference, and a Sunday brunch and worship service, along with the big Saturday picnic at Palmer Park. The idea is not to pigeonhole people into one type of thing but allow people to celebrate, inform, educate, and advocate in whichever ways they feel most comfortable, Lipscomb says.
In 2003, Lipscomb and his co-founders formed the nonprofit KICK!, which bridged the advocacy and information work of KICK and the management of Hotter Than July. Another significant accomplishment is LEAD Academy, which focuses on young people of color who are also LGTBQ. Five classes have graduated from the intensive leadership training program. They learn to take a leadership role through civic engagement, presentation skills, advocating within faith communities and more. A partnership of equality-focused nonprofits does the training, including Equality Michigan, Affirmations, the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, and Toastmasters International.
"If young people are the future of our company and the movement, young people need to be equipped with resources to lead," Lipscomb says.  "At the time there was no other leadership academy that focused on African-American LGTBQ people between the ages of 18-30 to do that work."
KICK! also hosts three other forums annually on education, advocacy, and careers and employment; they also have a health and wellness summit, as well as doing outreach and support on a weekly basis throughout the year.
Lipscomb believes strongly that not only do LGTBQ advocacy organizations remain essential to the fight for equality, but that KICK!, with its focus on the intersection of  LGTBQ and African American identity, is even more so. KICK! works with all the major LGTBQ organizations, and has helped nurture some of them, Motor City Pride in particular. "Motor City Pride could not have existed without the work of Hotter than July," he says. "We were the institution that organized in Detroit for the last 19 years, who made the case that Detroit was a space we could be safe for at least one day in a free park and celebrate with family right in the middle of the city."
That's not to say there is a rivalry – in fact, Lipscomb says, metro Detroit's LGTBQ organizations are blessedly free of the infighting that plagues the community in other cities. However, the intersection of identities can pose a special challenge to African American gays and lesbians, and the need for a space where they are accepted for the totality of who they are is critical. "African American gays and lesbians are part of the African American experience here," he says. "African American sons, daughters, mothers and fathers want to engage and participate in life as they are. When institutions understand that and welcome those parts of the community, we all grow together. No one can be thrown away." 

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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