The Dilemmas of Leading an LGBTQ+ Community Organization: The Battle Creek Pride Story

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If you tell Deana Spencer that something she believes in isn’t possible or unattainable, she’ll figure it out, realize it, and disprove you. It’s advice she once received related to her role in the LGBTQ+ organization. Pride of Battle Creek (BCP): “Even when it’s ugly and you do drugs in the mud, you get up and do it anyway. And you leave. And you don’t stop, and you just keep going.

I saw it coming; she single-handedly completed the legwork to make Battle Creek Pride Resource Center a monthly distribution site for Southern Michigan Food Bank fresh food boxes, and she leads the organization through event planning Pride and fundraising to keep the doors open to the organization’s LGBTQ+ resource. Center, where everyone is welcome.

spencer is co-chair of Battle Creek Pride, alongside Kim Langridge, a trans woman who is new to the organization and to a nonprofit leadership role like this. Because Battle Creek Pride operates entirely on volunteer hours, they are our leaders. I joined the board with two young women from the community in January 2022.

There are a lot of people who make BCP what it is, but Spencer is a pivot. Because she’s been involved from the beginning and continues to lead, Spencer is the organization’s history keeper. She lived it, helped shape it, and reflected on it, while leading Battle Creek Pride into its uncertain future.

Spencer was among the earliest iterations of the Battle Creek Pride board of directors in the late 2000s. Then-president and group convener Larry Dillon asked her if she would be willing to become vice president, a bit Unexpectedly. Dillon’s home served as the first BCP hangout, where the members planned social events at local restaurants and at the local gay bar, Partners.

Over time, the rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, Father Brian Coleman, a gay man, provided a more stable home for the organization. BCP rented a room in St. Thomas in the early 2010s. Spencer recalls painting every surface of that room, even the ceiling, to make it comfortable, and they decorated it with furniture purchased through an anonymous donation. of $5,000. It’s become a real hotbed for the regular get-togethers BCP has started hosting, including game nights, support groups, and social hours for LGBTQ+ people.

While BCP today thrives in a permanent space on Calhoun Street in Battle Creek, getting to the point where BCP finally had a proper home base was no easy road. The search for a home base for Battle Creek Pride has caused tension since the organization began.

After St. Thomas, Battle Creek Pride moved to First Congressional Congregation Church in Battle Creek, which was also specifically LGBTQ+ inclusive. But Spencer, and others, thought it was important to find a neutral alternative, not in a church or a bar. In 2021, BCP signed an agreement with a building owned by Battle Creek Neighborhoods, Inc.which offers a dedicated space outside the church.

Until a very dramatic (and public) fallout between the members in 2014, Partners Bar has also always been a major player in the running of Battle Creek Pride. After-parties for Pride events have always been held at Partners, and Spencer recalls themed parties sponsored by the bar, like the “Naughtiest Party Under the Rainbow.” Spencer explained that they relied on the bar for a lot of support in the early years for three reasons – it was the only gay bar, it was incredibly supportive and it was one of the few safe places that they had.

Battle Creek Pride board member and Partners bartender Mike Madden straddled both worlds, finding himself at the center of tension in 2014, when he was kicked off the board after a closed session. closed. Madden believes the conflict was because the two organizations — BCP and Partners — were too dependent on each other. He said the gay bar was like an older relative to the “teenage” organization. “That’s kind of how I felt,” Madden said. “[The Board vote] was probably handled with a lot more drama than necessary, but it was really important to Pride simply because it had to be – they had to learn to fend for themselves.

As he finds his home, BCP continues to refine his aim. Charlie Fulbright was invited to join the board as it grew in 2012 to become an official nonprofit. Fulbright was known in the community for starting the Gay Straight Alliance at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek as a student. He is an advocate for LGBTQ+ people in Battle Creek, but said he also believes in the importance of standing up for this community in a town that has chosen to ignore its LGBTQ+ neighbors. He was instrumental in transforming BCP into an advocacy organization, as well as creating a space for gay people.

“Social events are great, and they’re fun and all, but if you don’t show up on a systemic level, then nothing can change,” Fulbright told Pride Source.

Fulbright led the charge in 2013 to compel the Battle Creek City Commission to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance that would protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination in housing and employment. Chairing a group called One Battle Creek after participating in a similar initiative in Kalamazoo, Fulbright led formations and surveyed neighborhoods to collect signatures. On September 3, 2013, Battle Creek became the 26e Michigan municipality to pass such an ordinance, and Fulbright held a sign praising the 1,129 signatories who supported the human rights ordinance in the city.

This isn’t the only time BCP has had a direct impact on the town of Battle Creek. In July 2021, Spencer and Co-Chair Langridge led efforts with BCP to get the city to fly a rainbow flag at Battle Creek City Hall during its Pride Festival week. Spencer remembers the pride she felt when it happened and said they are examples of how this city increasingly sees LGBTQ+ people. He is asked to serve on municipal and community committees, and BCP is included in various community events. And, through initiatives such as providing fresh food boxes to the community, she prioritizes giving back to the city and being present at community events. For many years, BCP paid grain to cereal festival in downtown Battle Creek.

“We can’t just ask for things; we have to give back. And if that just means giving our time, then that’s what it means,” Spencer said. “Just so people can see us, get used to us, take their fears and ideas and stereotypes away a bit and understand that we are ordinary people like everyone else. We’re not spooky, we’re not stealing kids, we’re showing up and pouring cereal in the hot sun,” Spencer said.

Deana Spencer looks on as the Pride Flag is raised at Battle Creek Town Hall in 2021.

Spencer has his detractors. When I first started volunteering for the organization, people who sit across from her on projects separately warned me about her reputation. She is strong with people and straightforward about her opinions and feelings. As BCP moves forward with stated goals of being more equitable and inclusive, it is confronting, somewhat directly, new board members about its approach.

This kind of conflict is not new to Spencer or BCP. Spencer reflects on how past decisions, of the board and even of herself, have shaped the community as a whole. For example, she said she wasn’t proud of how she handled the situation with Madden and Partners Bar. She calls the feud “traumatic for the community” and wishes it hadn’t happened like that.

“Looking back, I wish I was better back then at listening and sitting down and having much better conversations than I actually did,” she said. “Because I wasn’t handling things well back then. I gave no grace to some of these emotional pieces. Do I think we should break up [from Partners]? Absolutely. Do I think the drama had to happen? No, I don’t.

Spencer’s thinking and BCP’s ongoing progress are linked as much as they are separate. As it always has, the organization finds itself in the tension of these interpersonal relationships: it understands itself by working through the challenges and successes of a passionate leader.

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