By Allison R. Donahue, Michigan Advance
During a year and a half of social distancing during the pandemic, hugging has become rarer — especially with those you don’t know.
But this was a special occasion for Kris Schirripa, 51, and her husband, Nick Schirripa, 47, who sat in the middle of Bronson Park in Kalamazoo Saturday during one of the first in-person Pride events in Michigan since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Their shirts said “free mom hugs” and “free dad hugs.”
“The LGBTQ community depends on connections with each other. When the community can’t connect with their members, it’s awfully easy to lose heart and lose hope,” said Amy Hunter, executive director of OutFront Kalamazoo.
For OutFront Kalamazoo, one of Michigan’s largest LGBTQ+ community centers, this was its first live gathering since January 2020. The focus of the outdoor event was to rally against the inequities faced by the community.
This weekend, Motor City Pride also returned to Detroit and was attended by both Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.
Pride isn’t just one month: the LGBTQ+ community has an ally in the governor’s office 365 days a year.
— Governor Gretchen Whitmer (@GovWhitmer) September 19, 2021
The Kalamazoo event focused on disparities in health care, homelessness and the availability of jobs for LGBTQ people. Speakers included state Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo), state Rep. Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo) and YWCA Kalamazoo CEO Grace Lubwama.
“We depend on supporting one another for our health and wellbeing, just like everybody does. It’s even more impactful for communities that have already faced discrimination and disparities, in terms of safe housing, access to the internet, access to health care and outcomes of health care. Now, after the pandemic, this is our shot to rally for equality,” Hunter said.
Parades and other events are usually hosted during Pride Month in June, which was officially recognized by the state Senate for the first time this year, but the pandemic shifted many community events and LGBTQ+ resources to be virtual for the last two years.
While advocacy groups worked hard to provide resources virtually during the pandemic, many LGBTQ+ individuals were quarantined in unsafe or unsupportive homes, exacerbating an issue that has existed long before the pandemic.
“Some people have lost their homes because of the pandemic, but mainly it’s been home situations becoming too intolerable,” said Hunter Willard, OutFront Kalamazoo director of homeless youth programs. “So they’re either leaving the home or being kicked out of their home because of people being locked up together. That was a big thing.”
Statewide lockdowns have worsened the issue of homelessness, which disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ youth. As of April, 40% of the area’s homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+, according to OutFront Kalamazoo.
Nathan Nguyen, the director of LBGT Student Services at Western Michigan University, feared what the pandemic would mean for his students when the university closed in 2020 and students were sent home.
“What does that mean for an LGBTQ young person if they’re still dependent on their family and their families are not accepting or they’re not out to their family? Where do they go? Where can they find a community where they can be accepted for who they are but also feel safe for who they are?” Nguyen said.
After isolation and a lack of visibility for the community during the pandemic, all speakers and the advocates at the resource booths said the same thing: There’s work to be done.
There was a sense of urgency during the event while leaders gave impassioned speeches about LGBTQ+ legislation and the need for more community resources.
But the event was also warm and welcoming as the Southwest Michigan LGBTQ+ community gathered together for the first time in 18 months.
“This feels like a family reunion,” Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson said.
As Kris and Nick Schirripa were getting ready to leave the park at the end of the rally, a young woman approached them. They all pulled up their masks and hugged each other.
Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected] Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.