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A Gay Mayor Rises in Michigan

The story of Michigan's first openly gay mayor takes place in the small town of Ferndale.
 
 
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If you've ever felt like busting loose and painting your hometown gay-friendly lavender, you might want to grab some art lessons from Craig Covey, the first openly gay mayor elected in Michigan.

Covey's inspiring story -- and that of Ferndale, population 22,000 -- literally starts with a paintbrush.

That would be the one in his hand in 1989, when for $56,000 he bought a house that -- like the Detroit inner-ring suburb where it's located -- needed "a little TLC."

"I selected Ferndale because it had a little kernel of a gay community," recalls Covey, then age 32. "You put on a fresh coat of paint. You trim the bushes. You put in gardens."

Covey talked up the town's potential to gay friends, who started moving there with their own buckets of paint and hedge clippers.

And six years after arriving, Covey decided to take the next big step toward really belonging to a community -- being part of local politics -- and ran for city council. Out of five candidates for two slots, he came in dead last.

A friend took him aside and said: "If you wish to be a councilman, here's what you've got to do: The people want to see you and talk to you. You've got to go to church events and join the Elks and get on boards and commissions."

And that's just what Covey did to demonstrate his commitment to making Ferndale a better place for everyone: He joined the Elks, the town's recreation commission and a youth assistance board. He and other members of a gay residents group donated a globe to the library.

"This stuff probably sounds hokey to someone in a big city. We weren't protesting outside city hall. We were joining the Beautification Commission, which picks the prettiest house on the block.

"We planted flowers at the Ferndale Historical Society. We started a pub crawl, and within a few years had 400 people joining us. We integrated with the straight community," he explains, adding that, as the town gentrified, the surge in the property values delighted homeowners.

When Covey ran again for city council in 1999, he won. Four years later, he was re-elected. And on Nov. 6, he was among at least 32 victorious gay candidates nationwide.

The United States now has 20 gay mayors, including in Providence, R.I.; Maywood, N.J.; Key Biscayne, Fla.; Palm Springs, Calif.; and my home town of Takoma Park, Md., according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which helps elect gay candidates.

Covey's years in Ferndale are a gay how-to manual on transforming a town into a place where you really feel at home. He laughs with pride that as mayor he makes a whopping $8,000 a year and has a huge say in such things as sidewalk crack repairs and garbage pickup.

Last year his town, sometimes called "Fabulous Ferndale" and now about 15 percent gay, passed a gay rights ordinance 65 percent to 35 percent on the third try.

The lessons of Ferndale can be applied anywhere, Covey says: "Instead of separating (into a gay ghetto) or demanding our rights, we are achieving what we wanted, neighbor by neighbor."

Ferndale and its new mayor -- what a fabulous example. Where's my paintbrush?

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.

 
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