Rodger Keller, early Detroit gay activist, slain in Key West

By Tim Retzloff

Rodger Keller, a retired University of Michigan horticulturalist who helped organize the first pride march in Detroit in 1972, was found shot to death in his Key West, Florida home March 23, 2006. He was 63.

According to the Key West Citizen, police believe Keller was killed on March 20 and have arrested 24-year-old Johnny Ray Holt of Somerville, Alabama in the slaying. Holt, a onetime roommate of Keller's, has been charged with first-degree murder.

Born in Detroit in 1942, Keller developed a love for nature during grade school when his family lived near Houghton Lake. In his teenage years, his family returned to the Detroit area where Keller attended Lake Shores High School in St. Clair Shores. From 1961 to 1972, he attended Wayne State University, where he also worked as a senior lab technician in the biology department, responsible for the campus greenhouse.

During the 1960s, Keller discovered gay life in Detroit through various cruising areas downtown and on the Wayne State campus. He believed Wayne officials prevented his becoming a teacher after his arrest for allegedly soliciting an undercover vice officer in the State Hall men's room. Although police dropped the charges, Keller was called into the Dean of Students and told, "You'll never get into the College of Education."

Through his visits to various public johns, he met a number of street queens who introduced him to his first gay bar, the Submarine, operated by the Karagas brothers who also ran the Woodward. Keller soon became familiar with Detroit's other gay nightspots of the era, including the Ten Eleven and the Diplomat. He was particularly fond of the Barbary Coast at Grand River and Fourth, with its "black executives and hillbilly hustlers," he recounted in an oral history interview conducted last November.

When activists began the first above ground gay organizations in the early 1970s, Keller became active in the Gay Liberation Front, which formed on the WSU campus. Along with Franz Martin, Dennis Raymond, Dennis Lambiris, and Ray Warner, Keller was involved in the formation of the Green Carnation Community Center, the first such effort in the city.

In his oral history interview, Keller fondly remembered helping to organize Detroit's first gay pride march in June 1972. After closeted members of the local leather scene declined to participate, Keller enlisted drag queens to help keep peace, feeling that their presence would intimidate any potential harassers. "No one came anywhere near us," Keller explained. When he was interviewed on Channel 7 following the rally at Kennedy Square, his mother reacted, saying, "Rodger! What will they think at the VFW?"

Despite his mother's reaction and a modest turnout, Keller remained proud of the pioneering event. "I felt that we accomplished something quite positive and really got the gay liberation movement going in Detroit and let a lot of people know about something that otherwise they might have never heard about for some years," he said.

Keller moved to Ann Arbor in 1978 and worked as a senior horticulturalist at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens at the University of Michigan until his retirement on disability in 2002, when he relocated to Key West. While in retirement, he remained active in several organizations, including the Key West Garden Club, the Orchid Society, and the MARC House for Retarded Citizens.

Keller is survived by his brother Jeff of Atlanta, his sisters Kathy and Susan of New York State, his niece Kristin, and many friends. A celebration of his life was held at the Garden Club in Key West on April 9, 2006.

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