Looking back, moving forward

Between The Lines celebrates 15 years of triumphs, disappointments and being witness to the rise of Michigan's gay community

by Jessica Carreras

In the summer of 1995, Susan Horowitz went out to breakfast with Shannon Rhodes, then the editor of Between The Lines, a 12 page monthly LGBT newspaper just over 30 issues in. They had bacon and eggs. And then, Horowitz bought the newspaper.

Thirteen years later, she and her partner Jan Stevenson have created a weekly paper with a circulation of 20,000 that is an integral part of Michigan's LGBT community.

For Horowitz and Stevenson, it was something they never dreamed they would do, but something they both knew had to be done. At the time they took over the paper, Stevenson was the first executive director of the Affirmations Community Center, which was then only a small group with little support. "One of the things that used to frustrate me like crazy when I was running Affirmations was that no one ever knew what was going on," says Stevenson. "There was no paper. There was no way to communicate except by calling people... . It's almost impossible to organize a community if they don't know what's going on."

Like an answer to her prayers, Between The Lines was started in 1993 by a man named Mark Weinstein who, like Stevenson, saw the need for a more organized form of communication within the community. "I was really thrilled when Mark started Between The Lines because I thought it was something we really needed," explains Stevenson. "It never occurred to me that it would become such an integral part of what I was doing, but I was glad that someone was doing it."

When Stevenson and Horowitz took over, it was clear who would take care of what. Horowitz, a lifelong activist from New York, had a background in publishing. She took over the editorial aspect of the paper, while Stevenson, a former corporate banker with many community connections, handled advertising. They gathered a group of writers that included artist Charles Alexander, Oakland University Communications Department Chair Shea Howell and John Burchett, who would go on to serve as Governor Granholm's chief of staff. They released their first issue as co-publishers in December of 1995.

Though putting together a newspaper was somewhat foreign to both Horowitz and Stevenson, they weren't intimidated. "I basically always was, in some way, involved in helping a community I was in communicate," explains Horowitz, who owned a printing company in New York. "I didn't know how to print when I first opened the NYC printing company, so being a journalist didn't intimidate me."

"It never occurred to me to think about whether or not I was adequately skilled in it," she continues. "It had to be done. It was something that needed to happen."

No faces, no names

When the paper did begin to take shape, it was within a community that was still very controlled by mainstream media and ideals. Many people in Michigan remained closeted and the fight for LGBT rights was one that was often fought by individuals. As a result, Between The Lines was a vastly different paper than what it is today. "In the first five years, few wanted to give their full name and fewer were willing to be photographed," Horowitz recalls.

But as the state of gay rights in Michigan changed, so did the paper. As more people came out in their workplaces, churches and communities, Michigan became one of the first states in the nation to offer protections from discrimination. Gays and lesbians became more comfortable with being out, and thus, more comfortable identifying with their community and the paper that was its voice. People began to look forward to seeing their faces and names in Between The Lines as it became a bi-monthly and, eventually, a weekly paper that, at its peak, reaches page numbers as high as 96.

Michigan's LGBT community continued to develop throughout the '90s, and BTL played an integral role in bringing that community together. "We started to put a face to our families of choice and our networks, and not just in a traditional way, but whoever we choose to be," says Horowitz.

What once was an isolated fight became a community effort as Michigan gays and lesbians experienced and Between The Lines covered such monumental events as the the discovery of protease inhibitors, the decision by the Big 3 auto makers to offer domestic partnership benefits to their employees and passing of Proposal 2. Throughout the years, the issues changed from fighting for workplace benefits to fighting for the right to marry and have a family. The changes, Horowitz says, indicate a move from individual rights to rights for families and couples. As a result, she says, people began to see that working together was the best way to achieve their goals.

"The isolation that used to be a part of this fight has been broken down," Horowitz says triumphantly. "You have a much stronger fabric to the community. Even though we've had really bad news of late, the community statewide, when I look at it and I see what's coming up the ranks, it's never been bigger or stronger."

To Horowitz and Stevenson, nowhere is that more apparent than at Pride festivals, which Between The Lines has been an integral part of for years. Whether it's Motor City Pride, Michigan Pride, West Michigan Pride or Lake Effect Pride, that is where Michigan's LGBT community celebrates who they are - something that is exemplified on the pages of Between The Lines each week. "Pride is where we get the most feedback in a concentrated way," Horowitz explains. "People come up and say 'I love what you're doing.' To me, that's really saying they love the community at large and they see themselves in the paper and get a sense of being part of something bigger."

The rise of the gay demographic

If the articles printed in Between The Lines over the past 15 years showcase the issues within the community, the advertisements tell the story of the outside community's attitude toward gays and lesbians in Michigan.

When Stevenson began selling advertisements in 1995, she went first to community organizations and businesses that she knew were gay-owned. Using her connections within the LGBT community, she began to give businesses a way to reach their gay customers that was more sure-fire than placing an ad in The Free Press or Detroit News.

"In the first year, 80 percent of our revenue came from what would be identified as a gay-owned business," Stevenson explains. "Over the course of 15 years, that's completely flipped."

Stevenson describes trips to car dealerships and restaurants that would sometimes end as soon as the word "gay" came out of her mouth. "They said 'Please leave' and 'We don't want your kind here,'" she recalls. "It was very blatant."

Others would be kinder, but nonetheless unwilling to place an ad that they thought wouldn't benefit them. "I would have people tell me 'I don't have any gay customers,' but they'd have a restaurant," Stevenson says incredulously.

Now, the majority of advertisement sales come from businesses that want to specifically target the gay community. "I think there's been a really big shift," Stevenson says. "People are much more comfortable with gay people. They know they have gay customers."

More than just selling ads, however, Stevenson and her team help business owners to make their stores, dealerships and practices gay-friendly. "One of the main things that we do as sales people is that we don't just sell ads," she declares. "We're consultants to our clients about how to reach out to the gay market."

Indeed, it's clear when flipping through the pages of Between The Lines that advertisers trying to reach gay customers are often not gay. While some advertisements in more recent issues are still from organizations like Affirmations, the HIV/AIDS Resource Center and gay-owned businesses, others come from companies like the Universal Music Society and General Motors, who is also a major sponsor of the paper's 15th Anniversary celebrations.

To Stevenson and Horowitz, it's indicative of quickly changing attitudes toward the LGBT community - whether political changes show it or not. "I think that the level of acceptance has been so rapid it's surprising," says Stevenson.

Looking back and moving forward

From a black and white monthly for an isolated community to a vibrant weekly paper read by straight and gay alike, there's no doubt that Between The Lines has come a long way. Looking back, Horowitz and Stevenson are happy that they stayed on for the ride, even though it was not what they saw as their life plan years ago. "I've always felt immersed and lucky to be immersed," Horowitz says of her previous activism that eventually led her to Between The Lines. "I've never not really loved what I've done. I've sometimes been aggravated or frustrated or angry, but I've always loved it. Were there things I could've done to make more money? You bet. Were there things I could have done to have more security? I don't know, probably. But I don't think I would have had as satisfying of a time. It's been amazing."

Stevenson echoes her sentiments. Even as someone who was all things - a professional musician, a banker, a community organizer and an almost-teacher - she never saw herself as a publisher. What she did see was a community that she wanted to contribute to and make better. "Some people in the gay press come to it because they have a passion to be journalists and they happen to be in the gay press," she says. "For me, I'm passionate about the politics we're writing about and the paper is a vehicle for social change for LGBT people and others."

Though Michigan has thrown boulders at the community over the past few years, Horowitz and Stevenson are adamant about continuing the fight by telling the stories of those affected by poor decisions and bad legislation, as well as the hope of families and couples who are making a life for themselves in Michigan, despite social or political obstacles.

Indeed, the two women are a living example of those fights. But they are hopeful that they won't always be battling opposition. "I'm wildly optimistic," Stevenson says. "What I see happening is that it's not just that people are more accepting. What I see is that people are more willing to let other people just be who they are, whoever that is."

They see it in the national coverage of the death of youth like Lawrence King. They see it in the passing of anti-transgender discrimination. And someday, they hope to see it in national legislation that allows all people the same rights of marriage and partnership. "To me, the perfect world would be one that didn't need a Between The Lines, where these issues weren't particular to this community anymore," Stevenson declares. "Unfortunately, we're not there yet and I think our job security is pretty solid...but I'm very excited and hopeful about the future."

And thanks to the work of businesses like Between The Lines, so is the Michigan LGBT community.

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