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Hot and bothered

Even as he enjoys a brief reprieve from the July heat wave, things are nonetheless heating up for Johnny Jenkins as he reaches the final stages of planning and producing Hotter than July, one of the oldest and biggest black gay pride events in the country.

Jenkins' Mies van der Rohe townhouse in Lafayette Park bears all the signs of controlled chaos that come with being a workaholic. Slam poet, photographer, activist and "social engineer," Jenkins, a 37-year-old dyed-in-the wool Detroiter, is truly a Renaissance man. Stacks of fliers and documents surround his laptop, and several vibrant, textured paintings are stacked in a corner. The brightly colored oil paintings will be featured at the event's art exhibition, which kicks off the festivities Wednesday, July 26, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Detroit.

Absentmindedly scratching the ears of his sable-colored cocker spaniel, Jenkins seems remarkably calm for someone helming such a giant event — probably because he's had 11 years of experience.

Hotter than July began in 1996, a collaboration between several groups— among them the Billionaire Boys Club, Men of Color Motivation Group, Karibu House and Ladies of a Current Affair. It's now produced under the umbrella of the Black Pride Society, a grassroots nonprofit that Jenkins co-founded. He says annual attendance is in the neighborhood of 10,000, and adds that many Detroit ex-pats attend each year, planning their annual vacations around the event.

The seeds for Hotter than July were first sown in the '90s; Jenkins explains that Washington, D.C., was the first city to host a black gay pride event, and many Detroiters were busing out to the annual Memorial Day weekend event. After several years, they decided to create one in Detroit.

"I had just started my coming-out process and it was truly overwhelming," Jenkins says, recalling his first time at the D.C. affair. "It was a life-changing experience."

Over the years, Hotter than July has grown considerably. (Jenkins explains the name was sort of an off-the-cuff suggestion that was tossed out by one of the founding organizers years ago, and it simply stuck.) The five-day extravaganza's highlights include a pride march, a candlelight vigil, film screenings, workshops, comedy and dance events — and even hustle lessons. The signature event is the annual Saturday picnic in Palmer Park, which Jenkins describes as a mix of new faces and old friends, a sort of family-reunion vibe.

"This might be the one time of the year that people come out," Jenkins says. "The social work agencies and people who want to distribute information to this community, this might be the one time of the year they can access these people before they go back into the closet."

For years, critics in the LGBT community have complained that race-specific groups — black pride, Hispanic pride — only further divide and separate the community. They argue that instead of separating groups by race, the LGBT community should be recognized as a whole, regardless of skin color.

Jenkins thinks this is bullshit.

"That's like burying your head in the sand and pretending that race isn't an issue. That's simply not the case," he says. "The black LGBT community has separate issues and agendas from the white LGBT community. For them, the important issues are marriage, second-parent rights. For us, it's economics, health, all things that are in line with our race."

He also feels that homosexuality is more taboo in the black community.

"Sexuality is an issue in the black race, period. We can't sit in the living room with our own family and discuss issues about sexuality because of taboos. It's a lot better than it was 10 years ago, but we still got a lot of work to do."

The conservative drive against gay marriage — including the passage of a Michigan ballot initiative against it in 2004 and summer setbacks in the high courts of New York, Georgia and Massachusetts — reflects a particular hostility to gays in mainstream politics today.

"People are terrorized to stay in the closet," Jenkins says. "There's nothing to encourage us to come out. It's not like there's a bunch of people waiting at the end of rainbow with hugs."

While politics is certainly in the foreground, Jenkins says the main purpose of the event is to identify and unite the community.

"We want people to empower themselves with their self-identity, to be part of a productive battle, and to be proud of who they are."

Jenkins' most moving experience at a Hotter than July occurred last year; treasurer Joseph James, who had been working with the group since its fledgling days, just died this March after a long struggle with diabetes. Jenkins recalls how James, who had just had his second leg amputated, was still up and running — literally — at the picnic.

"He was still out there, on both of his prosthetic legs, running around, doing things. He could have just sat down and had me or someone else do it, but he didn't. He did it himself, and he did it with no legs, literally.

"He understood what the mission was. His commitment still astounds me."

 

Hotter than July takes place Wednesday-Sunday, July 26-30, at numerous locations. For a complete schedule of events, visit hotterthanjuly.com.

Sarah Klein is the culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to sklein@metrotimes.com

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