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Queer family in Michigan

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Sunset at Petoskey State Park — Photo by Ian Crowley
Sunset at Petoskey State Park — Photo by Ian Crowley

My fiancée Emma and I traveled to Michigan this past August to visit our families. We both were raised in the state and lived there until 2021, when we moved west. Her family does an annual camping trip to Petoskey, in northern Michigan, that we used to go to year after year when we were living in the state; Emma has been going since she was a baby. We unfortunately missed the 2022 trip, so it was very important we make it back for this year's reunion.

Our overnight flight got into the Detroit Metro Airport at 5 a.m. A good friend of ours, Nathan, picked us up and brought us to breakfast. Mornings seem to represent promise while on vacation; you sit there, bright and early, thinking about all the possibilities of experiences the day will bring. This is especially true on the first day, as the bulk of the journey only exists in your mind; there are so many people to spend time with, and such a limited time to see everyone.

Once we finished our breakfast, Nathan dropped us off at Emma's brother Nick's house, since we were riding with him and his longtime partner Matt up north. Nick is one of several Queer siblings in Emma's family; my siblings include two Bisexuals and a Lesbian, whom we would be seeing later that week. This was merely the first instance in the trip of being comforted by queerness at home.

We were both 22 when we left home, so in the last few years out west, we've really been able to come into our identities as Queer people and find our family-away-from-family. As we've grown up, having these people close really makes the realities of living out and proud feel safer and cozier. Getting to start the visit with Nick and Matt was a nice way to ease back into seeing everyone, since we've grown most comfortable around our found Queer communities in Seattle.

Time with our niece
After our four-hour drive, we arrived at our destination, the Petoskey State Park campgrounds. Here, we got to see the entirety of Emma's family. This included her 7-year old niece, Brielle, whom we haven't seen since she was 5.

When put into the perspective of young children, two years suddenly seems like much longer to go without spending time with those close to you. "I haven't seen you in years" she said, as Emma and I locked eyes out of her sight and frowned at each other. This made the visit even more important to the both of us, and we wanted to make the time spent with Brielle count.

One thing Brielle and I used to bond over was our love for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Being that I hadn't seen her in two years, I wasn't sure if she would still enjoy all the same things, or even remember playing with me. I talked Emma's ear off in the lead-up to the trip about how there was a new Ninja Turtles movie that would be in theaters during the week we were home.

Luckily, one of the days at the campsite, it started raining heavily, causing everyone to brainstorm indoor activities to pass the time. Brielle shared her idea to go see Mutant Mayhem at the theater. I was ecstatic, as was Brielle's dad and Emma's brother, Dusty, who grew up with the turtles in '90s cartoons.

Emma, Brielle, Dusty, and I all went to the movie, and Brielle was glued to the screen the whole time. For the rest of the week, she made us all pretend to be different turtles, with little makeshift weapons made from sticks. I considered moving back east in those moments, pretending to be Michelangelo with Emma's niece.

Seeing our wedding venue
We also got to see our wedding venue in Frankfort, another "up north" town on the cliffs of Lake Michigan. It is on a site with three big houses for people to stay in. The saturated greens of the plant life and the simply designed living quarters reminded me of the film Midsommar. This might be alarming to some, but I am a film major, so I personally enjoyed this aspect a lot. We loved the venue, and we both are stoked for our wedding there next April.

Fun in the lake
Lake Michigan itself was a huge presence during the trip, and we got to spend a lot of time in that body of water. It is so big that it convinces you it is the ocean, though I'm sure many readers of this West Coast publication don't consider lakes as nice to swim in. But with no salt stinging your eyes, the clear, refreshing, and endless water feels like a sanctuary in the summer sun.

One of the last days we were at the beach next to our campsite, four-foot waves were coming in continuously and very intensely. It was serving as the biggest and best wave pool any of us could conceive of. We all stayed there for hours as the waves crashed into us, knocking us down, or rolling off our backs as we dove through the crests.

Going south, but still up north
At the end of the Petoskey leg, three of our friends picked us up and drove us two hours south to West Branch, just north of the midpoint of the Lower Peninsula. This is where I went up north as a kid. My parents just sold my childhood house near Detroit, and bought one in West Branch, on Clear Lake. We got to see my whole family there, including my Queer siblings, who also brought a sense of comfort in the same way that Emma's did.

Queer solidarity
Throughout the dazzling and exhausting trip, Emma's brothers and my sisters provided us with reassurance when our straight parents wouldn't get a joke we made. Having them react to things that would only catch the attention of people from the Queer community and be able to covertly exchange looks or laughs made us feel seen. Though it's no one's fault, when people don't truly understand queerness, the relationships we have with them lack depth and understanding, which in contrast makes bonds in the LGBTQ+ community sacred. Having that oppositional awareness together can sprinkle any funny, uncomfortable, or tense situation with joy.

This became more apparent to me when we and some friends decided to go to the bar and grill in West Branch. It is the only place that sells food in about three square miles, so we often patronized it growing up. My parents still go and have found friendships with the new owners, a Gay couple.

Emma let me know she was going to stay back, because while the signs and flags at the establishment were bigoted, they were less intimidating than the large crowd of Gen Xer and boomer men with their four-wheelers and pickup trucks.

When the bar switched ownership to two Gay men, we had high hopes that the vibes there would change: the wall of pornography in the men's bathroom was taken down, and several of the taxidermied critters were rehomed. Yet Blue Lives Matter banners still hang on the walls, and we've yet to hear a political conversation that doesn't end in someone demanding Biden pays for their gas.

Not wanting to feel unsafe in the haze of crowded, maskless masculinity, my Gay sisters opted to forgo the bar scene along with Emma.

Having people in these situations to stick together with and not doing anything that makes anybody uncomfortable is a tenet of this community. It is always important to show solidarity.

My friends and I got our food and didn't go back that weekend.

Fun in the lake, part 2
The rest of the weekend was filled with recreational fun, swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking, pontooning, and more. Spending time with everybody on the lake like that made the trip feel the most Michigan it possibly could.

Seeing our friends, cousins, nieces, siblings, and parents was incredibly healing, since we're out on the West Coast alone. We had great luck with our dog sitter this time, which was a major impediment to both of us being able to make it home, so we're hoping to be able to go back to Michigan sooner than later.

This trip also put into perspective how distance affects our ability to have these intimate connections with our families that only quality time can deepen. We might end up back in Michigan sooner than we thought!

The whole visit was a whirlwind, and we got to so many of our close friends and family for only a short period of time. This left a lot to be processed.

However, getting to synthesize and unpack the experience in real time with our Queer family made everything a lot easier. I'll always be so grateful for the people who showed me when I was growing up that being myself is the happiest way to live, and that those relationships encouraged me to live authentically on my own. I miss my Michiganders.