by Peter Kusnic
Stark County native Craig Covey has a habit of making history.
In 1981, the gay student activist-turned-political leader co-founded Columbus’ first off-campus gay and lesbian organization, Stonewall Union (now Stonewall Columnbus), and helped organize the city’s very first (now legendary) Pride parade. Following that success, he was invited to direct a statewide LGBT program for the Michigan Organization for Human Rights, then dedicated much of the next two decades to working in HIV/AIDS organizations, during which he made the small metro Detroit city of Ferndale home.
“I had lost so many friends to AIDS, and we were working so hard to fight this epidemic, but I finally decided to run for city council,” says Covey. Though he lost his first bid, after winning his second, he ultimately served two terms, and went on to win Ferndale’s mayoral election in 2007. Both times marked historic firsts for LGBTQ+ representation in the state, solidifying Ferndale’s reputation – which Covey helped build – as a community safe haven.
In 2017, he returned to his hometown in Canton to care for his elderly father, expecting an early retirement. But, he says, it wasn’t long before he felt the need to get back to work. Now, he hopes to make history again with his run to flip the Stark County Treasurer’s office blue for the first time in a decade. The Buckeye Flame spoke with Craig Covey about his trailblazing history and his hopes for the future of the LGBTQ+ community in Stark County.
When did you first become politically active?
As a teenager in the 70s, we were all pretty closeted; there were no television programs with gay characters, and most [LGBTQ+] folks had no role models at all – we didn’t even know the subject existed; it was taboo. By the time I turned 18 and was ready to go off to college [at Ohio State University], I couldn’t wait to get out of Stark County and go to Columbus. The first thing I did after my father dropped me off at the dormitory was contact what was then called the Gay Activist Alliance. This was 1975. I got so involved that by sophomore year I was elected President of the organization. I’ve been politically active ever since.
Tell us about the formation of the Stonewall Union.
In the 70s, gay/lesbian student groups were common on large college campuses, but off campus there were no organizations or groups for people who were not students, so after graduation, myself and some friends decided to start a new organization. It started when Jerry Falwell – no, not that one, ha-ha, his father – attempted to form a Moral Majority chapter in Columbus. A handful of us from the community had organized along with other progressive groups – women’s activists, left-wing progressives, pro-choice people – a big protest at the church where the Moral Majority was to organize. Outnumbered, the chapter never took off. Off that success, three of us in Columbus, along with our partners, decided to form what was really the first organization of its kind in Ohio for LGBTQ+ people who were not just on college campuses: Stonewall Union.
This was in 1981. The origins were very much political; we’d interview and endorse candidates running for state and local office. We also organized the first pride march [in 1982]. It was a huge success; about 900 people showed up to that first parade, and by 1985, when I left [for Michigan], we had grown to 6-7,000, with delegations from Toledo, Dayton, Cleveland, Detroit. Of course, it’s much bigger now.
After having such a hand in developing Columbus’ LGBTQ+ community, what brought you to Michigan?
With any movement or organization, there are folks who are there at the tip of the spear, and then other folks come in and solidify things. Once things are up and running, I tend to move on to the next challenge. Because of my work in Columbus, I was offered a position to direct a statewide LGBT organization for the Michigan Organization for Human Rights. One of the first things I noticed living in Detroit that first year was the absence of a gay community or neighborhood, which we had seen develop pretty quickly in Columbus. I saw a need to form something similar in Detroit, and this little city of Ferndale was a blank canvas; like many Rust Belt cities, it had been completely neglected. We started promoting Ferndale as a safe, welcoming place. We ran into some opposition for a while, but little by little LGBTQ+ people started to move to in. Over the next decade, the city grew into a community hub in the state.
How did you get involved in local politics?
I had always wanted to run for office, but I saw my career as advocating for gay and lesbian people. When HIV/AIDS came around and became very serious, I pretty much spent the next 20 years working in HIV/AIDS organizations. I had lost so many friends to AIDS, and we were working so hard to fight this epidemic in the 80s and the 90s, but I finally decided to run for Ferndale City Council. The first time I came in last place; I ran four years later and came in first place. I served for 8 years as a city council member, and was fairly successful and popular to the point that I was able to run for mayor, in 2007, and won! I was the first openly gay person to run for mayor anywhere in Michigan and won the election pretty handily.
How did it feel to be the one to reach that milestone at that time?
It was pretty neat. There were bumps in the road. I used to get hate letters. I had folks who did not like what was happening – there has always been opposition to us. But by and large what I found is that if you stick to your guns and are proud of who you are and know what’s right, then folks will eventually flock to you. That’s always been my guiding principle. After two mayoral terms, I was elected to [Oakland, MI] County Commissioner. The city was doing really well; we had quadrupled property values; the downtown area was full of neon – it became almost too gentrified. I’m proud of what we did to put this little town on the map, but the irony is, after all that work, I decided to up and come back to where it all started.
And now you’re running for Stark County Treasurer. What inspired that decision?
Having been back home for a few years and gotten involved in the politics – because I can’t not get involved in politics – I was asked by the county Democratic party to run for Treasurer this year. Democrats hold some county offices, but they haven’t been able to crack the treasury in 10 years. Of course I was happy to do so. Now here I am all of a sudden – after thinking I was entering early retirement and would spend my time growing flowers and playing with the Siamese cats in the yard – running for countywide office again. It’s like coming full circle. After 40 years, there are still no gay bars, no bookstores, no visible LGBTQ+ community in this area. To an extent I feel like it’s fate that I was supposed to come back here and try to do it one more time. Beyond this election, my goal is to organize a community, start another Stonewall group or something similar here. I’ve hung my rainbow flag. And we’ll see how it goes one more time. 🔥
- Learn more about Craig Covey’s bid for Stark County Treasurer by visiting his Twitter or Facebook page.
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Peter Kusnic is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, OH.