Robert Boyce, now 17, came out at 14 in a small town in a staunchly Republican county. She came out as transgender at 16, keeping her birth name.
Unlike the vast majority of trans teenagers who might feel oppressed by a small town, Boyce is in no hurry to leave.
“Nobody really cares if you’re gay or if you’re straight,” she said as she was volunteering as a parking attendant to raise money for her high school one recent June afternoon.
Boyce lives in Saugatuck, Mich., a little town that resembles so many others along Lake Michigan.
But unlike them, Saugatuck has thrived as a vacationland for the LGBTQ community, leaning into its identity with freshly painted rainbow sidewalks, openly gay business owners, even a gay mayor at the helm. As a result, Saugatuck and its neighboring town, Douglas, have become something of a haven for teens like Boyce and gay Midwesterners who prefer a quiet, bucolic life to the bustle of Chicago and Detroit.
“It’s a very well-balanced thing. It’s one of the few places that I know where both people are treated equally, especially in Western Michigan,” Boyce said. “There are so many people who you can go to, if you have any problems with people being homophobic.”
Her high school principal is gay. Around 20 of the 250 people in her high school are members of the Saugatuck High School gay-straight alliance, though she said people wonder about the need for the club “because we’re all so close.” LGBTQ tourists and second homeowners flood the area in the summertime.
“I’m living my best life, and everybody’s OK with it,” Boyce said. She’s open to staying in Saugatuck for the rest of her life — she teaches taekwondo and would consider doing that for a living, running her own business instead of college.
“There’s a really great comfort factor,” said Kurt Stamm, artistic director of the professional Saugatuck Center of the Arts, who has lived part time in the area since 2002. “One of the interesting things about Saugatuck to me is that no one has to live here. It is a choice. And so it’s been curated in that manner.”
Within Saugatuck’s city limits, that curation comes literally and more subtly. A long-sought exhibition on the area’s LGBTQ history is on display through the summer at the Saugatuck-Douglas History Center. The convention and tourist bureau specifically advertises to LGBTQ people now, instead of just silently accepting the community’s money. The towns have a panoply of LGBTQ-owned businesses, including two places to stay overnight that date back to the early 1980s: Campit, a gay trailer park and campground about 12 miles south of Saugatuck, and the Dunes Resort in Douglas, with its nightclub, cabaret and hotel lodging.
This embrace translates to how residents treat one another, Stamm said. “People who are very liberal and want to not be judged, or who want to be able to walk through town and hold hands as a gay couple, which is what my husband and I do all the time — we don’t even think about it anymore.”
It is a well-to-do, manicured, beautiful place: LGBTQ residents said pastimes include dinner parties, hiking and jogging, and the genteel hobby of boating. But options for affordable vacations exist, and many visitors come ready to party. Every weekend at Campit has a theme: Christmas in July, Oktoberfest, toga party. One weekend in mid-June it was Leather Fetish Kink. That same weekend, Chicago DJ and event planner Harry Cross chose Saugatuck Dunes for a Loose Ends party, first held at the Man’s Country bathhouse in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood in 2017 to commemorate its closing.
The soul-stirring events each drew hundreds of people who bask in the beauty, communion, security, freedom and joy they provide. Justin White, who lives in Rogers Park, won the title Campit Leather Bear. Another Chicagoan, Rob Ranieri, was crowned 2022 Miss Loose Ends. At the Dunes, the party on Saturday began at 1 p.m. and lasted until 5 a.m. Sunday.
A history of open arms
Saugatuck has been like this for a long time.
Conservative Dutch Calvinists settled Western Michigan, but they didn’t found Saugatuck. While Holland, the biggest nearby city, prohibited the sale of liquor on Sundays, Saugatuck let it flow freely. Michiganders from the surrounding area would come to Saugatuck to partake in the wages of sin. The biggest local industries were timber, fruit and tourism, but cruise ships that crossed the lake from Chicago every weekend also brought people into town, which played the gracious host with its dance halls and a sandy beach.
Gary Kott, who owns the Hidden Garden Cottages & Suites bed and breakfast and has traced the towns’ LGBTQ history, said the first reference to any local same-sex activity comes from side-eyed 1880s newspaper clippings that referenced nude men and boys sunbathing at Oval Beach, just across the Kalamazoo River from Saugatuck proper.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago teachers founded what is today known as the Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists Residency in 1910 — and where the arts are, a disproportionate number of LGBTQ people tend to be, too. Predominantly gay guesthouses operated in the 1940s and ’60s.
The history hasn’t been without its tensions. Allegan County, where Saugatuck is housed, voted for one Democratic presidential candidate in the last 100 years (Lyndon Johnson, barely). After then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed openly gay Saugatuck attorney William Baillargeon to the county circuit court in 2007, he lost his bid for reelection when his campaign was targeted by the political arm of the American Families Association, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group.
“It was nonsense,” he said. “But after that, Gov. Granholm reappointed me to the district bench, and we’ve won ever since.”
Meanwhile, the town has continued along its own path. Kott said Saugatuck’s City Council has become younger, more diverse and more liberal in recent years. He estimates that up to 20% of Saugatuck’s full-time residents are gay, as are around the same proportion of business owners.
“We’ve made some strides in promoting the LGBTQ story,” Kott said. “I think we’re seeing maybe a little bit of a renaissance of more LGBTQ people coming to Saugatuck, establishing second homes — even during the pandemic, probably moving here full time. The great housing boom here now has no signs of quitting.”
There are caveats. Like many vacation areas, the price of housing in the towns is expensive. “A weekend in one of the vacation rentals, one of the hotels, at the Dunes Resort — not an inexpensive weekend,” said Mike O’Connor, who owns Campit. “So I think that once people decide that they want to hang out in Saugatuck, then this becomes an interesting option that’s pretty affordable.”
Stamm, the theater director, noted that many full-time residents are retired executives, with a lot of car money from Detroit and money from furniture manufacturing from Grand Rapids. His theater benefits from philanthropy and corporate funding.
“Art for art’s sake is kind of a beautiful thing to be able to do,” he said. “Yes, we need to make money and we do need to sell tickets to offset the cost, but we don’t need to do that to make it completely pay for itself, thankfully.”
Pushing for more diversity
It should not come as a surprise that, as two small towns in rural Michigan, Saugatuck and Douglas are also overwhelmingly white. “We’ve got a gay quotient; we don’t necessarily have a real mixed diversity,” said Bill Underdown, a local realtor, who added that despite the area’s small population, he is constantly meeting new gay people out and about.
More recently, both the Dunes and Campit have made bona fide efforts to be welcoming, accepting environments for minorities and women as LGBTQ spaces — a rarity in a community that notoriously uplifts white men with perfect bodies ad infinitum.
When Chicagoan Jacob Green, known in drag as Muffy Fishbasket, began working at Campit six years ago, he said it was a bit of a struggle to find acceptance. Despite the campground never having been a men-only space — a rarity among gay campgrounds and trailer parks — he described the environment as “very much that old school boys’ club.”
Drag performers being the LGBTQ community truth-tellers that they are, Green took it upon himself to try to change things. Campit began outreach to trans and queer people, including through social media work.
“A lot of it was word of mouth,” Green said. “I would see (social media) comments like, ‘Well, women aren’t welcome there.’ And I said, ‘Well hold on a second, let’s talk about this.’ Another thing that was really big for me was Black and brown people, our brothers and sisters of color. It was important that I saw more of that there. We needed more of a rainbow, because it was definitely very white.”
Leslie Frank of South Bend, Ind., has been a Campit seasonal resident for three years. She and her wife visited for the first time 10 years ago.
“We both just love to camp, and she’d been here before,” Frank said. They like the friends and community the home away from home provides as well as the way everyone there “makes all the women feel extremely welcome.”
At the Dunes, Mike Jones, who bought the resort in 1999, said it’s important to bring in different people: “specific demographics of bears, leather enthusiasts, lesbians, circuit boys or whatever.”
“And you try to make sure that, throughout the course of the year, that you are still attractive to all of them,” he said. “Like ‘here’s your weekend, but you’re welcome all the time.’ ”
Kevin Chow, who DJs as Club Chow in Chicago, was playing his first gay vacation destination at Loose Ends. “It’s a pool party, so it’s good to play more upbeat and festive — nothing too hard,” he said on Saturday afternoon. “Something more chill and celebratory.”
“Looking around, I think there’s maybe two other Asian people here, but it doesn’t necessarily bother me, because everybody’s respectful. You can talk to anyone,” Chow said. “It doesn’t have the rigid social cliques that places like Fire Island tend to have. I think in the Midwest, everyone’s a bit more friendly.”
Mamadou Kareka visited Saugatuck from Chicago for the first time for Loose Ends. He was charmed by his nonbinary server at breakfast that morning and left further blissful by the queer diversity at the Dunes.
“It’s everybody,” he said. “You have the gays, there are women, nonbinary, transgender, all body types, all ages. The field is full of people, and they’re all queer. And we all love each other, and we are on the same exact level. We don’t divide anybody.”
Liam Rogers, 29, attended the Loose Ends party with his boyfriend. It was Rogers’s third time in Saugatuck, and he wanted to stay in town, not the Dunes, this time.
“I want to observe the galleries there,” he said. “I’d like to have a nice dinner out tonight. I just like ‘small town Saugatuck,’ the idea of getting out of Chicago for a hot weekend.”
He wrangled a group of friends to make the trip from Chicago and paid around $200 to rent a cottage. “It’s not cheap, but it’s a more mature move at this point,” Rogers said. He feels good about that.
Aaron Gettinger is a freelance writer in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @aarondgettinger.