Famed columnist and sport writer LZ Granderson shared the love Wednesday night at Fountain Street Church as part of Grand Rapids Community College’s 18th Annual Diversity Lecture Series.
The openly gay writer warmly addressed the audience as his “West Michigan family” and set the tone for the night by opening with a reading of the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. He heard the poem for the first time in second grade and it inspired him to start writing. The 40-year-old Michigan native spoke of how growing up poor in Detroit meant every day was about survival, leaving no room for dreams, but he didn’t let that stop him.
“Don’t ever think that where you start dictates where you are going to go,” said Granderson to the attentive crowd. “I just kept following my bliss, and writing is my bliss.”
Though Granderson has a full and successful career writing for CNN and ESPN while also appearing regularly on both channels, he chooses to live and raise his family in West Michigan. He spoke on how crucial it is for one to be visible, that what changes culture isn’t media representation like “Will and Grace” or Ellen, but everyday people living their lives.
He shared his own journey going from being married to coming out to dating men and raising his son.
Granderson, a devout Christian, was a youth minister at the time of his coming out and was cast out by the church he felt he had found family in. He said that the rejection of the church caused him to reject God. He said he spent the next several years feeling lost, until he finally found himself praying again and felt whole.
“I am gay and black and Christian,” he said. “I cannot drive a wedge through the parts of my being… We have a problem here, and the problem is that we are having a hard time maintaining our faith and beliefs without imposing them on others.”
Much of Granderson’s writing puts emphasis on the oft-construed fact that the lives gay people lead are not at all different from the lives of their straight counter parts.
“Too often, discussions about gay people focus on the sex, as if everyone is having lot of it,” he said. “I don’t worship Barbara Streisand or watch TV shows with the word “housewives” in the title. I like fishing, beer and Madonna.”
He also touched on how intolerance in West Michigan hurts the economy we are trying to rebuild, stating that large companies recognize that Grand Rapids is not diverse or tolerant enough and they are not going to come here looking for talent.
“Having a healthy interaction and embracing the gay community will bring talent, jobs and companies to West Michigan.”
After his speech, a Q&A was held during which many audience members, clearly inspired by Granderson’s radiant positivity, stepped forward to thank him for being there and for doing what he does everyday, pushing the world to be tolerant and respectful of all people and to not let progress waiver.
“We keep getting tripped up by ignorance, which leads to fear, which leads to hate…love love love,” he said. “The word love is used more times than any other word in the bible.”
Several audience members asked Granderson about experiences being a gay parent and how he felt coming out to his son. “Understand that your child deserves to know who they are so that they can love you,” he said. “I want my son to know his father.”
Being a parent to his 16-year-old son is the main focus of his life, and many of his columns focus on parenting, speaking out against the idea many people have that raising a child as a gay person is any different that raising a child as a straight person.
Granderson had encouraging words for those facing dreams that may seem out of reach:
“Protect your dreams…You are the most important person to making sure that you are successful. You have to own it.”
Granderson’s warm, loving and powerful message left the audience aglow.
For Joe Vugteveen, 28, of Grand Rapids, this wasn’t the first time being in the presence of Granderson’s vibrant energy.
“I’ve heard him speak a few times, and he is incredibly inspirational every time you hear him,” Vugteveen said. “He always has a way to present the information that he wants to talk about in a way that any audience member can relate to. His ability to relate very personably…he has lived everything he talks about. To hear about his experiences is pretty inspiring.”
Sue Wallis of Grand Rapids was also among those left inspired.
“I was extremely happy that I came because this man is so authentic,” Wallis said. “His demeanor with all of the questions was so awesome because he truly cares about everybody, and he wants to pass on what he has learned in life.”
Speaking at Fountain Street Church is serendipitous for Granderson, who started out as a reporter for the Grand Rapids Press 15 years ago covering the Diversity Lecture Series. He has since gone on to be awarded the 2009 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Award for online journalism and was nominated for the same award in 2008 and 2010 and serves as a member of Advisory Board for You Can Play, an organization that fights homophobia in sports.
The final lecture of this season will be presented by Susan Cain, who will speak on her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” I will take place at 7 p.m. March 13 at Fountain Street Church, located at 24 Fountain St. NE in Grand Rapids.