Hazel Park native and award-winning author to present at library

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published June 23, 2021

 In this photo from 2019, Frank Anthony Polito, right, raises an LGBTQ Pride Flag at Hazel Park City Hall with Hazel Park City Councilman Mike McFall. Polito is an award-winning author and activist  who grew up in Hazel Park. He will be speaking at the local library this month.

In this photo from 2019, Frank Anthony Polito, right, raises an LGBTQ Pride Flag at Hazel Park City Hall with Hazel Park City Councilman Mike McFall. Polito is an award-winning author and activist who grew up in Hazel Park. He will be speaking at the local library this month.

File photo by Donna Agusti

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HAZEL PARK — June is LGBTQ Pride Month, and the Hazel Park Memorial District Library will be hosting an award-winning author who made a name for himself with a series of literary works featuring LGBTQ themes, inspired by his own experiences as a gay man growing up in Hazel Park.

Frank Anthony Polito is the author of the novels “Band Fags!” (2008), “Drama Queers!” (2009) and “The Spirit of Detroit” (2013), which together form a trilogy, focusing on a cast of characters who attended Hazel Park High School during the mid-to-late ‘80s, inspired by Polito himself and his closest friends. “Drama Queers!” won a Lambda Literary Award.

Polito will be discussing his works during a presentation at the library, 123 E. Nine Mile Road, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Friday, June 25. Registration is required. There will be limited seating at the venue, but the library will also be streaming the event on Zoom. For the link, visit the library’s website at hazel-park.lib.mi.us. The library can also be reached at (248) 546-4095.

“It’s always fun when the library has the chance to offer a talk with a local author, but Frank Anthony Polito is so much more,” said Hazel Park librarian Randy Ernst-Meyer in an email. “He is the author of books and screenplays, an actor and an activist. We are very excited to have him speak here and on Zoom.

“Best of all, our teens who attend our Fun Fridays program here at the library will have a chance to interact with him and hear about his upcoming book,” Ernst-Meyer said. “We’re all really happy to have him come here — I can’t wait to meet him.”

“Band Fags!” is the first book in the trilogy and follows the adventures of Jack Paterno, who is based on Polito himself, from the ages of 14-18 in Hazel Park circa the mid-to-late ‘80s. Jack has known he’s gay all his life, but he spends much of the story trying to deny his sexuality. When his best friend since seventh grade, Bradley Dayton, comes out to him, Jack begins to entertain the idea of accepting that he is also gay.

“Many of my own experiences with my actual best friend are fictionalized in the book, including my first trip to a Detroit gay bar called The Gas Station, back when I was just 16 years old,” Polito said in an email.

“Drama Queers!” is the second book, set in the same world, focusing on Bradley during 1987 and 1988, when he and Jack are seniors.

“In the first book, we don’t see much of Brad during this section, so now we get to find out what he was up to while he and Jack were estranged,” Polito said.

Bradley is deeply involved with the Hazel Park High Drama Club. When the lead role in the school play goes to an attractive freshman named Richie Tyler, Bradley doesn’t mind having the opportunity to spend time with him every day after school during rehearsals. He soon finds himself developing feelings for him. But then an older boy warns Bradley against coming out, telling him it will risk his dreams of becoming an actor.

“Brad begins to play it straight, going against everything he’s ever stood for,” Polito said.

The trilogy then concludes with “The Spirit of Detroit,” set in 1991 and 1992. Bradley is once again the protagonist, and Jack makes cameo appearances. Bradley has decided to return to college and enroll in the theater program at Wayne State.

“There, he meets another super cute boy — and, much to his surprise, a super cute girl,” Polito said. “Brad can’t believe it, but he thinks that he might be bisexual, and begins to explore what this new sexual identity means for him and his future.”

“The Spirit of Detroit” pays homage to Polito’s favorite novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” by Michael Chabon, with a similar plot, but from the perspective of a gay man.

“The story is mostly fiction, but I do base some of Brad’s experiences on my own, when I was a student in the Theatre Department at Wayne State myself in the early 1990s,” Polito said.

“In all of these stories runs the theme of a man questioning his own sexuality and learning to accept himself. Like both Jack and Brad, I wasn’t proud of being gay when I was in high school,” Polito said. “In college, I met my partner when I was 19 years old. A few friends knew about our relationship but we kept it a secret from most everyone else, including our families, out of fear that we wouldn’t be accepted and that it would damage our chances of having an acting career someday down the line. Back then, there weren’t many — if any — out actors. There weren’t any TV shows that featured gay characters, especially in a lead role, and most gay characters in movies were played by straight actors looking to win an Oscar.”

Polito also has experience with other storytelling formats. “Band Fags!” started as a stage play called “John R” that was produced in New York City in October 2001. The 2008 novelization was then turned back into a play in San Francisco in 2013, and then it premiered at the Slipstream Theatre in Hazel Park in 2015, with minor revisions made to the script and a new title, “BFs!” Polito has also adapted both “Band Fags!” and “Drama Queers!” into screenplays. A TV pilot script based on characters from both books was later adapted into a mobile story game called “CHEER!”

Not all of his works carry LGBTQ themes. In 2012, Polito self-published a young adult novel called “Lost in the ’90s,” also set in Hazel Park but entirely fictitious, about a teen boy from 2012 who travels back in time to 1994, where he meets his teenage mom and dad at Hazel Park High and helps them fall in love. The story is filled with local references, including such familiar fixtures in Hazel Park as Country Boy and House of Shamrocks.

More recently, Polito finished writing his first book not about teens. “Renovated to Death” is a mystery novel, set to be published next June, set in the fictitious Detroit suburb of Pleasant Woods. The story follows a gay millennial couple who co-host a popular home renovation show on Home Design TV, and what happens when the owner of a house they’ve been hired to rehab is found dead inside the home. Polito is already working on a followup, “Rehearsed to Death,” to be published in June 2023, about the same couple solving the mysterious death of a prominent community theater director at the Royal Heights Playhouse.

As someone who grew up in Hazel Park and continues to set stories in and around the city, Polito has a deep fascination with his hometown. He recalled how it used to be, and how it has changed over the years.

“Back in my day, the town seemed small and a bit close-minded. In school, I was teased, called names and made fun of, because everyone knew that I was gay, no matter much how I tried to hide it,” Polito said. “In recent years, I’ve run into a lot of the boys who bullied me — on social media or at high school reunions — and for the most part, they’ve all been nothing but supportive and proud of my accomplishments.

“In retrospect, I think that maybe when we were young, they were just parroting the things they heard from their fathers or other male figures in their lives. I don’t necessarily think they were homophobic — they just didn’t know any better,” Polito said. “Regarding the physical changes in Hazel Park, I was shocked to see just how massive the Tri-County Commerce Center (at the site of the former Hazel Park Raceway) has become. Like, it literally encompasses a quarter of the town!

“I’m also a big fan of Joe Bar and Mabel Gray on John R, and the fact that a Pride Flag is flying in front of City Hall during the month of June blows my mind!” he said. “Never in my wildest dreams did the teenage me think that one day this is something he would witness. I didn’t stop to consider that things could ever get better. But thanks to folks like Hazel Park council members Mike McFall and Alissa Sullivan, and state Sen. Jeremy Moss, the LGBTQIA+ community now has a voice and representation in The Friendly City, and I couldn’t be more proud of my hometown.”

He said he feels encouraged by the huge outpouring of support in society for sexual and gender minorities, even if society still has a long way to go to ensure equality for all.

“I know things aren’t perfect, especially for the trans community. I can’t pretend to be an expert, but I’ve been doing some reading and familiarizing myself with the trans experience over the past couple years that I’ve been working on a trans-themed screenplay,” Polito said. “Discrimination is still very prevalent, with trans girls not being allowed to participate in school sports, and the whole bathroom issue that came about a while back. Like any person who experiences discrimination, we need to stop and think about these people as human beings first. All anybody wants is the right to live, love, and be loved the way that they want.” 

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