Lois Bates, a longtime transgender activist and community leader passed away Nov. 17, just three days before Transgender Day of Remembrance. She was 41 years old.
"She was a lover, a fighter, an activist, an advocate, and an inspiration to many including myself," said Owen Daniel-McCarter of the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois. "She will be missed."
Bates was transgender health manager at Howard Brown Health Center and was an active advocate for the HIV community.
Bates had a long history of activism within the LGBT community.
She was an active member of Lakeview Action Coalition and was a co-founder of the Chicago Transgender Coalition. Her past work included serving as program director of the Minority Outreach Intervention Project and as vice president of Chicago Windy City Black Pride. She also served on the HIV Prevention Planning Group as well as the Chicago Area Ryan White Services Planning Council.
In addition, Bates was a minister and a member of the Pillar of Love Fellowship United Church of Christ.
"Lois Bates was a friend and a true leader of the transgender community locally and nationally," said Joy Morris, a Chicago-based transgender activist who worked with Bates.
Bates grew up on Chicago's Southeast Side, one of four children. She attended Chicago Vocational Career Academy and went on to serve in U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Upon returning home, she enrolled in cosmetology school.
Bates held several odd jobs over the years, but she found her calling in transgender advocacy, a profession she made into a life's work over decades.
"She always worked, and she wouldn't slow down, even when she was sick," said Spanky Dupree-Hawkins, a member of Bates' chosen family.
Bates' impact on Chicago's LGBT community was profound.
Many credit Bates with helping bring to light challenges facing transgender youth, transgender people of color and HIV-positive transgender people. Bates pushed for better surveillance data on transgender women and HIV, a group that has been categorized as "men who have sex with men" or MSM in the past.
She mentored countless transgender youth, often making sure they had access to basic needs like food, shelter and gender-affirming healthcare.
Youth Pride Services called Bates "one of the greatest African-American transgender advocates Chicago has ever known" in an email to constituents."
"Not only was Lois a donor to our organization, she taught Trans 101 at YPC University, and was in the first Living Legends Black History class that honors those who have paved the way for LGBT youth of color, the first and only [ transgender ] person to receive the honor," the organization wrote.
Youth Pride said it will look into creating a scholarship honoring Bates.
Veteran activist Rick Garcia also commented on the loss. "She was strong and courageous and deeply committed," he said. Garcia added that Bates was not just a role model for the transgender community, but for the LGBT community as a whole.
However, Bates had significant importance for Chicago's transgender community in particular, often bridging the divides of age and race within a community that was often divided along those lines.
Many in the community simply knew her as "mother" or "auntie," titles that not only referred to her relationship to individuals but seemingly to the community as a whole.
While Bates often sat close to controversies that impacted the large LGBT community ( the schism of Black Pride events, fallouts at Howard Brown Health Center and other community fissures ) , Bates tended to publicly avoid being drawn in. She was known as a person who worked regardless of such challenges, quietly focusing on her community and only speaking when the moment truly necessitated it.
Consequently, few of Bates' peers spoke ill of her throughout her career. In fact, most of her closest colleagues, even those older than her, saw her as more of a mentor than a peer.
"I considered Lois to be the 'mother' of the African -American trans community as well a mother and a mentor to all," said Helena Bushong, a well-known transgender activist. "Lois was present for us in need of direction as we entered our 'authentic' lives. Lois was and shall continue to be an inspiration in my advocacy issues regarding the HIV aging population and the trans community. It is with Lois' grace of understanding, acceptance, guidance and unstoppable courage I am who I am today."
Many have credited Bates with aiding them through their own gender transitions, as Bates facilitated Howard Brown Health Center's "T-Time" support group.
"She played a very important role in my personal transition and was a mentor for me," said June LaTrobe, transgender liaison at the Center on Halsted.
Several who remember Bates noted that she was private about the challenges she faced, while she worked tirelessly for Chicago's most marginalized people.
Bates struggled with myriad health issues. She had diabetes and was HIV-positive. In addition, she suffered renal failure twice. At the age of 26, Bates learned she needed a kidney transplant, news that complicated her ability then to start her transition to female.
A few years ago, Bates was the victim of what she believed may have been a hate crime. While at a gas station, another patron overheard her on the phone and thought Bates was talking to him. He attacked her, and she fought back with a blade she kept in her pocketbook in case of an emergency. Bates shared with friends that she believed the incident might have been motivated by the fact that she was transgender, but she did not pursue charges against her attacker.
"Lois didn't want the publicity of it," said longtime friend Tawain Kelly.
After that, friends said, Bates' health declined.
"She began to get sick periodically from that point," said Dupree-Hawkins. Her kidney failed shortly after, he said, and her health never fully recovered.
Bates had been in and out of the hospital leading up to her death. However, few knew she was very ill until she passed away.
According to Dupree-Hawkins, Bates was rushed into emergency surgery at Advocate Trinity Hospital after suffering breathing problems. Her health declined and her liver failed shortly after. She passed away while on life support in the early morning hours of Nov. 17.
Bates is survived by her mother, Dolores Bates, and three siblings.
Every year, Bates hosted "The Night of Fallen Stars," a collaborative Transgender Day of Remembrance event with Center on Halsted that featured performances by transgender youth. The upbeat variety show was held at Center on Halsted immediately after a somber tribute to transgender victims of hate violence.
Bates was expected to coordinate and emcee the Nov. 20 show, scheduled for Nov. 20. Instead, said LaTrobe, the show would be cancelled and replaced with a remembrance of Bates.
A wake for Bates will be held on Sunday, Nov. 27 at Pillar of Love Fellowship United Church of Christ, 7438 W. 62nd Pl. from 4:00- 7:00 p.m. Services will be held Monday, Nov. 28 at Galting's Chapel, 10133 S. Halsted, at 11:00 a.m.