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Bruises left on Chicago's LGBTQ community by violence
Windy City Times Special Investigative Series: LGBTQs and the Criminal Legal System
by Melissa Wasserman

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In March 2011, Dejon said good night to his friends and headed home from an evening out in Boystown. As he was walking down the sidewalk, a man wearing a ski mask got out of his car and charged toward him, screaming. Dejon was robbed, stabbed and left almost dead. He called for an ambulance.

"Having it happen to me then was really that eye-opener to change situations," Dejon, 23, said. "I feel like I was a very naive child, walking through life with no care in the world and that situation opened my eyes that there's more going on out here and I have to be proactive and have to try and help change it. I take every situation as an inspiring situation, so if I can't learn a lesson or I can't help people learn from a situation, then I don't feel like it's a worthy situation."

Not long after Dejon's attack, four of his close friends were murdered because of their sexual orientation in a span of six months on the South Side, he said.

Those violent incidents were more difficult for Dejon as he realized he could have been the person in the casket and another number in the death count among LGBTQ youth. He also recounts numerous violent encounters he has seen at LGBTQ clubs.

"This was the major wake-up call for me," said Dejon. "These are intense things that happen to people, and for me to have experienced that and be able to see it happen to someone else and they didn't come out with the same result, it makes me grateful that I was able to make it through that situation, but it still makes me hurt because I feel horrible they had to get that final result.

"It gets to a point where I can't even watch the news because I see it happen so often. If there are no mortalities, then it's not a regular day. It's really tough, but the best way to make it through is to see that silver lining. To say, 'This is what the problem is, let's start looking for a solution. Who do we need to talk to? What do we need to do?'"

TJ Williams, an African-American LGBTQ activist, is heavily involved in the church and committed to amplifying the voices of Black gay preachers who support LGBTQ equality. Currently, he is a Master of Divinity student at New York Theological Seminary and a member of the Riverside Church in New York City. Williams is insistent that issues of justice are diverse, and he pushes LGBTQ leaders to see how those issues affect the city as a whole.

"I am concerned that we are in the midst of a genocide, not just within the African-American community, but also among our children," said Williams. "When the most innocent of us have been taken away from us, it should prompt all of us to act, including LGBT leadership, that we cannot be silent on violence in this nation."

Violence against LGBT people can also come in the form of verbal violence.

Tre'Shon Davis experienced such violence in his home when he came out as gay and began dating his boyfriend soon after. The 18-year-old's mother, with whom he had what he described as "the perfect relationship," began verbally abusing him, calling him names and remarking on his sexual orientation.

After about seven months, Davis felt there was no other choice but to move in with his grandmother. Eventually, the contact between him and his mother ended completely.

"It made me stronger, it taught me not to harp on things," said Davis. "I know things are going to get tough and there's going to come a time that I'm going to experience something that's way more extreme than what I have been through. No matter what hard times you've been through, you can't let that tear you down, or you can't let that stress you. You can only look at that as an obstacle you overcame and an obstacle that has made you stronger."

Both men volunteer for National Youth Pride Services in Chicago and live on the South Side.

Founded in 2003, NYPS has approximately 1,500 members in 32 states, ranging from 13 to 24 years old. The organization trains, educates and develops future leaders with the overall mission "to meet and exceed the needs of African-American LGBTQ youth and those who provide resources to them," adopting the day-to-day motto "youth at hope; not at risk."

NYPS President/CEO and Founder Frank Walker created the group as a result of frustrations he heard while volunteering with youth, about the lack of programs led by Black LGBTQ youth geared toward Black LGBTQ youth. He describes the group as being disciplined and structured, which reflects his own upbringing.

"Everything was predominately on the North Side and predominately youth of color, but not run by people of color," said Walker. "So we decided there needed to be something that youth led and had a say in and closer to the neighborhood with people that looked more like them that they can relate to."

Currently, the Black LGBTQ community, Walker said, does not have an organized agenda. In his view, the agenda that is established among the mainstream LGBTQ community does not reflect the needs of the non-mainstream and is not open to discussion.

"The powers that be in the LGBT community, they determine what the agenda is going to be. It usually does not actually reflect the actual immediate need of Black LGBT folks," said Walker. "So that's probably one of the biggest things that I have noticed as I travel from city to city. I believe people who are suffering daily to the point of death and suicide are more urgent than people who are not on the verge of death, or suicide, or depression. If we can save some lives, that should be the priority, in my opinion. I just believe you go by what's more dire now. That should be on the agenda."

Aisha Truss-Miller, program director of Affinity Community Services, sees various cases of violence that the Black female LGBTQ community faces, and not just interpersonal violence. She sees cases of self-inflicted personal violence, in which people inflict harm on themselves, and the structural violence that marginalizes people along with the violence imposed upon those people.

Self-harm, she explains, includes drug and tobacco use and failure to cope with mental and physical health issues because of lack of resources.

Alternatively, violence and discrimination among LGBTQ youth in particular come in the form of bullying from peers and teachers. Religious bullying is an issue that makes it difficult for people to find places to worship.

Additionally, she listed the trauma young people face in Chicago from community violence, in which she has seen young people who have been robbed, jumped and shot.

Among the Black LGBTQ youth he works with, Walker said the main forms of violence he sees are verbal abuse and physical abuse. Some of the most common issues, such as lack of parental support, acceptance or basic rights, lead to violence. He is certain it develops from a combination of things that eventually boils over.

"I was always told growing up that hurt people hurt other people," said Walker. "I used to wonder why so many LGBTQ youth were fighting each other, and it's mainly because a lot of people—not all—who are always oppressed and have a lot of emotions don't know how to express it and they don't control their anger management, so they tend to go out and express that anger violently towards people they are around."

Truss-Miller believes that violence has not made much of an impact on Chicago's mainstream LGBTQ community, that it is not considered an LGBTQ issue as much as it is seen as a Black issue.

"I think violence in general within the LGBTQ community is on the back burner, and that is not a priority on the agenda," said Truss-Miller. "It also helps create conflict, which breaks down the LGBTQ community by class and by race because then different communities have different agendas."

She highlights what she sees as a difference in awareness of violence from the North Side to the South.

"The Black community is well aware of violence attacking their community," said Truss-Miller. "But we're at a point to where we are desensitized, and it's become a normal way of life for us, and these are normal actions or deemed as normal actions. We're also in mourning, so it's hard to address something and try to heal from it at the same time. You're angry that this issue isn't an important issue to other people who are reaching out to you and calling you community. It's a challenge, and I think we're well aware of what the violence is doing to us in our communities, but if I go into the Loop or cross downtown and go north, people are aware if they hear the news, but because it doesn't hit home for them it doesn't matter."

Dejon witnesses the difference, as he is a South Side resident who travels north to enjoy the nightlife.

"It's tough," he said. "Some people have to literally bring two separate clothing options. One for the travel to where they're going and the other for when they get there, because they can be who they are when they get to where they're going but on the way there, if they dress that way, they will not make it far. It doesn't sit well with me. I don't like that freedom of expression is limited [on the South Side]."

Truss-Miller insists the lack of a collective LGBT agenda or interest is the recipe for failure when it comes to issues of violence.

Williams wants to see national conversations between leaders after LGBTQ youth violence or deaths occur.

"If we get back to those old values that revolve around peace and justice, of children being able to be children and enjoy each other without visualizing blood and guts, we will begin to heal a next generation," said Williams. "We have got to stop glorifying violent crimes. There has to be a collective outcry to that."

Affinity aims to support survivors and victims of violence through speaking engagements, collaborating with other organizations and marginalized communities, and doing collective research.

The group has also pushed for anti-bullying legislation. The organization also supports the proposed Violence Against Women and Girls Act.

"Creating and sustaining safe spaces for community to develop and people to develop mentally, spiritually, emotionally, holistically—that's our primary focus at Affinity because these things can be addressed," said Truss-Miller. "It's a safe space to have these conversations."

For Dejon, the violence he can encounter, and has seen head-on in the past, encourages him to try to be a model for other people.

"I feel I should be a great example for the homophobic, for the heterosexuals who have no understanding of our lifestyle or us as a people," said Dejon. "I try to inspire people and tell people that change is coming and you don't have to stay in that mentality, and violence is not always the answer, especially in this situation."

Dejon channels his heartbreak into music as he writes it and sings. He volunteers at a performing arts school. He wants to help give youth positive outlets and better opportunities.

"Just like that life-changing situation happened to me, I feel like something big has to happen and people are literally going to see the situation and be moved by it," he said. "They're going to return back to humanity. I know it won't happen overnight. Until that big thing happens, I'd rather plant a lot of little seeds, especially in our youth to try and keep them growing in the right direction."

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