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Center on Halsted gala marks 10th anniversary
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by Matt Simonette

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According to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Center on Halsted is the "beating heart for the gay and lesbian community of the City of Chicago."

Emanuel spoke May 20 at the Center's 10th anniversary Human First gala, held for the second year at the Geraghty on the Near Southwest Side, and reminisced about the organization's impact on the city's LGBT community, as well as the progress that community has made in the past 10 years.

The community, he said, exemplified "the changing of a culture and a set of values … . I want to thank the gay and lesbian community for reminding us what our values are."

Emanuel fired up the crowd when he spoke about Chicago's status as a "welcoming city" for immigrants and refugees, urging the crowd not to let President Donald Trump's rhetoric and actions "spread the fear."

He added, "When they come to Chicago, we have one thing to say to them: 'Welcome home.'"

Former President Barack Obama sent a letter, read by Emanuel, that paid tribute to the evening's award winner, philanthropist and activist Fred Eychaner, as well as the Center's legacy. Obama also sent a videotaped testimonial.

"With each passing year, the Center becomes an integral part of the community, providing essential support and programmng for thousands of LGBT Chicagoans," Obama said in the letter. "Whether working to build safe spaces, improve mental health and well-being or offering education and training for LGBT youth, your efforts are helping reach for a more inclusive future, one in which all people, no matter who they are, feel valued, no matter who they love."

Obama called Eychaner a "critical" part of the efforts of both the Center and the larger community.

"Over the years, Fred has empowered countless organizations to create change in their communities, whether they are striving to eradicate HIV/AIDS or making arts accessible to everyone."

Accepting his award, Eychaner, who generally eschews the public spotlight, spoke of his past activism but also called on the audience to do more to defeat right-wing efforts to hinder progress that the community has made in recent years.

"We as a community face our biggest threat since the early days of AIDS," he said. "… The wingnuts are on a relentless march to roll back the rights of LGBTs."

Eychaner added, "We know who's running this country and we know what we have to do about it."

He especially focused on the passage of Trump's Affordable Health Care Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and pointed to the dangers inherent in the legislation, noting, "Each and every one of us will end up with a 'pre-existing condition.'"

The healthcare controversy means the LGBT community "is in the fight of our lives again," Eychaner said, adding that it will take letters to politicians, public protests and cold-calling the public, among other efforts, to defeat the right in this struggle.

"The message is this: We've got to do something," he said. "Writing a check is important, but it's not enough in itself. … Like America, our LGBT community is strongest when we're united."

Center on Halsted CEO Modesto Tico Valle spoke of both the fortuitous timing of the Center launching just as Obama was enjoying a quick rise in national politics, as well as the unfortunate timing of its opening just as the real-estate market collapse began a protracted economic collapse. He noted however that the Center responded with initiatives that partially answered economic challenges that the community faced. Among the efforts he mentioned were the Silver Fork program that trained young people to work in restaurants and the Town Hall Apartments that responded to the need for affordable housing for LGBT seniors.

He said that about 3.5 million people have walked through the Center's doors since opening in 2007. Like Eychaner, Valle noted that the community still faces numerous struggles.

"It wasn't over when the Center opened and it wasn't over when marriage was won," he said. Among the issues he called attention to were transgender-, immigrants- and women's-rights, as well as issues pertaining to youths experiencing homelessness.

"We will continue to fight until all of us are human first," Valle said.

The Center's legacy goes back to the early 1970s, when Gay Horizons was founded, altered called Horizons Community Services. In 2007, Horizons became the Center on Halsted.

Besides Emanuel, other elected and appointed officials in attendance included former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, state Sen. Heather Steans ( D-Chicago ); state Sen. ( and 2018 gubernatorial candidate ) Daniel Biss ( D-Chicago ); former state Sen. Carol Ronen; U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley ( D-Chicago ); Alds. Raymond Lopez ( 15th ), Deb Mell ( 33rd ), and Tom Tunney ( 44th ); Lake Forest Ald. Prue Beidler ( 1st ); Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Debra Shore; and Chicago Commission on Human Relations Commissioner Mona Noriega. Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker was also there.

Center on Halsted officials estimated that more than 800 guests attended.

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