In recognition of his 50 years of LGBT and HIV/AIDS activism, Gary Chichester will be honored with this year's Jon-Henri Award March 31 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Sidetrack.
The award was created by longtime community HIV/AIDS activist and Open Hand Chicago Founder Lori Cannon and is named after the late gay writer and queer thinker Jon Henri Damski.
"I am honored to be among the previous honorees to receive this award," said Chichester. "Through his writings, Jon-Henri helped open my eyes to the concerns of the community. I respect his presentence with helping to pass LGBT human rights and hate crimes legislation in the city."
"During the early days of the AIDS plague in Chicago, Gary was there to assist us with his level-headed mind for promotion, support and fundraising," said Cannon. "Gary's longtime respect and admiration for the curious and quirky Jon-Henri proved to be a memorable delight for both of them. This, along with his meaningful and long-lasting contributions to the LGBT community, are the reasons why I chose him for this year's award."
"I have known Gary since 1970, when we both participated in organizing for the first-ever Stonewall anniversary marchforerunner to what is now the annual Pride Parade," said previous Jon-Henri Award recipient Albert Williams. "Gary's service and dedication to Chicago's LGBT community is unsurpassed. I know our dear mutual friend, Jon-Henri, is delighted that Gary is receiving an award named in his honor."
"Gary has always been present in the moment," said longtime friend/fellow activist Dean Ogren. "When I met him I was a young, crazy, kid who was drinking and partying maybe too much, and he was the one who got me involved at events and galas as a volunteer because I did not have the money to spend. He loves to tell people that I 'love busy work' but by watching everything he did, and then also becoming present in the moment, I became a better person. I always said I wanted to grow up to be just like Gary and I hope I have."
"When it comes to passion for our rights and community he is in a league of his own and has managed to do it all with a sense of humor." said writer/activist Owen Keehnen. "This award is a deserving reminder of everything he has done on behalf of Chicago's LGBT community."
Chichester's journey toward activism began when he met his first long-term boyfriend Richard Barnes through some mutual friends after he moved back to Chicago in his late teens. He previously lived in Chicago's Old Town and Budlong Woods neighborhood before his family moved to the suburbs.
"Richard probably was the biggest influence on me when it came to thinking about what was going on in the world," said Chichester. "During the summer of 1969, a friend of Richard's called from New York with the news about the Stonewall Riots. Six months later, some friends and I found ourselves taking part in the gay liberation movement that was developing at the University of Chicago. We participated in the first anniversary march which is now know as the Pride Parade and much of the events surrounding it. Public dancing was another area we concentrated on. The movement was spreading across the nation and the world. It was an exciting time."
This was shortly after he realized he was gay on a family trip to Los Angeles during his junior year in high school at Maine East in Niles, Illinois ( where he met his fellow classmate Hillary Clinton on the freshman homecoming float committee ).
While in high school, he and his friends became weekly regulars on the now-defunct WGN dance show Spin Time; later, he learned he was not the only LGBT person on the show.
Moving back to Chicago and getting involved as an activist was a natural progression for Chichester because he loved the city and wanted to make it better. One person he met early on was the late Chuck Renslow who became a father-figure to him. ( His dad died when he was 13. )
"We were always looking for businesses to support our causes and the bar I was most comfortable in was Chuck's barAggie's Gold Coast ( GC )," said Chichester. "I got to know him and count on him for that support. I also ended up managing the GC and stayed with Chuck at various businesses for over 13 years. He always encouraged my LGBT activism and was a true mentor to me. I miss him so much."
In addition to working for Renslow, Chichester made his living in the catering and events businesses as a special events planner and manager for a number of companies among other professional endeavors.
"While I was working as an event producer there were many interesting and fun experiences," said Chichester. "The one that really stands out is the Trip of a Lifetime cruise we did for Harpo Studios. A two week cruise across the Mediterranean with Oprah and her crew. We took over a year to plan and organize, and it turned out to be just magical."
Chichester co-founded the Chicago Gay Alliance ( CGA ) in 1971 and served as its first president until 1973. CGA later opened the first LGBT community center in the city, started a newspaper, created an LGBT library, started a help line and was instrumental in getting the first Pride Parade off the ground.
Over the years, Chichester was involved in organizing the Metropolitan Business Association, Chicago Gay Health Project, Gay Rights National Lobby, Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago, 1987's Hands Across America, the 1979 and 1987 National Marches on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the NAMES Project, Gay and Lesbian Press Association, National Association of People with AIDS, Strike Against AIDS and most recently the Chicago Commission on Human Relations' ( CCHR ) Advisory Council on LGBT issues until it was disbanded shortly after Mayor Rahm Emanuel was sworn into office.
"When I became a CCHR advisory council member; Linda Rodgers, Thom Dombkowski and myself were trying to figure out how to acquire more visibility for the council," said Chichester. "We took a lead from the Women's Council and with a few tweaks came up with what is now known as the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame. Our first induction took place in 1991 at city hall during Mayor Richard M. Daley's Pride Reception. I was inducted in 1992 and I thought it was great. I served on the board for over 35 years and just stepped down this past Dec."
Of the many fundraising endeavors Chichester has been involved with over the decades, the International Mr. Leather ( IML ) and Circus Vargas Big Top Benefit are the ones that stand out to him.
"We created a rather unique and fun IML weekend that at one point was considered the fourth largest convention in Chicago," said Chichester. "My experience with IML gave me the skills that led to my career as a producer in the corporate events industry.
"Along with my dear friend, Roger RJ Chaffin, we organized a series of AIDS benefits called Circus Vargas Big Top Benefit that raised over $500,000 for community AIDS agencies. The final year, in 1992, on a promise of a sizable donation from Jeffrey McCourt; RJ and I performed on the aerial trapeze as the 'Flying Rotundas.' The Chicago She-Devils were our TA-DA girls and Larry McKeon was the official medic."
Chichester learned how to perform on the aerial trapeze when he ran away to join the circus for a time and since then has performed as Buttons T. Clown at various venues.
Additionally, Chichester has lent his planning and fundraising talents to many other causes over the decades including the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic and 1977's Orange Balls I and II to fight Anita Bryant.
Chichester noted that his greatest accomplishment is his work with the Hall of Fame alongside William Kelly, Israel Wright, Mary Morten, Phil Hannama and others to document Chicago's LGBT community.
"As I reflect back over the years I have been a gay man in Chicago, I think of all the people who influenced my life," said Chichester. "Some are still here, others we have lost. That is why I respect the Jon-Henri Award, the LGBT Hall of Fame, the Legacy Project, Gerber/Hart Library and all the folks that document our history and make us stronger."