Following is an interview with Bobbie Briefman, a Chicago sports enthusiast and activist. She survived a life-threatening injury in a construction accident more than two years ago. Windy City Times and En La Vida sat down to find out how her recovery is going.
WCT: Are you a native Chicagoan?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: Yes, I am. I was born on Sept. 5, 1967, and I grew up in Bridgeport, until I was about five, then we moved to Burbank. We were in the south suburbs after that.
WCT: What was your coming-out experience like?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: I believed I was gay when I was a kid, very young, around 6 or 7. I remember doing and saying certain things. I came out when I was a junior in high school, and officially came out to my family when I was 22. It was my grandmother's 81st birthday, and we were serving cake, and my grandmother was asking about my friend I was with, because she didn't know ... and I was like 'Mom, I've got to say something to you' and my sister's like, 'Oh my god! Don't say it.' But I was like 'Mom, I've got to tell you something,' and I looked at my grandmother and I started to cry, and I was like, 'I want to tell you that I'm gay, but I'm afraid that you're not going to love me the same.' And my mother just hugged me and cried, and my mom was like, 'I kind of figured you were.' You know, to be honest with you, as long as my family accepted me, I didn't care about anybody else. And they did accept me, so I was very fortunate.
WCT: It sounds like it might have been a pleasant surprise to you that they accepted you.
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: Yeah, a very pleasant surprise! I'd been in relationships since I was 17, 18 years old, and I'd been in the bar scene then, with fake ID's.
WCT: Were you going to Augie & CK's, Paris ...
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: Yes, I was at Augie & CK's! Paris wouldn't let me in! Charlie knew me, Linda wouldn't let me in Paris for nothing! But when I turned 21 and went in, they asked me, 'Haven't you been here for years?' I was like, but you never let me in!
WCT: Where did you go to high school?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: I went to Schurz High School, and I was out as a lesbian as a junior. I was on a softball team, and most of us were gay! In fact, one or two of them play in the same WSA league I'm involved in now as a coach. I was totally comfortable being out at school—I was a pompon girl, I was on the volleyball team, I was on the softball team, art club .... I was in everything.
WCT: What are your memories of first coming out into the lesbian scene in Chicago?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: I believe these were very happy and positive memories. I had the support of my family and met a lot of women. I sponsored my first softball team at the age of 22—I started the Baton Show Girls, from the Baton Lounge. Glen and I were very good friends, so he co-sponsored my first softball team. Now I have my own, Bobbie's Girls, for six or seven years. I had an accident two years ago, so I can't play softball anymore. But I still coach.
WCT: Tell us about the accident.
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: I'm a construction worker, and we subcontract for Ameritech. What happened was, we were on an emergency call that night —it was a Tuesday night, around 6 or 6:30. I was working in an open trench. My boss suggested that he didn't want to wait for the materials to shore the trench, because it was about seven-feet deep. Anything over five-feet deep, you shore for your safety. But he did not want to wait, so he told me to go in there and start servicing the cables. The sewer company was digging something during the day and snagged the cables, so the casement was exposed. So we covered the cables, so no other damage would happen. That's what I was doing that evening, and I had a partner with me who was cutting the material for me. I was in a seven-foot trench—and my partner jumped out to help my boss and for some reason, the trench collapsed on me. A big piece of concrete came off of the side of the ledge, and pinned me in the back, and bent me in half, and caught two of the vertebrae in my left side and left me paralyzed from the waist down. I'm pretty fortunate—my right leg has come back, and my left leg from the knee up has come back. My spinal surgeon says she doesn't think it will get much better, but I'm giving it at least three years, and it's been only two and a half. So I'm pretty positive.
WCT: Did you know right away how bad it was?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: I was conscious, but in shock, so no. I was stuck there for an hour. They rushed me to Illinois Masonic—their trauma unit is rated No. 1. Right away, they saw I needed spinal surgery. I was supposed to be in surgery for three hours, but something happened, and I was in surgery for seven hours, from complications. They treated me well—they were awesome.
WCT: Were you in a wheelchair for awhile?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: For a while. Then I got braces on my legs, and they taught me how to use a walker. I had physical therapy for a year and a half. Things are better now ... but I wish this had never happened. I was a very active person with sports, softball, volleyball, basketball, playing as well as coaching. I kind of saw myself as being forced into old age before my time, not being able to do anything anymore. When my accident happened, I had two assistant coaches, and even when I was in rehab for six weeks, my assistant coach Nina picked me up. I went to all the games.
WCT: Were you coaching too?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: I sat on the sidelines, but the next year I was back in progress. I try not to let much get me down.
WCT: What is your current status with Ameritech?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: My lawsuit is still in progress. I collect SSI Disability. I am also receiving my pension since I can't work construction anymore, and workmen's comp for the rest of my life.
WCT: What is your life like now?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: I get up around 9 or 10. My girlfriend and I own a beauty salon, Chely's Makeover, at 4248 W 63rd St., right off Pulaski. My girlfriend does the hair, facials, manicures, pedicures. I answer phones, talk to the customers. The customers are very nice. They know we're a lesbian couple. We have a rainbow sticker on our front door! Some customers are women from the neighborhood, and then some friends of ours who are very loyal also come down. We've had the shop for three or four months. It's going pretty well.
WCT: You also are a parent.
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: Yes, my girlfriend has a 10-year-old son and a 21-year-old. The little guy lives with us. He's in fourth grade. He thinks it's great to have two moms. It doesn't bother him—I pick him up, and they ask him who I am, and he says, 'that's my second mom.' He did have a friend come over one time who said something negative, so we suggested that we didn't want that kid coming over anymore.
WCT: Do you think Chicago's LGBTQ community has changed for better or worse since you came out?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: I believe it's better now. I really focused on sports in general, and I see that the lesbian community offers so many different activities for women who want to play. I want to be a part of it, and it makes me feel so good to see women doing things they love, such as sports, to see the smiles on their faces and their excitement. I see a lot of different women participating, not just the stereotyped sports dykes. Also, a lot more Latina women participate in my opinion. That's really great.
WCT: What else are you involved in?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: I'm a member of Amigas Latinas, a social and support group for Latina lesbians in Chicago. My friend Aurora Pineda suggested I check it out, and I've really enjoyed it. I try my best to attend meetings and fundraisers, dances.
WCT: What's it like being a mom?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: It's great! I think I've always wanted children, but I never had any of my own. I love parenting my girlfriend's kids, and my sister had some kids for me!
WCT: What would you say to women just getting involved in Chicago's LGBTQ community?
BOBBIE BRIEFMAN: One, to not feel negative in any way about being gay. To accept yourself. There's people out there to talk to, to lend an ear. Just get involved. There are so many things out there. Don't be shy!