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OUTspoken! marks one year of LGBTQ storytelling
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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OUTspoken!, Chicago's monthly LGBTQ storytelling event at Sidetrack, is the brainchild of David Fink ( co-founder, producer and board member at the Acorn Theatre in Three Oaks, Michigan ) and Art Johnston ( co-owner of Sidetrack )—and is marking its first anniversary.

Fink, who lives part-time in both Chicago and Michigan, has held storytelling events at his theater on and off for about 12 years and wanted to do something similar in Chicago.

"I'm good friends with Art, and I knew he had a great story to tell," said Fink. "I asked him if he would be willing to tell it at a storytelling show. He wasn't sure what that meant so I took him to one and he loved it and told his story. He asked if there were any LGBTQ specific storytelling shows in Chicago and I said I didn't think there were any so he asked me if I wanted to do one with him and I said 'yes.'

"A group of us went through a number of different ideas for the name and the one we chose just sounded clever and catchy. There are many, many events with the name OUT somewhere in it and since all of our storytellers are out LGBTQ individuals OUTspoken! seemed evocative, catchy and perfect for us."

OUTspoken! is held the first Tuesday of every month at Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted St., and is free of charge. The next event—featuring stories from Tracy Baim, Bea Cordelia, LeVan D. Hawkins, Archy Jamjun, Alexis Martinez and Jeffrey Tomlinson—will take place Aug. 4 at 7-9 p m. ( Attendees must be at least 21. )

Fink curates the event while Sidetrack General Manager Brad Balof is the stage manager during the event. Johnston and Kim Hunt ( outgoing executive director of Affinity Community Services ) serve as co-hosts each month.

"Art was very willing and anxious to do it and then we wanted a woman of color because the more white males you have, the more it's going to feel like Boystown," said Fink. "We wanted to make the event inclusive and diverse and since Kim loves storytelling, is an activist and [is] well-known in the community, she was the perfect choice to co-host alongside Art."

Hunt explained that she got involved when Johnston called her one day out of the blue last June. She was out of the office at the time so a staff person took the message. Hunt noted that it was odd because there's never been a reason for Johnston to call her for anything in the past.

"When I returned his call, he started telling me about a storytelling event he'd attended and he asked me if I'd ever heard of The Moth," said Hunt. "I told him that it's only one of my favorite podcasts and that I'd been wanting to do something like The Moth in the LGBTQ community for years. That's when he told me about what he and David had in mind and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. Before he could really get the words out, I said yes. I thought I was saying yes to telling a story. He emailed me shortly after we hung up to ask if I'd co-host the show, too. I thought I was saying 'yes' to co-hosting the first show. But I've co-hosted every show since, and I love it."

Fink explained that the ultimate goal of the series is to record the stories and do a podcast for those who are unable to attend the live events.

"This way people from all over the world can find the people who've performed that they connect and relate to even though they aren't in the same geographic area," said Fink. "I think the LGBTQ community is a disparate group of people with sometimes little in common, particularly when trans people are included in the mix. In the end, we're all human beings with human experiences and when you're in the room with somebody talking to them or hearing them speak you're able to connect and relate to them."

Over the past year OUTspoken! has featured stories from more than 70 speakers, including Johnston, Hunt, Fink, Baim, Balof, Patrick Gill, Jim Bennett, Laura Stempel, Mary Morten, C.C. Carter, Pastor Jamie Frazier, Tamale Sepp, Willa Taylor, Tyler Greene, Pat Ewert, Pat McCombs, Scott Duff, Anna DeShawn, Angelica Ross, Jamie Black and Gary Barlow.

"I program for diversity and the audience seems to match the diversity of the people on stage," said Fink. "I don't know of any other place in Boystown that has this mix of age, gender, race and ethnicity all in one place enjoying each other's company and shared experience.

"We try to make each month's event feel like an amazing cocktail party with really interesting guests. Kim, Art and I are all hosts and that doesn't mean just doing introductions. That means greeting people when they arrive, making them feel comfortable and welcome particularly for those who don't spend much, if any time, in Boystown to let them know that they belong here."

Fink noted that they've had a number of interesting/surprising stories over the past year. Green, who works at WBEZ, told a story about how his boyfriend/now-fiancee Joe's mom, who lives in China, finally accepted their relationship. Their story was also featured on The Risk! podcast.

Johnston's story about getting the LGBT non-discrimination bill passed in the City of Chicago; Taylor's ( the director of education and community engagement at the Goodman Theater ) story about shopping for clothes the day segregation ended; and Ewert's story about the day she married the late Vernita Gray were the other standouts, according to Fink.

"I love having older LGBTQ people tell stories about what it was like in the past for them and the community," said Fink. "People don't really interact with people of other generations and when the older generation dies oftentimes their stories are lost. Particularly older lesbians who weren't out to their families and lived separate lives from them."

In terms of future speakers, Fink is hoping that Johnny Hickman ( a straight ally and guitarist from the band Cracker ) comes and tells his story.

"He has an intersex sibling and the story he tells is moving, interesting and people should hear it," said Fink." I also want Marge Summit to tell everyone what it was like when the police used to raid lesbian bars."

As for the future of the series, Fink said the model they have is working pretty well. He noted that he'd like to see more LGBTQ women and people of color booked as far in advance as he has LGBTQ white men booked.

"Eventually I would like to open this up to family and friends of LGBTQ people but I don't know when we'll do that because our whole identity is out LGBTQ storytellers and I think it's working really well," said Fink. "The stories aren't always necessarily LGBTQ stories; they're just coming from the perspective of an LGBTQ person. My favorite stories are historically important. "

"OUTspoken! has brought me so much enjoyment. The event generates a great deal of pleasure for our audiences, the storytellers and those of us on the production team," said Johnston. "We're full of joy and a little pride at sharing in the special warmth generated by these short journeys into LGBTQ lives. For an example of how important storytelling can be, take a look at our marriage-equality Supreme Court ruling for stories of real children of gay families which helped change hearts and minds of individuals much more than any academic research could provide."

"I look forward to OUTspoken! every month," said Hunt. "There's nothing like it in our community and I don't just mean the storytelling. It's the most diverse, supportive community building event that I'm aware of, especially in a bar in Lakeview. It's amazing to me that we're still conducting this experiment one year later. Even on the coldest days of winter, Sidetrack was packed for OUTspoken!."

"The OUTspoken! storytelling series here at Sidetrack has provided a monthly gathering of people who enjoy learning about the lives of others in our very diverse community," said Balof. "While Sidetrack has been a gathering place for over 30 years, there wasn't a formally organized way in which people shared their stories in this space before this series. There's always been a sense of community at Sidetrack, but this series makes that feeling more palpable and literally puts that sense of community into words."

"There's great power and value in stories so no matter what your age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity come to OUTspoken!, listen to the stories and consider sharing yours," said Fink. "One of my dreams is to have this exist in all cities with big LGBTQ populations/history and to record them. I encourage anyone who is interested in doing this in their city to contact me for assistance."

Fink's dream has become a reality in South Bend, Indiana. Joel Barrett, one of OUTspoken!'s storytellers, has copied the format while also giving them credit for the idea. He calls his series OUTwords: LGBT Storytelling. They've had one event and plan on doing more.

Since its inception, OUTspoken! has been included as a featured spot in Lifeline Theater's Fillet of Solo, was named one of Daily Xtra Travel's "Top Gay Events in Chicago" and has had numerous mentions on WBEZ as an event not to be missed.

See for more information .

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