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Queer activists talk racism, transphobia at Center event
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

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More than 100 people packed into the Center on Halsted's Hoover-Leppen Theatre May 27 to talk about racism, transphobia and a host of other "isms" that some say are plaguing Chicago's LGBTQ communities.

"Queer is Community," an evening of conversations and performances, was held as a response to "When in Boystown," a controversial blog that launched earlier this spring. Organizers claim that the blog's play on Lakeview stereotypes is racist, transphobic and body-negative.

The event—which included a speak-out, performances and a panel discussion—also appeared to be fueled by the controversies surrounding crime and race that rocked the neighborhood last summer.

"This neighborhood has a history of excluding people and trying to eject people from the neighborhood," said ellie navidson [sic], an organizer of the event.

Boystown became embroiled in controversy Last summer when residents launched a Facebook page called "Take Back Boystown." Many said they believed that violent crime in the neighborhood was on the rise, while others accused residents of unfairly scapegoating queer youth of color.

navidson and co-organizer Nico Lang had discussed the controversy when planning "Queer is Community," The two said they wanted to pre-empt the summer's controversies by creating a positive event.

The evening started out with an informal speak-out outside the theatre, followed by performances and then a panel discussion with the performers.

navidson presented a piece that explored transphobia within the queer community. Precious Jewel of the Center on Halsted spoke of the need to move beyond conversations about bullying and same-sex marriage. Brian Turner of TaskForce Prevention and Community Services paid tribute to Paige Clay, a transgender woman from Chicago who was recently murdered, and talked about the intersection of transphobia and racism.

Tony Soto of The Qu website discussed the ways that he was a "blissfully ignorant" gay man before he began to think about gender and queer issues. Yasmin Nair of Gender JUST argued against using stories for political purposes and spoke against relying on same-sex marriage to solve widespread lack of access to healthcare. Performer Rebecca Kling presented tongue-in-cheek apology for being transgender. Jackie Guerrero performed a glittery burlesque piece. Jamie Royce, backed by Chicago's Queer Choir, presented a poem on being queer and femme-identified. The evening was emceed by local comedian Adam Guerino. (Disclosure: Both Yasmin Nair and Jamie Royce are contributing writers for Windy City Times.)

Panelists and audience members tackled everything from a debate about what "queer" means, whether or not there was a "queer community" and what should be done to ensure that media portrayals of queer life are accurate.

Huffington Post writer Zach Stafford spoke of the need to break down "who we are willing to respect and why."

Panelists unraveled the controversy surrounding a recent New York Times obituary, in which transgender performer Lorena Escalera was described as "curvaceous" and in other ways that activists said unnecessarily over-sexualized her life and marginalized her death.

In one tense moment, Soto argued that transgender people should be forgiving of those who make honest mistakes, to which one person yelled, "Yeah, blame the victim!"

Audience members followed up by weighing in on Soto's statement, and the conversation eventually subsided.

However, a great deal of focus was placed on the Center, just two days after queer organization Gender JUST released a statement accusing the Center of not installing "restorative justice" practices for youth.

Center CEO Modesto Valle recently told Windy City Times that the Center used restorative justice practices for people who are caught stealing from Whole Foods, which is attached to the Center.

Valle said that those who do steal from Whole Foods can return to the Center through a restorative justice process of meeting with those involved.

However, Gender JUST organizers have alleged that no such process has been made public. The group launched a petition just days before the event calling on the Center to implement restorative justice. At least 65 people had signed it as of May 28.

Center representatives could not be reached for comment over the holiday weekend.

In the end, the event seemed to highlight a fissure between some in Chicago's gay and lesbian scenes and a mostly younger generation of self-identified "queer" people. (Queer, a term that has been reclaimed in recent years, is often used both as alternative umbrella term for "LGBT" identities and as a political identity set apart from a more mainstream gay rights movement.)

Donations at the event were collected for The Crib, a low-threshold shelter in Lakeview for LGBTQ youth.

Guerino said that "Queer is Community" will continue to exist as a Facebook page, and that organizers may hold future meetings and events. The Facebook page can be found at

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