There are many reasons Chicago is a good launch pad for talking about the challenges facing LGBTQ youth of color nationally, and Frank Walker can name them: a high death rate this year, a chronic lack funding for LGBT programs in much of the city, and a fixation on HIV prevention that trumps other necessary conversations.
Youth Pride Services (YPS), the organization that Walker founded in 2003, has experienced all of these. But fundraising challenges and struggles at home have had an unexpected consequence for YPS: They've helped it grow.
Earlier this year, the once-local organization changed course to operate nationally. It has launched a nationwide survey of Black LGBT youth, begun a training process for young leaders in every state and booked a calendar that has YPS youth traveling two to three times a month, according to Walker.
He first got the idea to start YPS while working at Horizons Community Center (now Center on Halsted), a North Side LGBT community organization. While most of the Horizons staff members were white, the majority of the youth they served were Black.
"There was a huge influx of youth of color who had to go up to the North Side," Walker said. "I thought that it could lead to some problems down the line, that there was nobody that looks like them at the programming."
Over the years, YPS distinguished itself by emphasizing activism and organizing. The organization operated drop-in services similar to those found at other LGBT agencies, but leadership development was at its core.
While basic services such as hot meals were vital for many young people, Walker explained, others simply wanted gathering spaces and organized programming. YPS became an outlet for youth to learn about community leadership: Its members created programs for their peers, and youth leaders rose from within.
Those leadership roles extended into the city.
Walker points to the organization's positive relationship with the Northalsted Business Alliance, the Boystown-based retailers' association.
While tensions have sometimes flared between youth and Boystown business owners in the past, Walker said that YPS has tried to find common ground with the alliance.
"We all agree on one thing, and that is: There shouldn't be any violence," he said. "Youth on youth, youth on patrons…"
YPS youth have worked directly with business owners, Walker said, often discussing neighborhood problems that had arisen for each group.
Anshae Lorenzen, 21, said that his organizing with YPS taught him how to navigate issues that might come up in Lakeview.
"If I have any problems, I usually have the avenues and know what to go through," Lorenzen said, adding that he opts for writing letters over disparaging the neighborhood.
In recent years, however, leadership opportunities for YPS youth increasingly extended beyond Chicago. Organizations and government entities started to contact YPS seeking LGBTQ Black youth perspectives, Walker said, adding that YPS youth were slowly becoming national voices for Black LGBTQ youth.
In May 2011, the National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC), which advocates for LGBTQ youth, closed its doors during hard financial times.
At the same time, YPS found itself struggling to fundraise.
"You can't really compete with the North Side when it comes to fundraising days," said Walker. "After being told 100 times, 'We would have helped you, but we gave out money to the Center [on Halsted] already,' after that, you just get tired of asking. We couldn't survive with a monopoly like that in the city."
Walker said he doesn't begrudge North Side organizations like the Center, but tough financial realities encouraged him to reevaluate YPS's future.
Noting the absence of a national organization like NYAC, YPS stopped its drop-in services and shifted its focus toward national consulting work.
It was a loss in certain ways, Walker conceded, as YPS had to start referring its youth to other service organizations.
But in 2012, YPS started fresh. It launched "A National Strategy for Black Gay Youth," which surveyed 2,500 youth nationally. The results will determine YPS priorities down the road; the organization currently travels two to three times per month.
A growing network of young people nationwide connects to YPS through a unique web login. It allows them to attend virtual meetings, message other youth, post discussion topics, survey their peers nationally and access information about services where they live.
Walker said that YPS has grown 200 percent this fall, an influx he attributes in part to a new generation of LGBT youth coming of age.
Next year, YPS will launch an initiative in the Midwest to address the realities facing Black LGBTQ youth in schools. In Chicago, that will mean pushing for more Gay/Straight Alliance clubs in South Side schools.
Additionally, YPS has started recording the reported number of Black LGBT youth who die in the U.S. each year. Chicago deaths, which total five for 2012, according to Walker, make up a third of those recorded thus far. (Walker points out that this number could be due to media coverage).
Significant work remains when it comes to conversations about Black LGBTQ youth, Walker said.
"We're working on bullying in the schools," he said. "We're working on bullying and police. But there is more bullying happening in the house, in the church, in their regular circle."
And many who work with Black LGBTQ youth throughout the country are consumed by efforts to curb HIV infections, which disproportionately impact youth of color.
That is one issue that Walker struggles to explain.
Earlier this year, San Francisco University published a study showing that Black gay couples were more likely than white gay couples to use condoms. Still, HIV rates among LGBTQ Black youth outpace the general population, a reality that has Walker scratching his head.
The impact has gone far beyond the spread of the virus, Walker noted. It often means that other issues facing LGBTQ youth of color go unaddressed.
"HIV is still more important than marriage equality, housing, or any other issue," he said.
Generation Halsted is an eight-week series that seeks to capture youth voices not typically represented in Windy City Times and other media. The young people portrayed have many housing situations, gender identities and sexual orientations. The series looks primarily, but not exclusively, at Boystown, where an influx of young LGBTQ people has been a source of controversy. Windy City Times will continue to explore the issues raised here beyond this series.