When Rita Adair moved to Chicago five years ago she'd already made a name for herself as an activist and social worker in her hometownMadison, Wisconsin. Adair currently lives in the Edgewater neighborhood, however, she'll be leaving the city at the end of the month to travel and write a book.
Born in 1955 to a Norweigan white mom who was a professional costumer and an African-American dad from the South, Adairthe middle child among six siblingsspent her childhood living in a variety of places/attending many schools in both the U.S. and Canada due to her step-dadSailor Art Thomas'career as a professional wrestler with the WWE ( he was named Mr. Black Adonis in 1973 ).
As Adair entered high school, her family settled in Madison where she attended Madison East High School. She didn't graduate but later went back and got a high school equivalency diploma which is different from a GED. Adair studied social work at University of Wisconsin at Madison for awhile but didn't complete her studies, as she was also working full time as a single parent to support her children.
"The State of Wisconsin tested and licensed me as a social worker/counselor without completing my degree because of my many years of social work experience," said Adair.
In addition to being a foster parent to 23 teenage girls over a period of 17 years, Adair spent the bulk of her working life as a social worker for Dane County in Wisconsin. She worked in the Dane County District Attorney's Office for 16 years in many rolesthe Coordinator for the Dane County Prostitution Project, Community Service Coordinator and Intake Counselor as well as facilitating domestic violence classes and teaching criminology.
"I spent most of my time at the district attorney's office dealing with domestic violence and sensitive crime cases," said Adair. "I got tired of being in the office and meeting people after they committed a crime. I decided I wanted to work in the community so I took a job as the Community Social Worker with Dane County Human Services. I did that for 13 years before I retired in 2011."
While working for the county, Adair also owned an upscale LGBTQ blues and jazz club in Madison called Adair's Lounge.
Adair not only helped those in her community by raising millions of dollars for various agencies, developing programs and changing neighborhoods for the better; she took her activism national. She was the co-organizer of the 34 Black women contingent from Madison to the 1997 Million Woman March in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and spearheaded the resettlement of 30 people to Madison following Hurricane Katrina. Adair raised $155,000 in the first 24-hours after the hurricane hit and continued to fund raise after that.
"My mom was a Freedom Rider," said Adair. "I come from a long line of activist work so it didn't surprise me that I became an activist myself. In 2005, I was voted the most newsworthy person in Dane County and was honored by the State of Wisconsin ( Certificate of Commendation ) the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus ( Citation By Assembly ) and the Madison Police Department and Dane County Executive for my community work."
Adair noted that her family is accepting of people's differences because of her parents status as a bi-racial couple. She explained that when her mom's best childhood friend Lorraine came out in the 70's as transgender and took the name Larry it was no big deal to anyone in her family.
Even though Adair knew about Larry when she was in elementary school, she was still influenced by the Black Baptist Church she attended.
"I got a clear message from church, I'd go to hell if I was a lesbian," said Adair. "I didn't want to go to hell so I did what I was supposed to do which was get married to a man and have children. It wasn't until I was 45 and two times divorced that I was able to live my life authentically. Actually my mom told me I was a lesbian. I'll never forget that day. She asked me when I was going to stop this ( wanting a man ) and admit I was a lesbian. Her acceptance made me know it was OK to be a lesbian and live my life."
Adair had two children and adopted her youngest daughterTyrone Adair( deceased ), Raven Adair and Brandi Grayson. She has 6 grandchildren ( two deceased ) and 2 great-granddaughters. Grayson followed in her mom's footsteps and founded Young Gifted and Black, is the chair of #BlackLivesMatter Madison and continues to teach, protest/march and speak locally and across the country.
"When I had my first relationship with a woman we moved in together right away," said Adair. "It was the classic U-Haul lesbian joke. I didn't want my grown kids to know because I still wasn't sure what I was doing. After a few months, my son and I were in the car and he said to me 'mom you still think you have to earn my respect' and I said 'what did you just say' and we looked at each other and I said 'you're talking about Tina' and he said 'yes mom why did you think you couldn't tell me.' He told me that he got together with his sisters and they decided he would be the one to talk to me. My kids are fine with me being a lesbian."
When Adair retired she'd already made Chicago her second home having traveled to the city to hang out with the Black, lesbian community here. She went to parties and joined groups ahead of her move and when she arrived she dove right in and got involved on the planning committee of Women of All Colors Together or as some people call it Women of All Cultures Together ( WACT ). Adair also volunteered at the Center on Halsted's front desk early on.
Until recently, Adair was also the co-chair alongside Toi Williams of Affinity Community Services' Trail Blazers committee. She also created Adair Entertainment and started the 2nd Sunday Parties for queer women who don't really like the nighttime bar scene and created/managed two profession lesbian lip-sink groupsStyle & Swagg and Seductionas well as a Facebook pageLezInColorwhere queer women can let people know what's going on across the country.
"WACT is pretty informal and has an active membership of about 60 people who show up to our first Sunday of the month pot lucks held at members houses," said Adair. "As for Affinity, we did some groundbreaking work including events and raising money."
Other than finding a larger, more diverse queer women community; the underlying reason for Adair's move from Madison to Chicago is due to what happened with her son Tyrone and his family.
"In Dec. 2009, Tyrone committed familicide," said Adair. "He shot and killed his two daughters ( my grandchildren ) and each of their moms. He also killed himself and after that I wasn't able to do my work the same way so that's why I decided to retire. When anyone was talking about what he did they always began it by referencing me because I was a well-known member of the community. I wasn't treated badly. The people were actually very kind to me but it was really hard to stay in Madison."
Although Adair loves Chicago and what she's done here, she explained that the reason why she's decided to put her stuff in storage and travel is so she can focus on the book she's writing about her life with Tyrone.
"I want to learn more about familicide so I can educate people," said Adair. "I'm also going to look at mental health issues within the African-American community, guns ( access to gun ) and domestic violence. I've started doing this research, attending conferences and doing public speaking and what I've learned is this is very common unfortunately. There aren't enough services for the family members of those who've killed other people. Those families are judged and not given any support. It's hard when an adult child of yours does something wrong. No matter how adult your child is, others judge the parents."
Adair noted that when she completes her book she doesn't know where she'll land, however, Chicago is still in the running. She said Chicago gets a bad rap due to gun violence and the politics of city hall but she doesn't see the city that way.
"The truth is Chicago is a vibrant, diverse, incredible place to live," said Adair. "I wish people would discover Chicago the way I have, especially what the LGBTQ community has to offer."
In terms of what she does for fun, Adair was a professional background vocalist off and on for 30 years. She also loves attending spoken word events, does interior design, spends time outdoors and swims ( she was a swimmer at the 1967 Youth Olympics in Montreal, Canada ). Earlier this month, Adair and her best friend went sky-lining in the Wisconsin Dells and she's planning on going race car driving and jet skiing next.
As for what Adair wants to convey to the world she said, "Sometimes I think it's easy for us to have passion but the hard part is to take action. It's important to light the match and I mean that in a good way. We can't keep sitting back and wallowing in our emotions. There are many things that need to be addressed and we all have to get involved."
To join WACT visit www.facebook.com/groups/152344554812622/ or Lez In Color visit www.facebook.com/groups/LezInColor/.