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Sandi Byrd, from '60s institutions to #MeToo
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Soon after Sandi Byrd, 76, graduated from high school, she started expressing to her mother that she was attracted to women. That's when her world turned upside down.

"My mother sent me to a mental institution, Fairhill Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, based on my family's suggestion to 'cure me' because they were very religious and had a strict interpretation of the Bible," said Byrd. "This was in 1960, when you were not an adult in Ohio until you turned 21, so my mother had the legal right to send me there without my consent."

The doctors told Byrd's mother almost immediately that there was nothing wrong with her daughter and she needed to accept that she was a lesbian—but she did not listen.

"Something devastating happened to me about five months into my stay at Fairhill," said Byrd. "The hospital was in the process of expanding, and, instead of caring for me, this orderly took me to the new area and raped me. He threatened me and my family with violence if I told them what happened, so I kept it quiet. But it had to come out eventually because I would not be able to hide it [a pregnancy that resulted from the rape].

"When my mother found out and went to the administrators, the hospital agreed to waive my hospital fees and the man was fired. I was transferred to an unwed mothers facility. When my daughter was born in 1961, I never saw her because she was immediately taken away from me to be adopted. They also forced me to give her a name. I did not want her to be adopted but the decision was taken out of my hands."

One of the ways Byrd coped with being in Fairhill was writing poetry in spiral notebooks that she has kept to this day. Byrd shared one of the poems, "Life at Fairhill," and her rape story at a recent Affinity Community Services ( Affinity ) WOMB poetry group meeting. Byrd is a longtime supporter of Affinity.

After giving birth, Byrd moved back in with her parents but that it was unbearable to be in such a repressive environment again.

"I did not stop expressing myself as a lesbian. I ended up spending every moment [that she was not working] at this woman's house until the last bus left for the night," said Byrd.

Due to her mother's death and other factors, Byrd decided to move to Chicago and live with her grandmother in the West Woodlawn neighborhood.

"I came here in 1961 right after my mother died, because she wanted to be buried where she grew up," said Byrd.

Byrd's plan was to save money and find her own place because her grandmother was very strict. She worked in the catalog business at Spiegel, Sears and Montgomery Ward as well as a number of factories for the first six years.

When Byrd wanted to change her career trajectory, she applied for the U.S. Post Office and CTA in 1966. The post office job offer came first so she chose that route.

"I worked at the O'Hare Airport location my entire career from 1967-1998," said Byrd. "I came in as a sub and then was a clerk and finally a supervisor. I was an America Postal Workers Union representative and would go out of town for union business to Springfield, Illinois or Washington, D.C. When I retired, I discovered I did not have enough units for Social Security, so I got a job as a Chicago Public Schools bus driver and did that for 10 years with two companies."

Byrd credited her cousin Edward, whom she moved in with shortly after arriving in Chicago, with introducing her to DJ Terry the Fox.

"Terry told me everything I needed to know about the South Side LGBT scene," said Byrd. "I did not discover the North Side LGBT community for many years and saw the racism that existed between the two queer communities first hand when I would go to CK's in Lincoln Park in the 1970s. They would only allow a certain amount of queer Black women in the bar at a time."

Byrd dated a number of women for a few years each until she settled down with Claudia Brown, who is now her wife. They knew each other for years as friends and when Brown divorced her husband, they started dating in early 1996. The couple had a commitment ceremony on June 29, 1996, became domestic partners in June 2004 and had a Civil Union on June 20, 2011.

"The Cook County Clerk's office told us our Civil Union was now considered as being married," said Byrd. "Claudia's daughter embraced me right away and now we have two grandchildren."

"Sandi is a very loving person and that is one of the reasons why I married her," said Brown. "When we started dating, I showed her that I loved her for who she is. We enjoy each other's company and have a great time whether it is hanging out at home or going out socially. I love her dearly and will do anything for her."

Over the years, Byrd has become more involved with Chicago's LGBT community including attending C.C. Carter's POW-WOW poetry group for most of its 10-year existence and becoming an Affinity member in 2005. Since then, Byrd has attended many Affinity and WOMB events.

"I have known Sandi for 30 years and when we met we became friends instantly," said Affinity co-founder TED Dobbins. "I have always admired her adventurousness and the fact that she is a go-getter. Her spontaneity has helped me be more adventurous myself. She always sees the good in people and once she knows you she is in your corner for life. When the clubs shut down in our area she invited all of us to hang out at her house. Her parties were always uplifting and fun."

Byrd explained that she has always been church oriented but did not find the right one until she discovered Rev. Johnnie Colemon and her church, Christ Universal Temple.

"When Colemon retired I decided to find an LGBT-friendly church, Power Circle Congregation, and have been going there ever since," said Byrd. "I also do a lot of volunteer work for them."

Bowling was also a part of Byrd's life for 33 years until she retired last year.

"We always went to the Women's International Bowling Congress tournaments and later the United States Bowling Congress tournaments," said Byrd. "We won sometimes, but the best part was the fun we had as a team."

Byrd is a member of the International Toastmasters and has spoken many times, winning second place during their humorous contest category. She also writes speeches and is trying to get back into writing poetry.

Both Byrd and Brown love to travel and have been on several cruises. The first time Byrd went to Europe was in 2012 during a Mediterranean cruise where she saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa, among other landmarks.

The main thing Byrd is worried about these days is the political climate that arose after the 2016 election.

"Our country is going backward right now," said Byrd. "Every civil-rights achievement is being attacked and it is all due to the GOP. We have to stay strong and fight back at every turn, including marching in the streets every day, against this assault on our rights."

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