The following was presented as the keynote for State Treasurer Frerichs LGBTQ History Month Program
Thank you Treasurer Frerichs for inviting me to speak today. Thank you, Alice Morales, for coordinating this event. And thank you to all of you for coming out today to celebrate LGBTQ History Month.
Before I get started, I want to highlight a Chicago milestone that occurred this past weekend. The Legacy Walk was completed on Saturday when the last two plaques were installed on the pylons on North Halsted Street. One commemorates transgender activist, Marsha P. Johnson, and the other, Russian composer Tchaikovsky. The Legacy Walk, located in the Lakeview neighborhood, is the world's only permanent outdoor museum commemorating LGBTQ people in history and it's right here in Chicago! I'd like to commend Victor Salvo of The Legacy Project for his vision and tenacity in bringing this great treasure to fruition.
National Coming Out Day was a week ago, but I'm going to come out to you today. I'm a black queer cisgender woman who is a wife, a mother, a sister, an aunt, a niece, a friend, a storyteller and an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, racial equity, gender parity and more. I, like you, embody the sentiment of queer feminist writer Audre Lorde when she said, "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives."
I was born in Kansas City, Missouri a while ago. I moved to Chicago in December 1984 to be with the person who eventually became my husband, the father of my children, my ex-husband and who remains my friend. I came out when I was in my 30s. And even as an adult with multiple degrees and a full-time job with great benefits, I still worried if my parents would reject me when I told them I was a lesbian, if I would lose my friends and what people would say about me.
I'm happy that everything worked out for me, after a few bumps. And that the same is true for many people. However, there are times when coming out or even being perceived as LGBTQ+ has negative consequences.
LGBTQ+ youth are about 7% of the youth population, but they make up as much 40% of homeless youth nation-wide. There are many reasons that youth experience homelessness. For LGBTQ+ youth these reasons include being kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Voices of Youth Count study found that LGBTQ youth are at more than double the risk of homelessness compared to non-LGBTQ peers. It should be noted that many of these youth have touched the child welfare system at some point in their lives.
According to the 2017 School Climate Survey, seven in ten LGBTQ students experienced verbal harassment at school based on sexual orientation and more than half based on gender expression. Oftentimes this harassment comes from school staff and teachers, not just other students. When a young person is experiencing harassment or worse, they often stop going to school. The same climate survey found that more than a third of LGBTQ students ( 34.8 % ) missed at least one day of school in the last month because of feeling unsafe at school, and at least two in five students avoided bathrooms ( 42.7% ) and locker rooms ( 40.6% ).
Homelessness and truancy lead to increased encounters with the police, which contributes to the over-representation of LGBTQ+ youth in the juvenile justice system. Again, LGBTQ+ youth are 7% of the youth population, but they are about 20% of the population in juvenile detention facilities across the country. LGBTQ+ youth often endure harassment and physical and sexual assault in these facilities. Plus, this is a one-size fits all system that is not equipped to deal with transgender and nonbinary individuals.
On the other end of the age continuum we see LGBTQ+ older adults going back into the closet when they enter mainstream senior facilities and for good reason. In one study nearly 80% of the LGBTQ+ older adults in long-term care facilities did not feel safe to be out. Many have experienced bullying and sometimes physical assault by both the staff and their fellow residents who also grew up during a time when LGBTQ+ people were demonized and experienced severe discrimination. Additionally, over 75% of senior facilities are operated by religious institutions, some of which not only readily impose their heteronormative biases through policies and practices, but also are in states where there are no human rights laws that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Fortunately, that is not the case in Chicago or Illinois where we have protections and our advocates and lawmakers have prevented inclusion of religious carve outs that would dilute them.
In addition to the economic and housing challenges, LGBTQ+ seniors face a great deal of social isolation. They are two times as likely to live alone as their straight counterparts and three to four times as likely to not have children. Because our systems are biased towards families of origin, LGBTQ+ older adults whose resilience has helped them create families of choice, often find themselves without advocates in healthcare, housing and other resource settings.
LGBTQ+ youth and older adults have a lot in common. They are among the most vulnerable under the rainbow and are reliant on the most broken systems in our society. We have much work to do to make sure that being out isn't a liability for them.
I feel incredibly proud and privileged to have spent the last 20 years co-creating possibilities for people's coming out moments to be ones of celebration and joy.
I am becoming more and more devoted to the ideal of the "beloved community" that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about long ago. To explain what that is, I'll read an expert from The King Center's website.
"For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Dr. King's Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict."
This is not a solo project. My vision for the work that I do is to co-create the beloved community and my purpose is to make sure the other co-creators are at the table.
I get to work towards my vision through the Pride Action Tank or PAT - because we can always use more acronyms. PAT is a multi-issue project incubator and think tank focused on action that leads to improved outcomes and opportunities for LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups. We have six intersecting focus areas - aging, financial security, health, housing, safety and youth. As a project of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago we get to take advantage of the learnings of a 30+ year old institution and the skills and experiences of our amazing colleagues.
I cannot imagine a better city for Pride Action Tank to have been born in than Chicago. Our model requires centering and being directed by the people who are impacted by the issues we work on, is highly collaborative, is accountable to community and is solutions-driven. This model works here because Chicago has people who demand justice and a network of organizations serving LGBTQ+ communities and the leaders actually talk to each other and work together. That's not always true in other cities.
We also have LGBTQ infrastructure here that many cities do not have. We have among the better city, county and state human rights laws in the country for LGBTQ protections. We have an LGBTQ Caucus in the City Council and are close to having one in the Illinois General Assembly. Chicago had an LGBTQ Hall of Fame long before other cities. The Chicago History Museum was the first mainstream museum in the country to have a major LGBTQ installation when the Out in Chicago exhibit was mounted in 2011 and continues to have LGBTQ programming with the annual OUT at CHM series. We still have a gayborhood in this city. Those are dying across the country! And, I have to put a plug in for this, we have a monthly LGBTQ-centered storytelling show OUTSpoken! And we have strong allies!
We have a lot going on, but we are vulnerable. We live in a moment where, nationally, we are seeing the safety nets and basic rights that LGBTQ folks and others have fought for being stripped away. To go back to Audre Lorde for a moment, "Revolution [and I would add, liberation] is not a one time event."
This is a scary time. When public policy and foreign relations are conducted through tweets, it's scary! When one political party chips away at the essential components of health insurance, jeopardizing coverage for millions of people, it's scary! When the narrative is about building walls on our borders and police states in our cities instead of making a path to citizenship, providing justice to trans women of color whose murders go unsolved and building black futures, it's scary! When "separation of church and state" is used to justify racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, hate and at the same time allows one religious faction to enact public policy that denigrates and endangers people who practice other religions, it's scary!
It's important for us to know that for as scary as this time is we are not powerless!
Today's celebration of LGBTQ History Month is a mere 18 days from Election Day. We have to vote for people who support us and by us, I mean all the many identities under the rainbow. We have to vote up and down the ballot. And we have to understand that the work doesn't end at the ballot box. We must demand that our elected officials stay on the right side of history.
And to those folks who cannot yet revel in LGBTQ History Month, I leave you with the words of the remarkable Lena Waithe:
"If you think you aren't valid for whatever reason, let my existence and the way the world embraces my existence tell you that you are valid. You deserve to look, live, and walk through the world however you see fit. That's why I find it extremely important to be so out, so black, and so myself."
Also see www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Treasurers-office-observes-LGBT-History-Month/64538.html .