Four hours before her guests are set to arrive, Z Williams bustles about the United Broadway Methodist Church basement, making sure every detail is just right.
Carpets must be vacuumed. Colorful tablecloths are strategically arranged. Fresh flowers dot the dinner tables.
As visitors walk through the front door, they're greeted by the comforting smell of a home-cooked meal. Today, it's hearty beef stew paired with thick, fluffy cornbread.
"I like to look at it like we're having guests over," Williams says. "That requires a lot more time than just placing down some tables and chairs, but it's worth it."
For the last two-and-a-half years, Williams has run the Youth Lounge, Broadway Untied Methodist's LGBTQ-affirming drop-in program. Every second and fourth Saturday, the Lakeview church opens its doors to youth, who get hot meals, toiletries, entertainment (Wii, movies) and a place to relax.
Anywhere from 50 to 70 young people gather in the church's sprawling basement. Some scarf down platefuls of food; others braid one another's hair. Tables are pushed aside for a vogue competition, and about a dozen youth nap, curled up around one another, in a dim annex.
The scene reads more 'hangout' than 'youth program,' and that's the point, Williams says.
When Williams (who had been volunteering with LGBT youth for years) first started kicking around the idea of a youth lounge, she and pastor Lois McCullen Parr visited other Boystown programs. While the pair liked much of what they saw, they often uncovered rules, restrictions and guidelines that could be punitive toward the youth. In some cases, these dictates prevented young people from accessing programming.
"We decided to implement a very unique approach here: no rules," Williams says. "There are no rules whatsoever to our program. You don't come in and see a list of things you have to abide by. I believe if you raise the standard, it will give the young people something to aspire to … . It's risky, but it's working. It's definitely working."
The first lounge, which was hosted in March 2010 on a $50 budget, brought in about a dozen youth. Word-of-mouth praise spread like wildfire, and numbers soon doubled and tripled. By March 2011, the lounge had gone from meeting once a month to twice.
"Being young and able to congregate with like-individuals in a structure where you're not being policedthat gave the young people a sense of freedom that they really treasure," Williams says. "Some people think the answer to everything is structure, and that's not the case."
When conflict arises during a lounge, Williams says, the youth often solve issues amongst themselves.
"I think some traditional church people would come in here and say: This is a church?!" Parr says with a laugh. "The youth will be horsing around and playing cards or whatever, and somebody will say, 'Fuck that bitch.' And then someone else will go, 'Man, watch your language. Language!' There's this kind of self-policing that happens that is respectful."
Lounges run from 4:30-8 p.m. and feature little outward structure. Youth are free to eat, sleep, dance, play games or partake in programmingsuch as free manicures and pedicures or writing workshopsas they please.
Parr uses the analogy of a basement. All across the country, there are teenagers in their parents' basements, goofing off, watching TV, eating junk food, taking a nap, dancing and playing Wii.
"The young people here don't have a basement," she says. "So it's not a small thing to open your door twice a month and say: Come and be who you are here. If that means acting a fool, act a fool. Just be yourself, because yourself is a wonderful thing."
Many of the youth who visit the Youth Lounge identify as LGBT. A large number are homeless or precariously housed, and many have been shunned from families due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
"I think it's so brave of the young people now to be able to experiment and explore," Williams says. "That courage that I see in them constantly gave me the courage to look into myself and step beyond … a lifetime that has not been true to who I was."
When this reporter first met Williams two years ago, she used male or female pronouns and dressed androgynously. Today, the 58-year-old proudly identifies as a trans woman and credits the youth with giving her the strength to transition.
"It's been a journey of affirmation for me to see these young people, who in many cases, lost a home, lost family, and ended up with nothing too much more than the streets, just to express who they are," Williams says.
Growing up, Williams tried on her mother's makeup and high heels, but quickly learned to "de-gay" herself to avoid bullies. Later in life, she would identify as gay but always felt "it wasn't far enough."
"There's a lot of work that has to be done within the gay community," Williams says. "To be transthere's so much negative connotation. That was a weighing factor for me … . If you're living in Boystownprimarily if you're white or middle classyour system is pretty good. But being trans, if you're not in the entertainment field and entertaining the regular people, you're an oddity."
As the Youth Lounge progressed and Williams developed close relationships with more and more young people, she felt both inspired and obliged to transition.
"I grew up in a very, very strict household," Williams says. "I honestly believe that if I had the courage to be honest to who I was at that time, that I would be in the same situation as these young people. I believe that with all my heart, so I feel a kinship to them … . There's a lot of responsibility that comes along with that."
Several youth have dubbed Williams "Mother Z" or the "Mother of Belmont," and many refer to Broadway United Methodist as "Z's Church."
Williams takes special pride in mentoring young trans women, whom she encourages to express non-stereotypical forms of femininity. There's more to being a trans female than long wigs and push-up bras, she says.
Slowly, Williams has seen young people grow into themselves, just as she has.
"This is not a pipe dream," Williams says. "This is not a space where young people come in, feel good, and go on their merry way. Our philosophy is that we work from the inside out … . We try to make the young people feel good, because once you have that feeling of self-worth, you will find a way to improve your condition."
Williams beams with motherly pride as she recounts a recent conversation: A volunteer at the Crib (The Night Ministry's LGBT-friendly shelter) told Williams she could tell when the Youth Lounge has been in session. Youth who stay at the shelter on those nights are calmer and more self-possessed; arguments and incidents are rare.
"We're not trying to cure what these young people are facing in their lives as a whole," Williams deadpans. "We're not equipped for that. … We're giving them a chance. I feel that these young people deserve the best, and I'm determined through this program to give them the best that I can."
To learn more about Youth Lounge, visit www.broadwaychurchchicago.org .
The Youth Lounge has operated a volunteer-run beauty parlor since Nov. 2011. "When we're cared for, we feel better about ourselves," the Rev. Lois Parr says. "There's a direct connection to self-esteem." Photo by Erica Demarest.
A volunteer dishes out hot food to one young person. He and his younger brother traveled to the Youth Lounge from the South Side to hang out with friends. Photo by Kate Sosin.
Next week: Beyond Boystown: Follow Windy City Times on a trip to 75th and Halsted, learn more about Youth Pride Services, and see how Chicago stacks up nationally.
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