In an event that attracted numerous elected officials and community leaders to Circuit Nightclub's Rehab Lounge, the Humboldt Park-based HIV/AIDS service organization Vida/SIDA honored longtime gay activist Rick Garcia March 25.
Garcia, one of four co-founders of Equality Illinois, was abruptly fired from his long-held position as that group's principal lobbyist late last year. The decision, fast on the heels of the passage of the state's civil-union bill, was a controversial one in the eyes of many community activists, including the leadership of Vida/SIDA.
"Given his commitment to civil unions statewide and all the work he's done, we needed to make sure he was recognized," Vida/SIDA Director Juan Calderon told Windy City Times.
That work, Calderon noted, continues to this day, notably with Garcia's ongoing support of an ambitious LGBT youth-targeted transitional housing shelter, called "El Rescate" (or "The Rescue"), that Vida/SIDA has spearheaded. In addition to honoring Garcia, the event at Circuit served as a fundraiser to support El Rescate's programming efforts.
Roberto Sanabria, a board member of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, with which Vida/SIDA is affiliated, said opening the shelter "is not going to be very easy" but noted that it is of critical importance to many LGBTQ youth in the city who find themselves facing homelessness. According to a 2007 study initiated by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, as many as 40 percent of homeless youth are estimated to self-identify as LGBT.
When some LGBTQ youth come out to their families, Sanabria noted, they face both rejection from their families and an atmosphere of discrimination, harassment or even abuse in mainstream homeless shelters. Projects like El Rescate, which will initially offer 15 beds, help to fill the current void of culturally competent options for many queer youth.
"What happens in New York and what's going to happen in Los Angeles and here is that we say if [these youths'] families have rejected them, then we are their families," Sanabria said. "We're telling these young people that they're not alone. That they have something: They have a warm place to lay their head at night, the most basic human right we can imagine."
In honor of Garcia's support, Sanabria announced they would name one of the shelter's three floors after Garcia.
"[Rick] is not the type of person who puts his hat in hand and asks, 'Would you please tolerate me?' [He] says, 'You will accept me and if not, then get out of my wayget out of my community's way,'" Sanabria noted. "We believe that the young people at our homeless shelter should understand, see and be moved by the legacy of Rick Garcia. They should be informed by his passion, his courage and all of his sacrifice."
Garcia, after being handed an award modeled after the Paseo Boricua-bookending steel Puerto Rican flags that adorn Division Street, addressed his "intertwining" history with Vida/SIDA. He has often served as a judge in the organization's annual transgender beauty pageant and also collaborated with the group in speaking with the state's Latino Legislative Caucus last year.
"It is always great to be recognized or honored. Who doesn't like that? But it is especially touching and it is especially meaningful when that honor comes from people that you honor and you respect and you honor," he said.
Garcia further spoke to the importance of El Rescate providing much-needed access to shelter, stability and positive role models for the city's homeless LGBTQ youth.
"What I want more than anything right now is to have that center, El Rescate, there that will be open to kids who need us," Garcia continued. "Kids who need us. Kids who have been thrown away by their families, who aren't understood by their families. Kids who need us so that they can grow, so that they can be loved and they can love and they can participate in this great city and have great lives."
According to Calderon, El Rescate is on track to become the Midwest's first LGBTQ-specific homeless shelter. While similar projects, including a shelter already completed in New York City and a forthcoming home in Los Angeles, have received the generous support of celebrities and federal funding, Vida/SIDA's efforts to secure funding for El Rescate have faced significant obstacles.
However, the project is already in the zoning stages and may open its doors yet this year. Calderon said the organization has received a $300,000 capital commitment from several supportive state representativesincluding Maria Antonia "Toni" Berrios, Cynthia Soto and Iris Martinezand has received a great deal of help from individuals donating their assistance with the shelter's architectural plans and zoning fees.
Berrios was on hand at the event, joined by state Rep. Deb Mell and Berrios' father, Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. Also in attendance were Illinois Department of Human Rights Director Rocco Claps; Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame honorees Lori Cannon and Charlotte Newfeld; former U.S. Senate candidate and The Civil Rights Agenda co-founder Jacob Meister; and former 46th Ward aldermanic candidate Don Nowotny.
Speaking before the crowd at Circuit, Toni Berrios applauded Garcia's history of advocacy.
"When Rick speaks, you can tell it's from the heart," Berrios said. "Rick has done just such an amazing job for the LGBT community. You just gravitate to him when you first meet him. You want to learn as much as you can from him and want to help out as much as you can because you can feel the passion he has for these issues."
Meister, too, had kind words for Garcia, whom he described as, "in many respects, the public face of our community in Springfield."
"Even though he is not with Equality any more, he is still out there doing the same things he's always been doing," Meister said. "Everyone knows Rick, everyone has a tremendous amount of respect for him and the work he's done through the years and they should. He has his hand on the pulse of the legislative and administrative changes that are going on in Springfield and he's going to continue to be on the forefront."