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  WINDY CITY TIMES

No 'explanations' needed: Affinity remains a haven for Chicago's Black queer community
by Lu Calzada
2024-03-12

This article shared 13141 times since Tue Mar 12, 2024
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Back in 2007, Anna DeShawn came out while she was studying for her undergraduate degree. At around the same time, she searched online for "Black lesbians in Chicago." Her search led her to Affinity Community Services, a South Side organization dedicated to Black LGBTQ+ people, where she has been passionately involved ever since. DeShawn—now an activist, entrepreneur and inductee into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame—was even at one point Affinity's board president.

For over 25 years, the organization has been a resource for Chicagoans looking for the same thing DeShawn was—a place to find community. The organization focuses on activism, education and transformational justice practices to center the needs of Black LGBTQ+ communities, especially women in those communities.

Seven members of Affinity spoke with the Windy City Times about their personal experiences with decades of organizational history. Here are their stories.

The early years

Ann Rowell, a peer leader for Affinity's 40+ group, has been with the organization since about 2000, but her roots go much deeper. Back in the mid-'90s, Rowell tagged along with some friends who were going to a meeting about Blacklines, a new magazine for Black LGBTQ+ folks. That's where she first encountered Dr. Christina Smith and heard her talk about an upcoming meeting for the new organization she was starting—Affinity.

"I went to [the meeting] because I wanted to see Black same gender loving people," Rowell, said. "I had been seeing Black gay men, but I really had not seen Black women who were partnering with women."

The organization was initially formed to create space for Black queer women on the South Side, with Smith as one of the nine initial founders.Rowell recalled women discussing issues they faced in their lives, including the safety of their children, safety in the workplace and safety from sexual violence. They wanted to create a community space to discuss those types of issues through a non-white, non-heterosexual lens.

Although she wasn't facing those specific issues at the time, Rowell realized Affinity was an important resource for South Side women. She found Affinity important for her own life because it provided her connections with other LGBTQ+ Black women at a time when she felt she didn't have any.

Sherry Bates, another dedicated Affinity volunteer, came back to Affinity during COVID-19, but started her work with them during the organization's founding time in the '90s.

"It was a bunch of people who wanted to get together for community, which, at that particular time, was one of the things I was looking for," Bates said. "So it served my purpose in terms of providing a safe space for women to come together and just talk about the experience of being gay."

She returned to Affinity for the same reason she went there in the first place years ago: to find a sense of belonging, which Affinity once again provided.

"I remember being young and having to go to the north side to party, to do anything," she said. "It wasn't a representation of me and my culture, and so I think it's so important that you have [Affinity]—and that it represents the people that live in that particular community."

Building legacy

As Affinity gained traction and moved through different locations on Chicago's South Side, it began to cement itself as a beacon of community for Black queer women. Through formation of peer-led groups and the natural aging of lifelong members, the organization became even more intergenerational.

After previously serving on the board for a few years, Kim L. Hunt was the first executive director of Affinity and remained in her position until 2015. The organization was already 15 years old when she came into the leadership role.

"While there were many organizations across the country for Black queer women when Affinity got started, many of those organizations had folded up even by the time I was E.D.," Hunt, who now heads AIDS Foundation of Chicago's Pride Action Tank, said. "[It] was really sad; there wasn't a consistent voice for Black lesbians and other Black queer women. I saw that as an area where Affinity could take up some space."

Hunt was at the time as the only woman of color who was being paid to head an LGBTQ+ organization in Chicago. She recalled that, whenever she went into situations with elected officials, or others with influence, she felt that she had a role to "bring everybody else in the room with [her]" because her colleagues and clients at Affinity couldn't be there in person with her. When marriage equality began to be more a more prominent political issue, she wanted to make sure Black voices were always at the table as well.

"The reality is that there are queer people all over Chicago," Hunt said of Affinity's intentional location on the South Side. "Black LGBTQ folks were not always welcome in Boystown, and there was also a pretty significant gender division historically."

DeShawn started as a volunteer with Affinity before becoming a group leader, a board member and eventually president of the board for multiple years before transitioning off. She has worked alongside every executive director of Affinity in different capacities, but said that, even as the focus of the organization's work can change between directors, "The heart of Affinity" has not changed through the years.

"I was at [predominantly white institutions] throughout my entire college and master's programs, so I was [longing] for community. It wasn't until I went to my master's program … I finally built up the courage to go to Affinity," she said. "I went that day and I truly never left."

DeShawn said she clearly remembers her first annual Burning Bowl event—a 10+ year tradition at Affinity for letting go of the old year and letting in the new (which takes place this year on Sunday, March 17)—when she walked in and thought, "Wow. There's hundreds of Black lesbians here." She is consistently impressed by how many people show up to the event, but the first time being there and feeling that community in her city has stuck with her to this day.

DeShawn also remembers attending a panel where elder Black lesbians spoke about their experiences in Chicago. Their stories were especially meaningful to her, since they reminded her that her activism was made possible by the work they did before her.

"I think Anna is a brilliant example of Affinity being an intergenerational organization," said Mary Morten, an Affinity member since prior to the first board of directors. "We want opinions from a wide variety of folks. The perspective of someone who's in their late 60's or 70's is as important as it is if you're in your early 20's or your 30's, and to have all of that wealth in one place is unusual."

Intergenerational work

Imani Rupert-Gordon followed Hunt in the executive director role, starting in 2016 and continuing through 2020.

Part of what makes Affinity so successful, and in turn helps provide leadership development for the whole community, is peer-led groups allowing community members to meet others like themselves, Rupert-Gordon said. By having a space to talk about Black LGBTQ+ experiences, along with matters of day-to-day life, people feel both more comfortable with each other and more empowered to tackle larger community challenges.

Rupert-Gordon also stressed the importance of listening to what people of all ages need out of their specific spaces and time at Affinity."[Older members] were talking about how they didn't like things like bingo, and there were so many times where they went to programming and that's what [organizations] assumed people their age group would want to play," she noted.

Affinity doesn't believe in always organizing peer-led groups by age, since no one goes through life exclusively interacting with people in a narrow age range. Rupert-Gordon, who is now executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Lesbian Rights, said she has especially enjoyed learning from older Black queer women knowing one day she'll be one too.

"It's not just that you went to a [peer-led group] once," she said. "But what happens when you're going to these once a month for three, four, five, seven years, [you see] the types of things you can build with each other and the types of things you can ask of each other."

Alicia Brown, a peer leader for the 30+ group, has been at Affinity for about a year. She moved to Chicago in 2019—the year she came out—and as she was looking for a community in the city, Affinity stood out to her as she kept finding majority-white spaces.

"I like more of a slower pace, I don't really get out and party too much," Brown, said. "[Affinity is] one of the places I can go and hang out with people in my age group, and it doesn't have to be centered around alcohol or partying."

Rowell said this type of environment is especially helpful for those who are in recovery or sober, and allows them connection outside of an alcohol-centered event. Affinity provided a safe space not just for their Black and queer identities, but for their sober ones as well.

The organization's scope has grown over the years, and now includes identities such as Black trans and nonbinary folks beyond the traditional focus of Black queer women. As the decades went on, Rowell said she's seen that aspect of Affinity evolve, but it has always maintained a specific focus on the Black queer community.

"You don't have to have an explanation of your Blackness," she said. "You don't have to have an explanation for your Black same gender-lovingness. You don't have to have these explanations, because everybody already knows. You can start on something else without having to give people the cliff notes on your own identity."

Community services

From providing healthcare information on traditionally taboo topics to creating spaces to talk for mental health benefits, Affinity's work has gone beyond simply connecting people—it provides them with essential resources in their neighborhood.

Bates said Affinity's providing these resources is invaluable to the community because people may not know where to go in order to receive that information about them. She also highlighted the organization's "office hours" during the early days of COVID-19, which provided folks a chance to talk with each other and keep from feeling isolated.

"[My wife's] son had recently passed," Bates said. "She talked about the fact that Affinity was a saving grace for her, because it allowed her to talk about some issues with some people that look like her and were dealing with some of the same issues, so it really saved her."

Rowell also took part in the COVID-era office hours, where she met Bates' wife, Ilka, before they were married. They began walking outside together every day and talking about their lives, allowing them an outlet for exercise and mental health at the height of the pandemic. Meeting this variety of different people at Affinity changed her life for the better.

"The person who buried my uncle and my mother, I met at Affinity," she said. "The person who was my lawyer when I closed my house, I met at Affinity. The way I got my credit together 25 years ago, the person who showed me [how], I met at Affinity."

During COVID, Affinity also received funding to give direct services for the first time, and they used it to create mental health programs such as free therapy. Morten described it as an "incredibly impactful program" that assisted community members through the unprecedented times.

One of the programs Morten said she finds most critical to the community was an HIV-education program geared towards Black women. Focusing on the intersection of two communities often left behind in HIV care and testing is highly important in order to eventually "get to zero" new HIV transmissions, the ultimate goal for service providers.

Rupert-Gordon said the work done for Black women and HIV was made possible in part by these types of relationships formed in peer-led groups. She said having uncomfortable or difficult conversations about their personal relationships in a safe place was incredibly important.

"They've seen each other through loss of partners and parents, they've seen people through moves and through very scary parts of their lives for a variety of reasons," she said. "They've seen folks through elections that have had very real and very negative experiences for how they live their lives. This happens in these communities, and those don't exist everywhere."

Towards the future

Although 2024 has just begun, Affinity has already begun to host events centered around the future, and ideas for new activities are blossoming. Rowell said one recent event that stood out to her was a vision boarding get-together.

"We have to talk about our future," she said. "We have to talk about our future as Black queer people and where we want to be and where we're going to demand other people have us in spaces."

In the upcoming year, Rowell has ideas for new events that range from how to manage a partner's death when you're not legally married to a clothing swap supporting trans and nonbinary folks. She said expanding Affinity's mission to include all Black queer folks is a constant goal for them as well.

"We have people who are original board members who have passed away and we're still here," Rowell said. "Decades from now when we're gone, we want [our young people] to say 'Oh, I remember when this was happening, when this was happening at Affinity, when things were happening in community.'"

By having a special space on the South Side, Bates said it gives people in that community the opportunity to participate in activities and not feel they have to travel farther away to spaces that aren't geared towards them. Bates, Rowell and Brown are all volunteers, and Bates said she thinks the mission and impact of Affinity has driven many people through the years to volunteer their time.

Morten is also working behind the scenes with Affinity on an upcoming "get out the vote" event that will become public in the spring. With her long history at the organization and having worked on multiple large fundraisers for them, she's remained attached to Affinity over the years.

In March, Affinity announced yet another transition: Current Executive Director Latonya Maley would be stepping down from her post. Among her accomplishments were overseeing both the Affinity offices as they reopened following their COVID-19 closing and introducing programming especially welcoming for members under 40.

"I am lucky to now count myself among those who have contributed to shaping the legacy of this organization," Maley said in a March 6 statement. "I am grateful for the way my time here has evolved my practice and priorities as a social justice and non-profit leader."

DeShawn said the role of those at Affinity now is to make sure the organization exists for future generations.

"I learned how to be a leader [at Affinity]," she said. "I learned that being a successful Black lesbian is possible, that you too can have a family, a life, a career and joy … you just don't know it's possible until you see folks who are doing, being and living in the ways you want to."


This article shared 13141 times since Tue Mar 12, 2024
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