A chance encounter in 2019 has blossomed into an intergenerational dialogue project that brings together younger and older LGBTQ folks.
Adam Greteman, a gay philosopher and School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) faculty member, had been volunteering in the Senior Services Program at Center on Halsted (The Center) for more than a decade.
In spring 2019, Karen Morris, a lesbian cultural anthropologist and SAIC faculty member, brought six of her LGBTQ students to The Center to conduct oral-history interviews with LGBTQ elders as part of StoryCorps' Stonewall OutLoud project.
Center on Halsted Senior Services Manager Todd Williams connected Greteman and Morris to start a conversation about a partnership between SAIC and The Center.
"Over a number of meetings talking about our interests, and the needs of LGBTQ+ elders and young people, we eventually landed on developing what we now call the LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project," said Greteman.
"This intergenerational project is so important for the preservation of our history and our future," said Williams. "Living often gets in the way of bridging generations. The creation of this project was a plan and the dialogue was a complete surprise. Every willing generation has the opportunity to learn, be inspired and really understand each other."
In addition to Greteman, Morris and Williams' involvement, University of Illinois Chicago Educational Psychology faculty member Nic Weststrate, and artist and art educator Lindsey Scott are co-facilitators of the project. Scott also built the project's website.
When asked why they wanted to focus on these intergenerational dialogues, Greteman recounted how members of both generations had expressed a desire to get to know each other and "bring ideas, experiences and insights into the work of coming into LGBT+ communities and identities."
Morris said that for the most part "contact between LGBTQ+ generations is rare and elders are largely invisible within contemporary LGBTQ+ cultures." She added that for many of their LGBTQ students it was a surprise to them that LGBTQ elders existed.
"They had never thought about that possibility before," said Morris. "Many told us they had never imagined their own futures past age 40. Many LGBTQ+ elders, in turn, feel forgotten and disconnected from the LGBTQ+ communities they helped to create. Bringing together these generations for conversation is a radical act that seeks to strengthen our community. The LGBTQ+ community is so diverse, which is one of our greatest strengths and, sometimes, greatest challenges."
Over the past year and a half, 42 LGBTQ youth and elder participants have joined both formal and informal dialogues in-person at The Center, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now via Zoom.
"Somehow, Zoom offered us a new way to relate to each other," said Morris. "That sometimes felt more intimate than our in-person meetings. Zoom also allowed students who had graduated from SAIC and moved away to continue to participate."
There have been over 65 of these dialogues.
"The formal dialogues center around specific themes, topics or histories that participants select together while the informal dialogues are drop-in hang-out sessions hosted by an elder in the group," said Morris.
These formal and informal dialogues alternate weeks and are two hours long with the informal dialogues having between 8-10 people and formal dialogues having between 22-30 people. Before the pandemic, these dialogues ended with a shared family dinner.
Greteman and Morris ask that participants commit to at least four months of involvement so there is time to develop trust and for relationships to grow. Many participants have been actively involved with the project for over a year.
"Conversations around gender have been the most challenging for our group due to the very different understandings of gender between the generations," said Morris. "We have seen significant shifts in people's perspectives over the course of the project, and willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversation in order to learn from one another."
Two of the project participants are Danie Muriello (a 69 year old transgender woman) and Rain Shanks (a 26 year old cisgender lesbian and SAIC student). Muriello has been involved since the beginning.
"Todd called me and told me they were starting this group and already had one meeting," said Muriello. "One of the students was transgender and he was concerned because there were no transgender elders in the program so he felt a little alone. Todd asked me if I would join and I said yes without knowing anything about the program. I started going to the gatherings and fell in love with the whole thing."
"I got involved with the project through a class I took at SAIC," said Shanks. "It was cool to see that there were gay people doing cool gay things so I decided to join. It sounded awesome and now it is no longer a class and when I go it is just because I love everyone.
"We talk about politics. I am from the south so I do not get to talk about these things with my parents or other elders from those communities because it is impolite. The same thing is true about conversations about sex so getting to talk about these things in an informal setting is really nice. It is really nice to know that wanting sex does not go away once you get older or that once you hit an age you become a Republican."
Through these dialogues, Muriello learned that she is still a relevant force for the youth of today.
"The young people, right from the very start have left no doubt that I do as well as the other elders have something of value that they want," said Muriello. "It is wonderful to be sought after and welcomed by youth members. These beautiful young people want to hear from us. They are desperate for it."
Shanks said she has learned so much from the elders and laments that the culture is so dominated by LGBTQ young people. She added that younger LGBTQ people do not always realized that the word queer was only reclaimed in recent years and still evokes negative feelings among some LGBTQ elders.
"Talking to the elders has given me context to my identity and how I see myself," said Shanks. "Who I see myself socially and how my identity can be politicized. I feel like I can be a complete person now."
Muriello said that this project is so important for elders to be involved with due to their knowledge base as well as affirming young LGBTQ people's lives. She encourages more of her fellow elders to come aboard.
Shanks said joining this project has made her happier and that includes having friends across the generations with different perspectives. She appreciates this new community and agrees with Muriello that other young LGBTQ people should join the group.
In terms of the future of this project, Greteman said his desire is that this group expands to include more people but also retain the ethos of the intimate relationships that have developed among the current participants.
"A silver lining of having to move the project to Zoom because of COVID-19 was we saw the potential of this project connecting people across geographic space since, in part, some of the younger members had to move home during the pandemic," said Greteman.
Among the upcoming topics they will focus on this spring are LGBTQ representation in the media, LGBTQ experiences in rural spaces, race and racial reckoning in LGBTQ communities, disability and gender fluidity.
Greteman and Morris would love to see more opportunities emerge for meaningful LGBTQ intergenerational dialogues in other locations, including exurban and rural areas. They encourage anyone who is interested in doing this work in their own communities to start small and reach out to them to collaborate.
"Build connections with other possible partners in your area or through digital means," said Greteman. "Be ready for the need to sit with and work through tensions and differences that exist and will need to be engaged to help everyone find the space and time of dialogues not only safe for being present, but also allowing people to be brave in connecting and sharing within and across the immense differences that exist within LGBTQ+ communities.
"We know LGBTQ+ communities have to struggle with, for instance, racism, classism, sexism, ageism and so forth, so part of the beauty but challenge of the dialogues is finding ways together to do the necessary work to build communities."
"The work is incredibly rewarding and uplifting," said Morris. "This past fall, some of the younger participants began joyfully declaring at the end of our meetings that they 'feel so gay'."
See generationliberation.com . For those who want to get involved, Greteman and Morris said they should fill out the form at generationliberation.com/contact.html.