On June 29, Illinois first out gay state senator, Mike Simmons, hosted a press conference featuring Chicago LGBTQ+ leaders and activists at Gerber/Hart Library and Archives.
Speakers included Simmons; Gerber/Hart Library and Archives Development Coordinator Michael Rashid; Brave Space Alliance COO Stephanie Skora; Brave Space Alliance Founder and Executive Director LaSaia Wade; Legacy Project Co-Founder and Executive Director Victor Salvo; comedian, writer and activist Kujichagulia Juniper (K.J.) Whitehead; Howard Brown Health President and CEO David Ernesto Munar; Equality Illinois Public Policy Director Mike Ziri; Paint the City Co-Founders Missy Perkins and Barrett Keithley; Lorde, Rustin and Bates President and Senior Managing Director/community advocate Anthony Galloway; Chicago Therapy Collective #Hire Trans Now Program Coordinator J. Silas Leslie; Andersonville's Rattleback Records co-owner Paul Ruffino; state Reps. Kelly Cassidy and Lamont Robinson; and Alds. Matt Martin and Maria Hadden.
Simmons spoke about his own district's queer activism, adding how honored he is to be the residents' senator. He added that this year, the LGBTQ+ community is "under siege across the country" by GOP-controlled state legislatures and courts. Simmons said it is important to remember LGBTQ+ history and how the community got to this moment. He called on each speaker to address what it means to them personally to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community this year, considering everything that has happened in recent years. Simmons also asked for a moment of silence for all the transgender people who have died this past year, specifically mentioning local individuals Tatiana Labelle and Elise Malary. He asked the audience to "Say Her Name" out loud for Labelle and Malary.
Rashid said that "by happy coincidence, it is Henry Gerber's birthday today" and spoke about his importance to LGBTQ history as an early activist in Chicago. He said Gerber/Hart "will continue to serve the community" and asked that everyone share their stories with the library and even donate memorabilia to make them available to the public in the years to come.
Skora spoke about how these are historic times where trans people are being attacked on multiple fronts. She said that pride, for her, is the ability to exist in public "unapologetically." Skora said her family has deep roots in Chicago as refugees of the pogroms (organized massacres) in Poland and Russia that happened more than 140 years ago. She added that her family's history shows that sometimes people have to leave their country of origin and other times staying and fighting for what is right "in community deeply rooted in each other and ourselves" is the solution.
Wade said she is tired but she will continue to "fight tooth and nail to combat the ignorance" that is directed at every marginalized community. She spoke about her role as a mother of a young child and how worried she is about the "Christian fascists" who will target and threaten her as a Black trans mother.
"How am I supposed to smile at my child when I do not know if I am going to survive?" asked Wade.
Salvo said the Legacy Project is focused on education and "making sure that the contributions we have made are there for the youngest and most vulnerable among us so that they grow up with a sense of identity and purpose." He added that he is proud the Legacy Project is one of the "principal architects" of Illinois new LGBTQ-inclusive K-12 mandated curriculum because it is vital. Salvo spoke about seeing the impact of his work first-hand from people of all ages who learn this information and said that educating young people is the only way to stop the hatred and bigotry.
"We cannot fault people for not knowing what they were not allowed to learn," said Salvo. "There are forces out there dedicated to exploiting" that lack of knowledge.
Whitehead spoke about losing Malary, a friend and colleague, and how that has colored her thinking about Pride Month. She added that she is a 30-year-old Black trans woman and, statistically, she is supposed to die by her 32nd birthdayjust like Malary did. Whitehead said that since 2016, seven of her friends have died, so she has wondered about the point of celebrating. One of the ways Whitehead said she reclaimed her joy this year was marching in the Pride Parade, where she saw small Black children celebrating with their familiessomething she would have wanted that as a child.
Munar said that the trauma in the LGBTQ+ community is real and rooted in the fact that they cannot be their whole selves in all aspects of their lives. He added that having better healthcare services that address the myriads of health disparities LGBTQ+ people face because of discrimination. Munar called on everyone to take care of themselves, noting it has been 28 years since he was diagnosed with HIV. He sounded the alarm about the rising monkeypox cases that are impacting the LGBTQ+ community. Munar also said that being intersectional within LGBTQ organizing spaces is necessary to win these social-justice battles.
Ziri said that Illinois is one of only five states that mandates LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and how proud he is that in this state "we say gay, and we say trans." He called on LGBTQ allies in elected office in all levels of government to show up now and take action to keep Illinois a safe state for every marginalized community and people who can get pregnant. Ziri said the fight for reproductive justice and LGBTQ equality are "inextricably linked" because GOP state legislators are already using the Dobbs decision to argue that trans children should be denied gender-affirming care.
Perkins spoke about how Paint the City began in 2020 as a result of the racial justice protests and the pandemic and their mission is to create public art with messages of hope, solidarity and inclusion.
Keithley said he is an LGBTQ ally and, as a Black man, he recognizes that all marginalized people's rights are being taken awayincluding those of his twin sister, who is a lesbian. He said he wants to use his platform to help people see themselves in art and added that "without communication there is segregation."
Galloway spoke about his own physical battles, including heart failure and being a candidate for diabetes, adding that five of his Black gay friends between the ages of 37-42 have died due to heart issues over the past two years. He said that despite his health issues, he is not going anywhere. Galloway said being resilient is as important as celebrating. He added that one way to do this is showing up at Chicago Black Pride events this coming weekend.
Leslie spoke about Malary and her important role at Chicago Therapy Collective and that her "memory is a blessing and call to action." They said everyone should "commit to the equity, safety and liberation of the trans community" and that includes holding people in positions of power accountable. Leslie said this has to happen year-round on many fronts.
Ruffino said he was an out and proud teacher and principal before becoming a business owner. He spoke about partnering with the Chicago Therapy Collective and working with Malary in the past. Ruffino said he will continue to partner with organizations that advance the safety and well-being of the LGBTQ community.
Cassidy spoke about how hard it was for her to march in this years Pride Parade after the Roe decision but she was really glad she did it because she needed that joy in her life. She said the decision came down when her and others were celebrating the passage of the PrEP and PEP funding bill in the state legislature at Howard Brown. Cassidy said that in the room at Howard Brown there are messages on the wall including "rights are not given; they are taken away" and that is true now.
Robinson said that the new LGBTQ center that includes healthcare services on the South Side of Chicago is so important for the community. He added that representation matters and so does voting for candidates who will protect marginalized communities and people who can get pregnant from right-wing attacks.
Martin spoke about allies like himself showing up in LGBTQ spaces and how important it is to "shut up and listen" because "there are so many experiences we do not have." He said that elected officials like him need to sound the alarm about what is happening in this country.
Hadden said this past weekend she had to make mental shifts because of the Roe ruling and the Pride Parade. She said boxing twice a week helps her focus. She added that being in community is vital because there are so many forces against the LGBTQ community. Hadden added that she is seeing several young Black people who are talking about leaving the United States but that there are many people who come to this country to seek refuge from their own oppressive home countries. She is choosing to stay in America and "create the vision of where we want to go, who we are, where we want to be and if people are not with us then we just need to blow right past them."
In ending the event, Simmons called on everyone to remember that social-justice movements need joy to keep themselves goingsomething that is necessary now more than ever.