Gerber/Hart Library and Archives (Gerber/Hart) hosted "This Library is QUEER! The Gerber/ Hart Spring Soiree" benefit April 20 at Sidetrack.
A large collection of the history and culture of Chicago and the Midwest's LGBTQIA communities is housed at Gerber/Hart alongside an extensive queer and trans-focused lending library that is open to all-comers.
Chicago drag sensation Coco Sho-Nell kicked off the event with a rousing performance, which included encouraging attendees to dance as she circled the venue.
Event emcee and Emmy-nominated NBC-5 Chicago Today co-host and the soon-to-be launched It's Okay to Ask Questions host Matthew Rodrigues spoke about the rainbow he saw while driving to the event ,and said he thought it was a sign that a lot of money would be raised that night. He added that the work Gerber/Hart does to preserve queer and trans history is "so important right now" because the LGBTQIA community is under ever increasing attacks and "this library is more important than ever."
"Last year when I stood to this stage I was scared [about what was happening then] and I am petrified now at the speed at which [anti-LGBTQIA] laws are being enacted [across the country]," said Rodrigues. "It is time for us to rally and get our asses in gear … We have fought before and we will fight again … We are going to win this battle."
Award-winning author and high school librarian James Klise spoke about his own queer history, learning about the community through books while growing up in Peoria, Illinois. He said this education began the summer of 1987, right after his freshman year at a Catholic college, where he spent a lot of time at the library, which had air conditioning; his family home did not. Klise encountered a novel by Andrew Holleran, Dancer From the Dance, about gay men in New York City and Fire Island. The book scared him due to its content; he had no other queer narratives in his life to compare it to. Klise would not learn that the book was a satire until years later.
"Nowadays I write books for teenagers, and work in a high school library," said Klise. "I think about that experience … and the importance of queer narratives for younger readers. I want the books I write to welcome young readers into their future … As you know, we have entered into a new era where there are plenty of politicians and government leaders in communities who are trying to make queer lives miserable. This has happened in Chicago before, in the summer of 1934 … Before that Chicago had a vibrant, visible queer community but the mayor at the time made a campaign promise to close down every queer tavern and pansy parlor, controlling the parks, controlling the lakefront. We have to make sure this never happens again [in Chicago]."
American Library Association (ALA) Executive Director Tracie D. Hallwho is the first Black woman to hold this position and one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2023 in the Icon categoryspoke about the affirmations she tries to do every day, noting that she had not done one yet that day. She asked the audience to join her in chanting the daily affirmation she wrote based on the energy she was witnessing that night "I am out here," "You are out here" and "We are out here."
Hall said every aspect of marginalized communities' lives are under threat, including what they read, their imaginations and their possibilities for thinking about themselves; but, she added, "We will persevere."
Hall further emphasized the importance of Gerber/Hart, and how intertwined it is with what the ALA does. She said this moment is the Sen. Joseph "McCarthy Era on steroids, because this is the digital age." She added that she is getting emails calling her a "groomer," but that will not deter her from her work.
Award-winning director, writer and editor C.J. Arellano's film featuring Gerber/Hart employees, volunteers and board members speaking about the importance of the institution and what makes it special was also shown. The film focused on making sure these LGBTQIA materials are available to the public at a place like Gerber/Hart while also pushing back against fascist forces that want to remove it from existence.
Gerber/Hart Board Co-Chairs James Conley and Kevin Nunley, Gerber/Hart Operations Director and Unboxing Queer History Podcast Co-Creator Erin Bell, Unboxing Queer History Podcast Co-Host Ariel Mejia and Gerber/Hart Development Coordinator Michael Rashid also spoke.
Nunley thanked the event sponsors, benefactors, patrons, volunteers, staff and board while Conley talked about the important work Gerber/Hart does and their plans to eventually hire more full-time staff and move to a permanent home.
Bell spoke about the importance of the Unboxing Queer History podcast to Gerber/Hart's future, while Mejia said the podcast "brought the archive to life" and spoke about the funding needed to produce additional episodes.
Rashid and Rodrigues elicited donations from the audience to make a second season of the Unboxing Queer History podcast possible, with a goal of reaching $10,000 from attendees, which they did that night.
Sho-Nell closed out the night with another performance as We're Not Gonna Take It by Twisted Sister played and attendees feted her with dollar bills. She also said that drag queens have been around for a very long time and will not be going anywher,e no matter who tries to ban them from public spaces.
See www.gerberhart.org/ .