Years ago, longtime activist Michael O'Connor heard that some Black legislators in Illinois didn't want to support the Marriage Equality Act because they didn't believe Black people would benefit from same-sex marriage. He decided to prove them wrong.
"So, my buddies and I, we made a whole list of Black LGBT African Americans and bussed them down there to walk the halls," O'Connor said. "And it worked. Marriage equality is now law because African American legislators spoke up for it."
For decades, O'Connor has worked for uplifting Black LGBTQ people who have been overlooked, improving the community's lives along the way.
Inducted into Chicago's LGBT Hall of Fame in 2015, O'Connor's long career includes securing spaces for Black LGBT people and speaking up to make the broader community aware of their struggles. He's worked for a number of politicians but said he "caught the bug" for politics as a staffer during Mayor Harold Washington's campaign.
"I've demanded equal protection under the law ever since I was an adult," O'Connor said. "I had to. That's how you survive. You're making things better for the generations that come behind you and you're making things better for yourself, quite frankly."
At the "saged" age of 65, O'Connor now lives in a seniors complex in Bronzeville. He said most of what he does nowadays "comes back to communication." He speaks to media organizations about Black LGBTQ people face, distributes masks and other COVID-19 resources in his neighborhood and registers people to vote.
"And you know, when I run up against homophobes, I believe in doing the thing I've always done," O'Connor said. "I ream them."
Active in the LGBT community since he was a teenager, O'Connor grew up in a time when it was perilous to be gay. O'Connor said he frequently heard homophobic sermons and faced harassment from his classmates as a child growing up in Catholic schools.
He witnessed police raids on LGBT bars and saw his friends publicly humiliated by police officers who'd pull their pants down or take photos of them. But he still skipped his senior prom to listen to music with other Black gay men who bribed the police to leave them alone.
"I knew then, I was not going to everI just didn't have it in medo anything except for be who I am," O'Connor said.
O'Connor, who lives with HIV/AIDS, saw activism as "something that you just did." He co-authored the first bill to provide an independent revenue stream for HIV/AIDS service providers, helping create the Red Ribbon Cash Lottery. The lottery has generated more than $9 million for HIV/AIDS research, prevention and treatment.
In 1993, O'Connor ensured LGBT people could march in the city's annual parades for Black heritage, including the Bud Billiken Day Parade and the African Liberation Day Parade. "We marched in the [Bud Billiken Day Parade] and we had to have the FBI standing next to us because we were so threatened," O'Connor said.
He also co-founded the Rocks Coordinating Committee (RCC), the first nonprofit group to sponsor a culturally specific pride event in the city when pride celebrations were still largely segregated, in 1998. The eventcoined by O'Connor as "more than a party" also provided historically underserved communities free access to social service and health care providers.
"There was a clear color line at Pride, and most African Americans went home after the parade since the bars were still segregated. But I saw that change," O'Connor said.
Although O'Connor both has witnessed and taken part in much change, he described issues Black LGBTQ people continue to face, such as "a lack of adequate housing, a lack of adequate jobs, high unemployment and health disparities. … Racism in the LGBTQ community, in certain environments, [is] a perfect example of how things have still remained the same."
Conversations about racial injustice in the U.S. gained increased attention in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent police killings, with the backdrop of a global pandemic disproportionately tearing through minority communities.
"Before COVID, we had the issues," O'Connor said. "During COVID, the issues worsened. The health disparities among African Americans are outrageous, you can actually go by zip code and tell how long someone is expected to live."
O'Connor expressed disappointment he couldn't march alongside Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020 due to issues with his mobility, but said, "I'm with them every step of the way." The last time he and his 40-year-old bullhorn attended a protest was in 2015, when Laquan McDonald was killed by police officers and the city covered up video evidence of the murder.
"If these things haven't been dealt with, the unrest is warranted," O'Connor said. "I mean, it's unfortunate they have to throw a brick through Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue to get some attention paid to the issues, but rioting has always been the language of the unheard. My history teaches me that."
Although O'Connor has shelved his 40-year-old bullhorn for now, he said he still "screams and hollers about police reform." While serving as former state Rep. Connie Howard's aid, O'Connor helped to pass "second chance" legislation that reformed Illinois' criminal code and "helped a lot of LGBT people who had brushes with the law," he said. "As an African American man, I see it as my duty."
Much of what O'Connor does day to day now falls into a category he calls "loving my neighbor as myself." Alongside voter registration and COVID-19 supply outreach, he takes care of another elderly LGBTQ man who lives in his building.
O'Connor said he helps his new friend with "personal hygiene and homemaking," brings him food after long treks to North Side grocery stores since they live in a food desert and connects him to government resources.
"Us old men, a lot of us don't have intergenerational connections because our families turned their backs on us," O'Connor said. "To be an African American elder, it's something our community still hasn't been able to relate to, in terms of advocacy."
After experiencing the deaths of many of his friends, including fellow activists Benny Montgomery and Marc Loveless, his work feels different, he said.
"Trust me, it's a lot better now than ever before," O'Connor said. "But my two friends, who helped to make that foundation happen in this community, are no longer here. Oh, and that hurts. It still hurts. I know I'll get over it and I know it's part of the mourning process. I do what I can do, but it's a hard thing to do. It's different to be alone."
Even though he feels more alone than he once did, O'Connor said he'll never be quiet about the issues affecting his community. Openness is where he's always found strength.
"I can't be silent," O'Connor said. "My silence doesn't protect me, it hurts me. As I've grown older, I've learned sometimes things are just unhinged and the best thing you can do is help people when they decide to take a stand."