Dalila Fridi ( pictured as co-chair of Lesbian Community Care Project's recent Garden of Eve. Photo by Kat Fitzgerald, MysticImagesPhotography.com ) , a technical analyst at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and Ahmad Refky, the Illinois director for the Center for Cultural Interchange, met at an Equality Illinois event, and an idea was born.
That idea has become a new LGBT group in Chicago called Taqaseem. Taqaseemwhich recently had its first meeting at TouchÃ©, 6412 N. Clarkis a group dedicated to uniting the Middle Eastern and North African LGBT communities of the greater Chicagoland area. The name for the group comes from a form of Middle Eastern music that calls for improvisation within a set of rulesan apt metaphor for the group itself.
Fridi said that the group is a long time in the making. The initial idea came about after the Mr. Chicago Leather title was awarded to Ammar H. in 2009, making him the first Syrian man to claim the title.
"That was the catalyst for getting the group under way. I met him and Ahmad at a First Friday event, and because he had won, we felt it was time to assemble a group like this," Fridi said.
Refky said that he was initially hesitant to start the group due to personal reasons, but Houssamo's win made him realize that it was time. His story is reflective of so many other Middle Eastern LGBT individuals who come to America due to persecution from their families and societies.
"I was born in Egypt and lived there until I was 21," Refky said. "I came to Chicago at 16 as an exchange student, and I came out in college to friends. I also came out in Egypt to my family, and it was not a pretty coming out. It was traumatic and it pretty much pushed me back into the closet. My father wanted me to go into therapy, which is fairly common. But when I came out to my host family, they were supportive, and after the Cairo 52 ( a group of 52 men who were arrested in May 2001 in Cairo for their homosexuality ) almost became the Cairo 53, my host family took me in. I applied for political asylum and got it. And now I want to use my personal experience to help others."
Fridi came to America from Algeria at age 19 and came out in the United States, but found that there were no groups that catered to Middle Eastern LGBT individuals specifically.
"I joined a group comprised of southeastern Asian lesbians, but I realized that we are a different culture with different struggles and ways of living," said Fridi.
Now that the group has formed, their first concerns are in raising funds for Middle Easterners in Chicagoland, and start providing educational programs on topics like HIV, safe sex and places of support, which they would like to begin doing at the Center on Halsted.
"Our driving message is that it's OK to be Middle Eastern and gay," said Refky. "It's not career suicide."
Refky added, "A lot of us are from that part of the world and we are gay and successful. This is not a religious or political group, because that's not the type of support we wish to offer."
Fridi echoed this statement: "We also can't offer too much in the way of immigration support, but we can give people a push in the right direction. We really want to work with the Center on Halsted because they have lawyers, psychologists, and other people that can help Middle Eastern LGBT people who have been ostracized from their families. The goal here is not to create something that already exists."
Ultimately, Refky wants the group to not only increase visibility, but to also let Middle Eastern LGBT people be proud of who they are.
"You can be proud of your Arab and Muslim heritage, and you can do something to help others and yourself, which is what we are here to help provide," Refky said.
The next meeting for Taqaseem is a fundraiser at Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted, on June 24, 6-9 p.m. A $20 admission will provide a raffle ticket and a drink. T-shirts with Taqaseem's logo in Arabic will also be available.
"The last event we did ( at TouchÃ© ) gathered a lot of attention, support and curiosity," said Fridi. "A few Middle Eastern young adults came and we were surprised at what a serious group it was. The event at Sidetrack should provide more exposure, and it will take advantage of Pride Month. After that, we're hoping to start having events for people under 21, since they need just as much support as adults, and we can't have all of our events at bars."
The T-shirts will also be available on Taqaseem's Web site, www.taqaseem.org, as will other upcoming events. Fridi and Refky encourage anyone interested in the group to visit the site, and to also join the Facebook group. Contact information for both Fridi and Refky will be available at these outlets. Also, a video clip from Taqaseem's first event is available to watch at www.outworld.tv .
PRIDEChicago, the committee behind the Chicago Annual Pride Paradescheduled for Sunday, June 28, at 12 p.m., and starting at the corner of Halsted and Belmonthas announced that trans actress/teacher/activist Alexandra Billings will be the grand marshal of the event.
Billingswho has dozens of stage, television and film roles to her creditis the subject of "Schoolboy to Showgirl: The Alexandra Billings Story," a part of the Out & Proud in Chicago series that will premiere Friday, June 19, at 8:30 p.m. on WTTW-11.
In addition, there will be changes related to crowd control. Effective this year, the plan is to line the entire parade route with barricades on both sides of the street from the starting point all the way to Diversey, to keep the crowds at bay. Spectators, including those who arrive late on parade day, will be required to stand behind the barricades, not in the street.
PRIDEChicago has updated and upgraded the June Pride Month and Parade Web site; see www.ChicagoPrideCalendar.org .