Rainbow Youth Connectionsa writing and arts oriented LGBTQ youth group centered in Beverlywill march in this year's South Side Irish parade on Sunday, March 15. [NOTE: As for March 11, the parade had been cancelled because of COVID-19 concerns.]
Group co-founder Steve English ( owner of The Blossom Boys flower shop, and who prefers she/her pronouns ) joked that the group's initial decision to enter the parade began after mentioning it to one of the parents involved with the groupsomething that made the parent express disbelief. That disbelief energized English enough not only to apply, but to raise the money needed to cover the parade's $500 entry fee.
"I put the word out there. Within 48 hours we had enough money to pay that fee," English explained. "The amazing thing is, most of that money came from heterosexual mothers in Beverly who didn't necessarily have LGBTQ kids."
English went on to praise her fellow Beverly community members for being welcoming to the LGBTQ community. Prior to announcing Rainbow Youth Connections' entry into the parade, English mostly kept the group's participation private to avoid negative reaction and criticism. Since the announcement, however, the group has only received positive reactions.
"Beverly, in the nine years I've been here, [has had a] dramatic change in [attitude]," English commented.
This is the latest accomplishment for a group with humble beginnings in English's flower shop.
The group actually formed after English spoke with a handful of LGBTQ teenagers working with her business. They explained how difficult it was for LGBTQ youth to come out.
"It's so scary for gay people in Beverly," English said, relaying the teenagers' stories.
Those conversations evolved into having the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus perform, and subsequently having an art-based event called "About Art" to engage LGBTQ youth in and around Beverly.
That wasn't enough, though.
In August 2019working with Patti Ahern, a local licensed professional counselorEnglish formed Rainbow Youth Connections as a group to offer local LGBTQ youth 12 and older a safe space to meet, learn more about art and writing, and develop a community.
Ten people attended the group's first meeting, and attendance has only increased since then. What began as meeting twice a month has evolved into a nearly weekly affair where group members can interact with one another as well as with members of the Chicago arts community.
Rainbow Youth Connections focuses its efforts on giving LGBTQ youth access to writing and art in a safe, controlled space. They bring in artists and writers from around the city to work with and inspire the group.
"Every week we try to do a different artist," English explained. "There's always something here for the young people to do."
The group's average size has nearly doubled drawing in LGBTQ youth from all over the city. "They come as far as Evanston and Tinley Park," English boasted.
English believes focusing on art is what makes the organization so successful. "There are so many adults now who are gay artists who say 'art got me through' and I have seen some of the most remarkable changes in these [group members]."
Many of the volunteers and artists who work with the organization echo those beliefs.
Chicago writer and storyteller Archy Jamjun said, "The safe space Steve provides at Rainbow Youth Connections is a treasure. If I'd had something like that growing up, I think I would have come to terms with my identity faster and with less hardship." He added, "Steve reminds me a bit of the House Mothers on the show Pose. He is the Mother of the House of Rainbows."
English has much larger plans for Rainbow Youth Connections over the coming months, including expansion of the group's reach around the city and becoming a 501( c )( 3 ) non-profit organization.