Imagine having to take the train for forty minutes for sexual health services.
Imagine having to leave your community to travel fifteen miles to a place where you feel safe to be yourself.
Imagine a world where many of your identities conflict with who you are as a person and it leaves you in the middle feeling lost.
With intolerant families, churches, and peers, LGBTQ+ youth of color on the South Side of Chicago often struggle to find spaces around them where there are others like themselves. I knew that I wasn’t straight at a young age, but I was always afraid to admit it because I never saw postive images of queer people, or any queer people of color, in media, and because schools often don’t provide educational content for LGBTQ+ students. This explains why the South Side, as well as Black residents overall, are disproportionately impacted by HIV, and the racial division in the LGBTQ+ community.
As a proud, queer, South Side Chicagoan, sometimes being Black and queer don’t blend well. Being Black in a racially segregated city comes with lack of access to healthcare, high quality schools, and affordable housing, along with blatant discrimination. When you add queerness to Blackness, there comes the usual refrain: “You can’t be gay and Black.” The white queer community may isolate you; rap music from notable Black women may be suspended from playing at a bar. An email leaked in May from the Progress Bar in Boystown announced that the bar was banning DJs from playing rap music in order to promote a “positive, happy…and most importantly, a FUN vibe.” Some residents of Boystown even launched a campaign called “Take Back Boystown” in 2012 against queer youth of color. Due to persistent segregation and racism in the neighborhood, many Boystown spaces that could support queer youth of color–such as Center on Halsted, Howard Brown Health, and the Broadway Youth Center–are inaccessible and unwelcoming to them. Seeing how my identities mold together, of course you’d understand why I’d find refuge with other queer people of color in my own community. This is why I was so excited about Pride South Side.
Although many LGBTQ+ Chicagoans and allies attended the famous Pridefest and Pride Parade on the North Side of Chicago, the South Side was not lacking in our share of festivities. Pride South Side was created by Jared Lewis and Adrienne Irmer, who saw a need for more queer-affirming spaces on the South Side of Chicago. They planned to partner with community organizations to promote diversity and inclusion and create safe spaces. On June 28, there was a screening of LGBT-focused films at the Stony Island Arts Bank. On June 29, there was the South Side Pride Festival at the DuSable Museum of African American History, followed by youth and adult-friendly after parties. On June 30, after the Boystown Pride Parade, there was a “Beachnic” from at the South Shore Cultural Center. And I was able to experience some of the magic.
Queer. Black. Pride. All of these elements came together at Pride South Side. What stunned me is that usually in queer spaces, I tend to be self-conscious because of racial demographics, but I felt accepted and welcome at this festival. There were many Black people at tables eating food and listening to music. And guess what? Music by queer Black people. Most notable was Cha$e, a queer Black male, who wrote the gay anthem of 2019, “Fuck Boi.” Aside from adding another artist to my Apple Music, I was able to connect with community organizations that provide services to LGBTQ+ people.
Right at the gate, there were two mobile health vans for HIV testing from the South Side Help Center. To get in with free admission, participants would have to get tested for HIV for free as well. Surrounding the tents were vendors like Harold’s Chicken—nothing says culturally relevant like Harold’s.
At this festival, I saw people who looked like me and who loved like me. I vogued with people like me in a dance circle. We weren’t afraid to freely express ourselves and our bodies. I didn’t have to code-switch and, most importantly, I didn’t have to calculate every step I made to avoid being racially profiled. While I was there, I felt proud to be myself and of the identities that come together to make me Nathan. Marian Wright Edelman has a famous quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” At Pride South Side, I saw what I can be. This opportunity for me to see Black LGBTQ+ people “bringing Pride home” and living up to the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender pioneers for equity of LGBTQ+ folks, could not have been found elsewhere.
Pride South Side organized an afterparty dedicated to women of color in the Back of the Yards neighborhood called She Proud, which Aaliyah Romer attended. “Being a queer Black woman could be challenging because there aren’t many dedicated spaces for us,” Romer said. “I felt emotional being surrounded by so many Black women living and displaying their authentic selves. Having events in my home part of the city and being surrounded by folks who look like me was truly an amazing and invaluable experience.”
While Pride South Side will continue their work, there are few other organizations located on the South Side of Chicago that are doing ground-breaking work in the fight for equitable resources for everyone. The South Side Help Center offers an abundance of services to their residents, especially residents who have HIV or their men who have sex with men (MSM) population. Another organization is the Brave Space Alliance (BSA), the first Black and trans-led community center on the South Side. The BSA is unique in that it provides access to financial and employment workshops and training for queer and trans folk in the community. Affinity Community Services is an organization that centers Black queer and trans women, but strives to empower LGBTQ+ people of color. Noticing the intersectionality of being a person of color and LGBTQ, Affinity focuses on three areas: Health and Wellness, Civic Engagement, and Education.
While all these organizations are doing amazing work, many have problems with access to capital to expand and provide resources. The South Side Help Center had to close a drop-in center because they lost a grant that was funding the program, according to Project Director Charles Nelson. The Brave Space Alliance staff doesn’t have a permanent office that they can access everyday for programming and administrative tasks. In contrast, the Center on Halsted receives funding from banks, corporations, and philanthropic organizations. All three of these South Side community organizations need as much funding as they can get. Despite the obstacles, they are still thriving and providing services.
To achieve liberation for the Chicago LGBTQ+ community, we have to look through a racial equity lens to provide wellness and security for all our people. Support the three South Side organizations with volunteers or donations, support Pride South Side, and support your local queer people of color and tell them they are loved, supported, and are worth it all.
Nathan Petithomme is a sophomore at Loyola University Chicago. Petithomme is majoring in Early Childhood Special Education with a minor in Educational Policy.