CHICAGO — To Noel Green, being a part of Chicago’s South Side Black LGBTQ community “feels like being a part of a space, but essentially the underground of it.”
“It is something that you can live your truth, but only after darkness comes,” said Green, a University of Chicago public policy and social work student, public health practitioner and manager of outreach and care engagement at the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination.
Green is one of 233 South Side residents who took a survey assessing the needs, feelings and hopes regarding the LGBTQ community and a proposed Howard Brown Health LGBTQ center and clinic on the South Side.
The center, still in its planning stages, has received both support and concerns from community members. The facility aims to address issues facing the LGBTQ population and offer a space for people to freely be themselves, together.
“We know that South Side LGBTQ folks have always had each other, but to have a space that is intentionally created to do that is also really important,” Channyn Parker, manager of external relations for Howard Brown Health Center, said in a Facebook Live event last week.
The survey was a partnership, steered by a committee of representatives from Howard Brown Health, Pride Action Tank (a project of AIDS Foundation of Chicago) and Illinois state Rep. Lamont Robinson, with support from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Majority Leader Greg Harris and other supporters in the Illinois General Assembly.
The results from 233 survey takers and eight stakeholder interviews were released July 8, when the committee also held a Facebook Live session to explain some of the results and answer questions from community members.
Along with their hopes for the center expressed in the survey, South Siders answered questions about their pandemic-induced struggles, health and social concerns, and feelings about their communities to better gauge what resources they were enjoying and/or lacking.
About one-third of respondents noted the effect of the pandemic on their ability to receive care and services. Issues included reduced hours, job loss, housing and food insecurity. The report also showed that respondents needed services in the last year like “culturally competent health care and services, general health needs like vision and dental care, family and family planning services, economic assistance and social and spiritual services.”
Barriers to receiving these services included residents not knowing where to get them, not thinking they qualified for free services and perceived long wait times.
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Gender-affirming care and mental health care were also hindered during the pandemic, survey participants noted. The survey was administered from June 29 to Sept. 7, 2020.
In terms of LGBTQ-specific issues, the survey found an overall satisfaction of South Siders with their neighborhoods but an “overwhelming dissatisfaction with the LGBTQ services” in the area. Most respondents reported feeling safe in their neighborhoods, but for Black LGBTQ residents, that number was lower.
“The Black community has this type of stigma towards LGBTQ+ people, or better explained homophobia/transphobia/biphobia/every other phobia towards the community. It would probably decrease minority LGBTQ homelessness because if these families were more supportive, they wouldn’t be forced to relocate to a more comfortable environment,” an anonymous survey respondent reported.
Green echoed a similar sentiment.
“The South Side, I feel like, is largely regarded as the ‘Bible Belt’ of the city. And so you deal with a lot of antiquated ideals and religious indoctrination that is very non-affirming, oppressive and traumatic for people of LGBTQ experience on the South Side of Chicago,” he said.
Other people Green knows have been “victims of ‘DL (down-low) culture,’” in which individuals wanted to be with them, but not publicly.
Because of the historical discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community on the South Side, Green said LGBTQ individuals used to frequently move to the North Side or resettle in the north suburbs. He thinks this is changing.
“Nowadays, my friends are living their truth right in the center of Englewood or on 79th. They have this perspective on life that’s like, ‘nobody’s gonna tell me how to be anything different than myself.’”
The committee plans to address a wide range of social needs through the center, allowing the community to guide the conversation about and direction of the project.
“Oftentimes when we think of needed resources, we have a tendency to think along the lines of medical provision. And we forget that there’s also resources and services that are needed to address things like isolation, child care, housing, youth services, and that’s to name a few,” Parker said during the Facebook Live event.
Just as importantly, Parker said, there is “a need for a space where individuals with shared identity can gather safely without fear of being harmed for being their authentic self.”
“The things we need on an everyday basis don’t have ‘LGBTQ’ slapped on them, right?”
The steering committee had its first meeting in February 2020 and secured $15 million in funding from the state, but Kim Hunt, executive director of Pride Action Tank, said that is just a starting point.
And while many participants expressed support and enthusiasm for the proposed center, some expressed concerns about overpowering existing community centers and resources that have served the community for a long time, such as the Brave Space Alliance, Affinity and the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus.
“I’m a South Sider myself,” Hunt said. “I really want to see the LGBTQ infrastructure and network increase on the South Side. I also know that there will need to be this balance between making sure that existing organizations are not harmed by the presence of a facility with more resources because there have been organizations working on the South Side for quite some time.”
However, Hunt said there is “definitely enough work to be done to require multiple organizations to make sure that our communities have what they need to thrive.”
“This center will only be an extension of the work that these organizations already do, in a larger space,” Robinson said during the Facebook Live event.
While there are existing resources and centers serving the LGBTQ community, residents want a center that focuses on Black culture and ways of life. Some of these resources are “white-normative,” according to Green, meaning they lack nuance in the ways that the Black LGBTQ population would best be served.
Furthermore, many South Side LGBTQ residents historically could not easily access resources and services because the majority of the funding in the early ’90s was going to North Side services, Green said, as well as because of the deep-rooted segregation of the South Side.
“If you cross some of those lines, people just don’t like you in their communities.”
South Side residents like Green are “hopeful” for what’s to come. He thinks the “optics” are correct, the intentionality is there and he is looking forward to seeing what partners are in store for the center to ensure its sustainability.
“At some point, (when) providing people support and resources, they should at some point say, ‘This has helped me get to a place where I can at least look at life in a way that I don’t necessarily need to visit it every day.’”