What do an Emmy-nominated actress, NBA basketball player, and an Oscar winning film screenwriter-director-producer have in common? At first glance you might think fame, and maybe even money. However, it goes deeper than that, as many learned more about at Chicago House and Social Service Agency‘s Sixth Annual Speaker Series luncheon.
Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) advocates Laverne Cox, Jason Collins, and Dustin Lance Black have used their global platforms to speak out for injustices and provide support and encouragement for those who have been marginalized by society. In this case, Chicago’s House’s primary target groups: LGBTQ persons, those in poverty, and those affected by HIV/AIDS. A quote said during one of the speaker’s oration sums up the emotional and mental effects of those disenfranchised pretty clearly: “Being poor in America is difficult. Being poor and invisible is painful.”
Chicago House serves individuals and families who are disenfranchised by HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ marginalization, poverty, homelessness, and/or gender nonconformity by providing housing, employment services, medical linkage and retention services, HIV prevention services, legal services and other supportive programs. One of their most recent programs is the TransLife Center which was opened in July 2013. This center, which previously served as a hospice facility, provides housing employment, linkage-to-medical care, case management, and legal services to transgender individuals.
Former speakers at this event include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (2013); Kenneth Cole (2012); Whoopi Goldberg (2011); former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (2010); and former President Bill Clinton (2009). This year’s speaking panel focused on gender, race, and economic disparity with the 50th anniversary of this country’s “War on Poverty” in mind. According to Chicago House, reports have found that poverty levels are unchanged from what they were 50 years ago.
Cox, Collins, and Black all spoke about their experiences respectively before participating in a speaker panel led by Gill Foundation Vice President of Policy, Gautam Raghvan.
Right off the bat, Cox expressed her pride in being a trans woman of color from a working class background. She also made it clear that just because she has made great strides and achievements as a transgendered woman in her field does not mean that “we have overcome.” After giving a rundown of the alarming facts and figures when it comes to transgendered or nonconformity identity youth and adults – bullying, harassment, tolerance levels in the workplace for trans persons, suicides – she informed attendees that this is a state of emergency.
Both “Bell Hooks” and Dr. Brene Brown have both played major roles in how Cox combats disparities of gender and race. Cox combines identifying the political, social constructs of patriarchal systematic oppression—as defined by feminist and social activist “Bell Hooks”—and using the tools to build shame resilience –as described by shame researcher and psychologist Dr. Brene Brown – to tackle issues of intolerance, ignorance, and bigotry in her advocacy. One piece of that she has found to be talking about race beyond closed doors, no matter how scary (especially with her mainstream phe resence).
Fighting these forces comes from within for Cox. She said that shame has been part of her life and story. Dr. Brown defines shame as the intensity and belief that we are unworthy of love and belonging.
” In order to build shame resilience I connect that to the work of being critical about my relationship to [Bell Hooks] and how I internalize those political forces and so much of my work is to fight against that….I don’t have to carry that with me and allow that to ruin my work …so often these systems of domination are in place to make us not feel worthy to have our voices be heard. Each one of us is worthy today.”
Jason Collins followed Cox and being true to oneself is what he is most passionate about in his advocacy for the LGBTQ community. Coming from the world of sports, Collins commented on how athletes are taught to be tough and strong. They are taught to be a virile version of masculinity. Collins even admitted that he “bought right into the lies that being gay is being soft.” That’s why his goal now is to encourage people in sports to live their life and be authentic.
His experience since coming out and becoming the first openly gay NBA basketball player has been humbling for him. He publicly came out in a cover story for Sports Illustrated, and has since received accolades of pride from the likes of President Obama, TIME magazine, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, and Logo TV. He is also the face of Nike’s Be True sportswear line and Marriott’s #LoveTravels campaign.
Even though he has been called brave and courageous , he said that he never wanted to be “that person.” The pioneer if you will. But, that mentality has since changed.
“I just wanted to come out and live my life, but there was an opportunity with my platform to change hearts and minds. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with some of my heroes and sports figures, these pioneers that have been living their authentic life way ahead of the curve.”
Dustin Lance Black won an Academy Award and two Writers Guild Awards for Best Original Screenplay for Milk. The film profiled the life and assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected politician and social activist. Black reflected on his journey of coming out, being gay in the South, and also making sure the dreams of Harvey Milk do not fade away in vain.
As a person of Southern origin, this characteristic plays heavily into Black’s advocacy work for LGBTQ populations. This is in part because of the levels of intolerance in the South versus those in other parts of the country (mainly urban centers), as he mentioned.
Black grew up Southern and Mormon. At the age of six, he remembered hearing from a church elder, someone he should strive to be like, that according to a church elder that next to the sin of murder is “sexual impurity –homosexuality”. Of course at that age he had no idea what that meant until one day he said a gay slur (having heard many slurs in the everyday) resulting in an elder explaining to him what homosexuality was and then “put the fear of God in him” if he ever uttered the word again.
Nonetheless, Black called his experience “lucky” after his mother’s affair with an Army officer resulted in a move from Texas to San Francisco where he alluded to being more comfortably open about his sexual identity during formative years. It was while working as an apprentice in professional theater that he encountered a defining moment in framing what his advocacy looks like today. From a cassette tape with a motivational speech 10 years prior to hearing it, he heard: “Somewhere in Des Moines, Iowa or San Antonio, Texas, there is a young gay person who all of a sudden realizes he or she is gay. They know if their parent found out they will be tossed out of the house. Classmates will taunt them… They only see several options: stay in the closet or suicide. After seeing a paper and reading about the strong LGBTQ scene in San Francisco they then have two new options: move to California, or stay in San Antonio and fight.”
Marriage equality has passed in several states, but Black does not see that as a sign stop moving forward. He feels that there is more work to be done beyond gay marriage acts. Providing safe harbors and mentors for homeless LGBTQ teens is one major priority for Black.
“Young LGBTQ teens are fleeing their home towns for places like New York and Chicago and the only place they can afford to live is on the street. The ones who make it and are lucky enough to survive, who are their mentors and inspirations?”
The other major priority for Black in his advocacy is making sure that young people who come out all across the country, from New York to Jackson, Mississippi to Laramie, Wyoming don’t have to be fearful of violent and cruel repercussions.
“So many are so pleased with marriage equality, but is that all we can do?… Or are you going to fight to keep the dream alive.”
Over 500 guests attended the Chicago House Speaker Series and raised more than $200,000. Prior to the event, VIP guests were able to pose for a photo with the three speakers, followed by a three-course luncheon in Chicago Hilton’s Grand Ballroom.
To learn more about Chicago House and the Speaker Series, please visit www.chicagohouse.org.