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Homophobic cop, protests, transgender empowerment dominate 2009 headlines in Chicago

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Dec 30, 2009

The eyes of the world have been all over Chicago this year because of its most famous and newly Washington-bound resident and an unsuccessful 2016 Olympic bid. Not to be undone, however, the city's LGBT residents certainly did not disappoint in their ability to make the headlines.

Over the course of the last 12 months, LGBT Chicagoans have celebrated heartily, endured tragedy and everything in between. While area activists and politicians continue to lead the quest for marriage for same-sex couples in Illinois, progress continues to evade organizers. Nevertheless, they have refused to relent in making their presence known to our political leaders in a way that has also been felt at both the state and federal level on a number of other issues. I've had the privilege of sharing in conversations with the very people making it all happen - from the community members representing us in public office all the way down to the young activists attending their first political rally.

While many stories remain close at heart for me as I reflect on the past year, below are five from the field that struck me as particularly representative of our resilient and diverse community. They speak to from where we have come, where we are and where we're headed.

Protest from the grassroots up
When I awoke on Saturday, Jan. 10, to head into the Loop for the Gay Liberation Network and Join the Impact-Chicago-sponsored protest of the Defense of Marriage Act, I worried how many protesters would be present on a morning marked by decidedly inclement weather and many inches of snow and slush. But the crowd assembled outside of the State of Illinois Building numbered in the hundreds; mirroring the unprecedented spirit shown the previous fall in a solidarity protest against the passage of Proposition 8 in California.

"It's an outrage that the federal government sponsors this kind of bigotry and we demand that the new administration stand by its word," activist and author Sherry Wolf announced to the crowd. "When Obama says that he is for the repeal of [DOMA,] we want to help give him a little bit of a push through our actions."

As the crowd proceeded to march through the Loop, I wondered why I ever questioned Chicago's willingness to take to the streets and demand change. As it turned out, the DOMA protest was only the first of many public rallies organized largely by GLN and JTI-C, in addition to LGBT Change, in the city. We rallied for Freedom to Marry Day in February, against the California Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Prop. 8 vote in May and gathered again in October in solidarity with the National Equality March on Coming Out Day.

And the most impressive thing about all these rallies was that they'd been organized with only a few clicks of the button and strokes of the key through the efforts of the activists behind the above-mentioned all-volunteer organizations.

Scarlet burns, returns
Early in the morning of Feb. 27, Boystown was rocked when one of its most popular nightspots - Scarlet - was completely destroyed by a five-alarm blaze that required more than 100 firefighters extinguished. While no one was injured in the fire, some living above the bar lost their homes and many employees of the bar lost their jobs.

But it did not take long for other businesses in the area to step up to the plate and help those affected by the Scarlet fire get back on their feet. Bars including Cocktail, Cell Block, the Wild Pug and Roscoe's all held events to raise funds for survivors and talks soon spread of the bar's likely re-opening in time for the city's raucous Pride.

It took a bit longer than that, but Scarlet was back on its feet by late September and fiercer than ever. It offered many new events and hosts in addition to its well-known Frathouse Thursdays tradition. The bar's quick recovery was a testament to the power of community support in the event of tragedy.

"I hope we can earn the community's support again and continue to grow because we hope to be around on the strip for a long time to come," owner Paul Canella told EDGE. "We are setting our sights high."

Fiorito off the streets at last
Another local example of the power of community organizing came in the removal of embattled Chicago Police Officer Richard Fiorito from the streets after 37 people alleged he falsely arrested them for DUI charges and targeted them because they are gay or lesbian. The Chicago Police Department placed the veteran officer on desk duty in October, pending the results of an investigation into the allegations.

EDGE originally reported this story in April, when the number of plaintiffs in the case against Fiorito was only four. As that number rose, so too did the community pressure. And in June, the CPD's LGBT community subcommittee passed a resolution demanding his removal from the streets. While that effort has been successful, the officer continues to receive paychecks and has yet to be charged with any crime.

"We need to keep turning up the heat and stepping up our game because it's not a matter of letting the facts speak for themselves," GLN co-founder Andy Thayer said on their campaign against the embattled officer. "They have spoken and it's not enough."

Transgender Chicago brings new energy
When activist and performer Amanda Billings became the first-ever transgender grand marshal of this year's Chicago Pride Parade, the distinction offered the opportunity to take a fresh look at the city's trans community. What I found, through a number of interviews with the community's leading proponents, was a community coming alive with a new energy belying its oft-marginalized past.

Groups like Illinois Gender Advocates continue to lead these efforts, as noted in its recognition of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a particularly somber occasion that honored the lives of 162 this year. But Genderqueer Chicago and T-Storm have challenged our community's perception of gender through a fresh, action-oriented approach to visibility and equality for trans and gender-nonconforming individuals. T-Storm's success was notable in protesting Hunters Nightclub's questionable new ID door policy they feel discriminates against the community in October.

Genderqueer Chicago organizer Kate Sosin expressed hope the new campaigns would be representative of a new found sense of unity for the city's divided-at-times trans community.

"Our biggest strength is our community and how we can connect with each other," Sosin told EDGE. "I think that rather than competing for space, there's a real need to connect. We're so small in some ways but we can't afford to shut each other out."

HIV statistics cannot be ignored
And finally, on a grim note, perhaps the most disappointing piece of LGBT news this year was the findings of a new comprehensive report the city's Department of Health released in July. The report found an estimated half of HIV-infected men who have sex with men in the city were unaware of their status. All told, of the 524 men surveyed and tested, just over 17 percent were HIV-positive. That rate was markedly higher among black men who have sex with men.

The city's HIV/AIDS service providers acknowledge the disease has "fallen off the radar screen" as a high priority for LGBT Chicagoans, but the harsh numbers speak to a continuing lack of education and access to resources for some. As Christopher Brown, assistant commissioner forSTI/HIV/AIDS at the DPH said in a press release, these numbers are "unacceptably high" and point to the need for continued efforts to reach at-risk communities.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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