Since it began in 1993 with the goal of advancing LGBT civil rights through education and activism, Equality Forum has exploded into the largest annual festival of its kind in the world, featuring five days of international organizations and panels with the goal of empowering the worldwide community.
It makes sense, of course, to host a discussion of this scale in one of the nation’s largest cities, where legislators have put a number of pro-LGBT laws on the books and where citizens are sending an openly gay legislator to our state Capitol in 2013.
But what about suburban, rural and blue-collar communities? In places like Highland, Ind., Joliet, Ill., and countless other small towns across the U.S., the LGBT community doesn’t always have the same resources, and many kids remain closeted until they’re able to venture out of the family home.
It’s with that in mind two Midwest groups, Rainbow Serenity and the Community Action Alliance of the Midwest, are hosting “Claiming Queer Space in a Blue Collar Town” on Saturday afternoon, as part of the Equality Forum Summit’s Collaborative Programs series.
The groups—one new and one old—seek to show how to claim queer space in places where, a couple decades ago, the mere suggestion would have sent chills up many a redneck’s spine. Like in Highland, Ind. The Chicago exurb near the border of Illinois and Indiana is home to about 20,000 people, a few oil refineries, steel mills and little in the way of LGBT community centers. That’s why John Wagman, his husband Brandon Wagman and a few others decided to begin Rainbow Serenity in June 2011.
Wagman describes Highland as “a very closeted community,” and knows from first-hand experience. “Especially with me being a steelworker in the past,” he says. “I’ll tell you now, it’s hard for anybody to know if anyone else is [LGBT] … there are quite a few in the community that just hide because they’re just too afraid of a lot of the problems they could face here.”
Rainbow Serenity—whose goal is to create “a safe and label-free environment”—is currently funded by its six-member board. The organization is in the process of applying for nonprofit status, but it’s been a struggle.
Wagman says he’s been turned down by countless lawyers throughout the rural Indiana area who don’t want to work with the LGBT community. Others, seemingly sympathetic to the crowd, are avoiding the startup, too. And that’s just to get the paperwork done.
“I’ve had people tell us, ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll help you do it,’ and the next thing you know they don’t call us back,” he says. “I’ve had local lawyers tell us straight up no, ‘Since you guys are helping the LGBT community, we do not support that … we don’t want to help you.’”
Carrie Jacobs, executive director of the Attic Youth Center here in Philadelphia, says she had similar problems when trying to get that program up and running, back in 1993. “I was calling around to see where I could do LGBT youth services,” Jacobs remembers, “and everywhere I called said ‘There are no LGBTQ youth,’ or ‘We don’t want to be known as a gay agency.’”
When she finally found the original attic to house a pilot program, even the person who rented it out was cynical about what she was trying to do.
Jacobs notes that while discrimination is still prevalent in setting up community center similar to the Attic, she was dealing with both discrimination due to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the denial of LGBT youth’s existence (in the early ’90s, she says, most people she ran into believed the only gay youth were those tricked or recruited by adults).
“The only funding I was able to get—I did it for a year and a half with no funding—was through HIV prevention dollars … nobody thought there were gay youth or didn’t want to know that there were.”
In hearing the reiterated story of Rainbow Serenity, Jacobs notes the rural, Midwest experience today is likely similar to the one she faced in the early ’90s.
Luckily, Rainbow Serenity has allies in the greater region, like the Community Alliance Action Network.
Started in 2005 with “six people sitting around the dining room table talking about how hard it is for LGBTQ people to connect in the suburbs,” says Alliance president Gini Lester.
After flirting with an online Meetup group, Lester says she was more interested in a physical location where the LGBT community in the Chicago suburbs could congregate.
A suburban location is important, she says, because not everyone can necessarily get into the big city on any given day to be with like-minded people. LGBT folks of all ages, sexes and creeds are served at the center, which, Lester says, is an important distinction in the Midwest.
“There’s the myth that LGBT people don’t support the elderly or provide services, but … we provide a place for all people to congregate,” she says. “The elderly, they’re usually not into the bar scene; they’re not into their church; they’re not going into the big city to play; they just want to hang out.”
This year, Equality Forum celebrates its 20th anniversary and, as always, will be hosting six straight days of events throughout the city that will focus on educating and inspiring members of the international LGBT community.