In which we meet the organization:
In 1973, Center on Halsted began as a small movement in a basement, serving as a safe meeting space for the LGBTQ community, as well as offering peer counseling and operating a hotline. After the Stonewall Riots in 1969, change was coming, but slowly, spreading gradually inward from the coasts to the Midwest. Prior to the riots, the LGBTQ community existed in the dark, afraid to draw attention to itself for fear of violence and recrimination. After the riots, the community was more visible, shedding its shame and showing the world that not only was the LGBTQ community here to stay, but it was going to change the world for the better. The riots showed the world that the LGBTQ community wasn’t going to be shamed and abused into silence; if you were going to take on the community, the community was going to meet you toe to toe.
Yet, change being change, it was slow growth. Community members became community leaders, raising their voices and advocating for equality and change, and most importantly, respect. However, people are stubborn and resistant to change, and more importantly there are those who feel that their opinion is more important than another’s rights. Even today, as the fight for marriage equality hits the front pages, the day to day life of some members of the LGBTQ community seems as though it is plodding along somewhere in 1955.
Center on Halsted opened in its current incarnation in 2007, moving ever forward and preparing for the future of the community by staying current and relevant. As an example: this year, when their 5 year plan expired, administration reviewed its position and opted to add the “Q” identifier to their literature and mission statement. This was a controversial addition; some of the older members of the community began to express discomfort with the addition, as the word “queer” had often been used to shame and torment them. The Center responded to this very real concern and facilitated a discussion between seniors and youth (of which a growing number are identifying as queer) to discuss the identifier and why some felt that it was an important addition. The Center is aware and understanding of the ever changing energy within the community and in order to greater fulfill their purpose, always ensures that they are on the forefront of change and understanding.
The building itself is exquisite, with vibrant colors and art exhibits featuring works by local LGBTQ artists; it is a welcoming and inviting space for the community. In the Senior Center, paintings of the pioneers of the LGBTQ community are proudly displayed. Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, and Billie Jean King gaze down on guests, watching over the community they helped foster.
And that is what the Center truly is: a community center that welcomes everyone, no matter their affiliation. Come and meet with friends, enjoy the comfortable chairs, and view the brilliant art. Feel free to utilize the cyber center or the toddler play room. The Center offers a safe, judgment free zone for anyone to come and enjoy. Center on Halsted is an example of what can happen when an organization is given the resources to focus totally on those that benefit from their programs.
Whole Foods rents space from the Center and has a 99 year lease, of which they have paid 25 years in advance. This allows the Center to operate with very little overhead. In fact, 80 cents of every dollar that the Center receives goes directly into the programs they offer. This makes their programs rich with access and quality. Their commitment to the community they serve is truly remarkable.
During my visit, I saw this energy in action. There were people walking around, reclining on chairs and meeting with friends. Conversations were taking place and adorable toddlers were enjoying the playroom, the cyber center was bustling, every computer being put to use by a diverse group of patrons. Most importantly, all of the guests were clearly enjoying themselves. You could see the work taking place; this space isn’t just for show, it’s a functional, safe environment and it is being well and gratefully used. It felt like a safe place for self-expression, which is its exact intention.
Next week we'll explore in detail the various programs that the Center has to offer and how you can help.