A GLBT Center of Their Own

A combination of public and private funds, Chicago’s new GLBT community center enjoys broad political support and is the first of its kind in the country

BY Laura S. Washington

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Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade draws dozens of straight elected officials eager to strut their stuff alongside the drag queens and Dykes on Bikes.

It’s “not your average GLBT Center” declared the April 24 edition of The Advocate, the national GLBT newsmagazine.

Indeed. The Center on Halsted, billed as the nation’s most comprehensive GLBT community center, was unveiled last month in a flurry of local and national press. More than a decade of perspicacious planning and frenetic fundraising culminated in a 175,000-square-foot complex on North Halsted Street, the main drag of Chicago’s Boys Town. The city’s first community center serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is also the first of its kind in the nation.

The three-story, gleaming expanse of steel, glass and art deco style celebrates a coming-of-age for GLBTs in Chicago and beyond. It is also the fruit of a blend of hard-headed politics and progressive causes. Unlike its peers around the nation, the non-profit community center will offer a dizzying array of programs and amenities: youth and mental health counseling, violence intervention, an HIV/AIDS hotline, culinary training, mentoring, legal assistance, a cyber center, a 175-seat theater and a basketball court.

Its star-studded list of supporters includes the singer Elton John, Billie Jean King of tennis fame, Art Smith (Oprah’s chef) and celebrity designer Nate Berkus.

Even more notable is its political clout. Forty percent of the center’s operational budget comes courtesy of the taxpayer. Can you say, “government funds”? As GLBTs gained traction in Chicago and nationwide for causes from equal rights to public accommodations, military service, civil unions and even marriage, the Center was building support among the politicians.

The concept had been simmering in GLBT circles for years. Then in 1999, activists snuggled up next to a strange bedfellow–Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan, who backed a $1.5-million state grant to built the Center. Once a staunchly conservative state lawmaker, Ryan was a fierce opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment. But in the ’90s he wholeheartedly embraced gay causes in his bid for the governor’s mansion. When Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley agreed in 2001 to donate $3 million in city-owned property, the GLBT Center went from dream to reality.

In 2005, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) engineered a $1.25 million federal grant. “That is remarkable, during the Bush administration” says Patrick M. Sheahan, an executive with the global finance firm UBS and chairman of the Center’s capital campaign. Emanuel, the powerful Democratic leader and former aide to President Bill Clinton, lives near Boys Town.

The Center’s coming of age paralleled the mainstreaming of the gay rights movement. Ten years ago, Chicago’s annual Gay Pride Parade was dominated by floats overflowing with sweaty, gyrating men in thongs. Today it draws dozens of straight elected officials eager to strut their stuff alongside the drag queens and Dykes on Bikes.

The Center has dovetailed with another progressive movement that has gone mainstream: environmentalism. The new building claims plenty of bona fide “green” traits. Designed by the global architecture firm Gensler, it fronts environmentally friendly features like a gray water system that collects and recycles water runoff from the roof, natural ventilation and electric resistance heating.

The all-green rooftop terrace was dedicated the Mayor’s own Rooftop Garden. Daley, now in his sixth term, is an avid environmentalist who constructed an energy-saving garden atop Chicago’s City Hall.

Without the largess of politicians, straight and gay, the Center would still be on the drawing board. It sits in the 44th ward, whose alderman, Tom Tunney, is openly gay.

The project also took some astute political spinning. The name “Center on Halsted” was more powerful for what it didn’t say than for what it did. The neutral moniker provided a fig leaf for the conservative politicians they pitched.

While the Center is on the city’s north side, where most “out” GLBTs live, its mission is to serve a wider constituency. That’s one reason why officials cut a deal with Whole Foods Market, the national grocery chain, to rent the center’s ground floor. The hefty rent will help support the non-profit’s operations for years to come.

It’s important to note that Whole Foods may not be quite down with the program just yet. Its website gushes that the new store was “inspired by the beautifully manicured streets of East Lakeview and by the diverse people who live, work and play within the community.” Still, the promo contains no mention of the word “boy,” not to mention “gay” or “GLBT”. Oh, well.

Still, the new Center on Halsted is a coup, and the political log-rolling that brought it to Boys Town offers lessons for progressives of all stripes.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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