This article is part of News is Out’s Caring for Community series, which is focused on the challenges and triumphs of giving and receiving care in the LGBTQ+ community. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between AARP and News is Out.
When we think about how LGBTQ+ age, helping people feel connected and “seen” is just one of the many ways a community can care for LGBTQ+ elders. It can contribute to their mental health as they navigate the other challenges of aging. Frencia Stephenson is helping compile their histories.
When Stephenson, a self-described nerd for LGBTQ+ history, was faced with their masters thesis at School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), they focused their research on Queer People of Color (QPOC) and transgender seniors’ experiences in Chicago LGBTQ+ spaces from the ’70s-’90s.
Stephenson’s interest stemmed from exploring the community-additive Queering the Map when they were not in class at SAIC; that’s when Stephenson first learned about the now-defunct Belmont Rocks.
“Belmont Rocks was an extremely significant example of LGBTQ+ people claiming public space for decades, only for it to be demolished,” said Stephenson. “I [yearned] to know more about LGBTQ+ spaces in Chicago. The previous semester, I had joined the LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project, an organization that brings LGBTQ+ college students and elders together in conversation and community. Through that experience, I formed friendships with those elders.”
Their thesis project took shape in a course titled Art as a Social Force, where Stephenson interviewed five LGBTQ+ elders—four queer people of color and one transgender elder—about their history with LGBTQ+ spaces in Chicago.
“I originally wanted to know which spaces were the most meaningful to them,” Stephenson recalled. “From the interviews, I created short audio clips about two spaces each elder identified as being meaningful. These were plotted on a Google map I named LGBTQ+ Spaces Chicago, alongside archival research of queer spaces of color and transgender spaces from the ’70s-’90s that was compiled at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives.”
The LGBTQ+ Spaces Chicago map is a work in progress, according to Stephenson. They hope to embed the audio clips within the map to make it more interactive but need to hire a designer to make it happen.
Stephenson found three of these interview subjects through the LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project. Two were already friends with Stephenson. They quickly became friends with the third person. The fourth person came to Stephenson through one of the dialogue members. Stephenson found the fifth person because they were interested in talking to him after seeing him in the “Out and Proud in Chicago” documentary. Stephenson is also reaching out for their next cohort of interviewees.
“I also interviewed Owen Keehnen, a prominent LGBTQ+ historian, especially about the Belmont Rocks,” they added.
Stephenson called the interviewing process “incredible. I love it and get a lot of energy and joy out of it.” Their interviews took place over Zoom last semester, but they like in-person interviews better because there is “something special” about them. Regardless of the interviewing circumstances, Stephenson said they made a personal connection with all of their subjects.
“This semester my interviews have been a lot more organized,” said Stephenson. “ … I put a lot of respect and trust in those I am interviewing, and whatever they bring to the table is meaningful.”
Stephenson found that, in general, the elders were now looking for “intergenerational relationships and better communication between generations” because many of them do not have relationships with members of their families of origin.
“Most of the people I talked to said they have experienced ageism within the LGBTQ+ community where they now feel invisible in certain spaces when that was not the case when they were younger,” said Stephenson. “This has made them feel isolated, and that was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic lock-downs.”
For their next cohort, Stephenson will talk to three new elders and also do a deeper dive with three of the previous interviewees. Additionally, they will speak with Windy City Times Co-Founder/Owner and Chicago Reader Publisher Tracy Baim and transgender historian Andre Perez.
The results will be made available in the spring but Stephenson hopes to continue with the project after they graduate because they still want to talk to many more QPOC and trans elders and learn about additional LGBTQ+ Chicago spaces.
“I hope people can see how LGBTQ+ people live(d) and occupy spaces all over Chicago,” said Stephenson. “I hope the audio stories I create help audiences visualize the space and picture it in space, regardless of whether it still exists or not. I also want to emphasize that QPOC and transgender people’s, as well as elders’, stories are so very important, especially when white cis voices are prioritized. With the rampant attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, especially the rights of trans people, I hope my project can make a statement that we have existed and will continue to exist, and that our lives and experiences are important.”
Stephenson said that if QPOC elders over the age of 55-60 and trans elders over the age of 40 who still live or have lived in Chicago or the surrounding suburbs would like to be interviewed for this project, they should email them firstname.lastname@example.org.
They are also looking to pay a web designer to make the necessary changes to their LGBTQ+ Spaces Chicago map and have asked that prospective hires email them as well.
Carrie Maxwell is a contributing writer for Windy City Times and the lead researcher for the Legacy Project.