Party shootings lead activists to push for black gay rights
By Tonya Maxwell
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published February 14, 2007
After two masked gunmen shot six people at a party of young, black, gay men on Dec. 31, police investigated the shootings for evidence of a hate crime.
Almost two months later, investigators still don't know if it was a hate crime or who was responsible for the attack at a South Side two-flat, which is known as a gathering place for gay men. But activists have called for public officials in the 8th Ward, where the incident occurred, to expand a task force created to promote more tolerance toward gays and lesbians in the area and provide more services for them.
On Tuesday, advocates asked City Council candidates on the Feb. 27 ballot to attend a meeting Sunday at Chicago State University and announce their support for gay rights in the African-American community.
"Thank God nobody died. But out of that tragic incident, we're able to find our voice and our strength. After we called everyone together, we did something that's never been done before in this town," said Marc Loveless, an activist who organized the news conference. "We just said to everybody, `We need to bring this community together with people who are responsible and call them to be accountable.'"
The attack and the surrounding controversy have pushed into the public arena issues that have long been talked about among black gays and lesbians. For example, there are few services and social venues for gays and lesbians on the South Side, advocates said.
Most are on the North Side, said Vernita Gray, a liaison to the gay community for the Cook County state's attorney.
"You can go to a doctor who understands your concerns, have lunch at a friendly place and grab a cocktail," Gray said.
The South Side isn't the only area that lacks prominent services for gays, she said. Similar concerns exist in other predominantly minority areas.
Long before the shooting, residents had complained to police about the late-night parties and loud music in the two-flat in the 7900 block of South Woodlawn Avenue. Some neighbors said the sexual orientation of the men in the apartment wasn't an issue; they were just concerned about the strangers coming and going from the home.
One of the tenants, who asked to be identified only as Romeo, said neighbors had rarely complained about the noise.
About 5:30 a.m. Dec. 31, about 75 to 100 partygoers were in the basement and first-level apartment when a gunman burst through the side door and another stood in the back yard pointing a gun at the back door, he said. By the time the gunmen fled, six people had been shot.
Romeo, 21, said the incident shows the need for a recreational and social-service center for young gays and lesbians in the area.
"It doesn't take much. Just a couple of words, a letter, to get it started. We could come in and scrub the walls ourselves just to make this happen," he said. "Does another incident have to happen before this starts to move?"
But Lisa Marie Pickens, an 8th Ward resident and president-elect of a group for lesbian and bisexual black women, said the first step is having a communitywide discussion about issues related to the shooting. Her group, Affinity, is among a few gay organizations on the South Side, and it provides services such as support groups and cultural activities, including poetry slams.
Pickens, a member of the task force, said she is concerned about the homophobia gay and lesbian schoolchildren face, as well as the violence that pervades the ward, regardless of the sexual orientation of the victims. Other members of the task force include police officers and Ald. Michelle Harris (8th).
She dismisses the notion black people are more homophobic than other groups.
"I take issue with the stereotype. I think there is ignorance in all communities. I don't think people in the 8th Ward have a monopoly in that issue," Pickens said. "Ultimately, what we all deserve and want is equality, and I'm going to hold my community to a standard of equality."
Violence is a common issue facing young, black, gay men in Chicago, said Frank Walker, who founded the Youth Pride Center, a downtown organization that offers activities for gays 13 to 24 years old.
After the shooting, he began asking youths at the center to fill out an informal survey.
"They don't report [attacks] to police because they are not out at home," Walker said. "And sometimes people know that they didn't report, so they find out they can do it again and again."
Leroy Pinkerton, 17, who spends a lot of time at the Youth Pride Center, recalled being attacked on a summer day in 2005.
He was walking with two cousins when six people started following them and hurling gay slurs at them.
"My cousin said not to pay attention. We didn't do nothing to them, but they jumped us. I guess they needed someone to pick on," Pinkerton said. "They broke my cousin's arm. He was pretty shaken up."
Bill Greaves, the city's liaison to the gay community, said he, too, sees a youth center on the South Side as an attainable, albeit long-term, goal. So far, task force members are getting input from the community, and diversity training for police officers and at schools could emerge as priorities, Greaves said.
"I think it's positive, in spite of the fact it came out of a violent situation that should never have occurred, this has great potential for changing the lives of [gays and lesbians] in the 8th Ward, and on the South Side in the larger sense," he said.