Longtime Chicago activist Donald Bell, a resident of the Town Hall apartments in Lake View who has been especially active in LGBTQ+ senior-related issues is keenly aware of the the significance of intersecting identities.
Bell explained, "From my lens, as an LGBT elder, having lived 73 years nowwhich have included the arcs of both LGBT history and civil rights historyI am of course keenly aware of the dangers which those of us in Black bodies and those of us in LGBT bodies walk around [facing] every day."
Bell, a retired higher education administrator, has given much of his time and energy in service to the socio-economic needs of his brethren in the senior-LGBTQ+ community.
Many communities, especially Black and LGBTQ+ ones, he notes, are characterized by the need for spaces where members both feel that they are safe and that they belong. Very frequently, communities will see those spaces come under attack. Those moments, he said are when members of different generations need to step up for one another.
"Club Q is not unique," Bell said, reflecting on the Colorado Springs nightclub that was in November the site of multiple shooting-deaths and injuries. "If young LGBT people are growing up without a sense of geographical awareness of where safe spaces are, then those of us who are older are failing in our responsibility to inform the youthbecause those situations still exist.
"Just like mass shootings in communities of color are regular, normalized things, so are these kinds of things in LGBT communities. …No matter where it happens in the world, we all experience it."
He recalled first becoming aware of racial injustice when he was six years years old, when Emmet Till's body was returned to Chicago after Till had been lynched in Mississippi.
"I was very aware of the impact that it had on the whole community," Bell said. "Everyone was disturbed … That was the first time that I had seen grown-ups cry in public. Since grown-ups are the stabilizing influence in a child's experiencethey were distressed so I was distressed. The whole thing left me, at the age of six, with the notion of the danger that I existed because I was born into a Black body."
Bell grew up in age when gay people were effectively erased within their communities. The only references to gay folks that he remembered were to "strange old men who were effeminate and wentsomeplace. They weren't out in public. Of course there was the misrepresentation linking homosexuality with pedophilia. There was danger around that."
But Bell made a profound realization as he became aware that he was gay: "The danger came not from our community, but from outside our community. It was perfectly alright to say, 'Kill that queer.' It was not only legally, but culturally reinforced. Killing a gay man could legally get a straight man off in courtthat was a legal excuse."
Even as society's understanding of injustices and inequities evolve, those injustices and inequities nevertheless persist. Club Q, Bell said, was not the only injustice visited upon the LGBTQ+ community in November. In Qatar, LGBTQ+ athletes in and visitors to the World Cup were were warned against activities calling attention to themselves. The injustices were not equivalent in immediate impact, he emphasized, but did originate from the same systems of oppression.
His stress on the challenge posed for older LGBTQ+ community members loudly supporting younger generations is not meant to criticize those older generations: "When I said 'failure' of our older community before, I meant rise to the level of our potential for passing on legacy to younger people. Part of that legacy is the reality of what it's like to be LGBT, particularly outside of identified LGBT spaces. … Outside of those spaces, the coming-out experience is almost the same as it was before for coming out. If you're coming out on the South side or the West side, your experiences are not the same as it may be on the North Side.
"What is incumbent upon us who have lived this experience, is to make sure that younger people are aware that, while they may find safety here, and the Pride parade might be a great and glorious fun time, [those did not originate] from fun times. They came from issues of our very existence. We can't lose sight of that."
Senior LGBTQ+ community members, Bell noted, are also dealing with their own challenges, such as ageism and/or homophobia in group-setting living spaces.
The LGBTQ+ community is "a community of intentwe all come from different communities of origin," he explained, and still has much work to do to becoming sensitive to one another's needs: "I have a personal bias because I expect that anyone who is a part of any marginalized community to use their experience of marginalization to help them understand and connect with other people who have other kinds of marginalizations.
"I have different expectations from gay white men than I have of straight white men, for example. I expect gay white men to be more sensitive to the issues of racism and sexism than white straight men because gay men have been marginalized."
LGBTQ+ communities are oftentimes no different from others in a continual valorization, if not outright fetishization, of youth. But Bell remarked on the importance of recognizing that his generationthe first especially out generation of LGBTQ+ community members is "different and unique."
"We are the ones who have lived the arc of the moment," he added. "While the fight for the LGBT liberation goes back eons, just like everyone else's, it is critical that we have lived the experience from the civil rights era to Stonewall and the gay rights movement. When we are gone, there will be no else who is still alive who can share that experience and those perspectives."
Note: 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. News is Out is a pioneering national collaborative including six of the leading local queer media outlets, including Windy City Times. Join the weekly News Is Out newsletter here: newsisout.com .