For one of my first Windy City Times assignments, I was lucky enough to spend nearly three hours interviewing longtime LGBTQ+-rights activist Michael O'Connor.
As queer individuals living in Chicago in 2021, we had plenty in common. We both came out to relatively supportive families our senior years of high school, and had definitely spent a night or two out in Andersonville before. It was comfortable to fall into natural gossip.
Our differences appeared when he told me about a previous time he was featured in the WCT print edition and one of his co-workers obtained plenty of copies to tape around the office. I assumed O'Connor was being celebrated until he cut off my giggling to say, "No. He was trying to expose me. He wanted me to lose my job."
I didn't have the generational knowledge to understand the weight of a simple gesture in the context of the not-so-distant world O'Connor grew up in. If we don't have these types of conversations with the sage members of our communities, valuable histories are lost.
Delving into O'Connor's experiences for just a few hours gave me a much deeper understanding of the weight of the LGBTQ community's history. I also got a sense of the familiar patterns activists have developed over time that are effective for creating change, for example, making people and their on-the-ground issues visible.
It's impossible to realistically construct a better future without the insight and lived experience of those who came before us.
O'Connor, 65, was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 2015 and was credited with improving the lives of those in the community in countless ways through his work in government and as an activist.
Although enough has changed that many of O'Connor's life experiences are unimaginable for me, he explained there's still so much to be done. He cited "a lack of adequate housing, a lack of adequate jobs, high unemployment and health disparities" as issues still facing the LGBTQ community.
"Racism in the LGBTQ community, in certain environments, [is] a perfect example of how things have still remained the same," O'Connor, who is Black, said.
Despite these ongoing battles, it's still important to acknowledge there are some experiences I, and other young LGBTQ people, have never had to go through because of the work activists like O'Connor put in.
Failing to listen to the experiences of those who came before us makes it impossible to continue addressing the same systemic issues still plaguing us today. Dismantling the processes of long-standing institutional oppression requires an understanding of how these issues have morphed and permeated throughout history.
And, yet, we repay the people who are ripe with hard-earned insight by turning away as they're forced to deal with crappy housing, insufficient healthcare and increased rates of povertyall of which are more prevalent among LGBTQ people of color.
Recent research from AARP Illinois and SAGE Research titled "Disrupting Disparities: Challenges and Solutions for 50+ LGBTQ Illinoisans" showed nearly one-third of LGBTQ+ seniors live at or below the federal poverty level, with poverty rates being even higher for BIPOC LGBTQ+ seniors.
"[We] old mena lot of us don't have intergenerational connections because our families turned their backs on us," O'Connor said. "To be an African American elder, it's something our community still hasn't been able to relate to, in terms of advocacy."
As younger LGBTQ+ people take up the mantle and keep working to address the continued issues facing our society, it's imperative we center older members of the community and their intergenerational knowledge when reimagining our futures.
At the very least, we must make more of an effort to ensure they have access to the basic resources they're entitled to.
Kayleigh Padar is a senior at Loyola University Chicago, studying multimedia journalism and English, and where she works as the news editor of its student paper, The Loyola Phoenix, covering campus life and the surrounding Rogers Park neighborhood.
Padar also writes for The Daily Herald, covering crime in the Northwest Chicago suburbs; and for Vocalo, featuring alternative musicians in the city. During the earlier days of the pandemic, she adopted a senior chihuahua mix named Howard who enjoys napping nearby while she reports stories.
Padar is one of the Field Foundation fellows writing for Windy City Times this fall.