Activists with the Brave Space Alliance and other transgender and queer advocacy organizations say Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration is failing their communities of color, with BSA, the Black-led Hyde Park LGBTQ community center, complaining about not having received funds from a city contract they were awarded last year.
Stephanie Skora, BSA's associate executive director, said the nonprofit, 1515 E. 52nd Place, received a $125,000-a-year grant last September from the Chicago Department of Public Health to combat the spread of HIV, especially among Black trans women.
She said the grant has a potential for renewal over three years and was supposed to begin in January. According to her, the city has said there is a delay in the contract and that it is finding an evaluator — a third party who analyzes the impact of the grant — but that there have been no developments or communication since February.
She contrasted the yet-to-be-received grant money with the $275,000 a year that the Howard Brown Health clinical network has been receiving from the city since 2018. She said BSA bid for that grant, too, but was denied in part because the organization's executive director, LaSaia Wade, is a Black trans woman.
"This is a grant program about HIV prevention for Black trans women!" Skora said over email.
A CDPH spokesman said that the letter of award for the grant went out in December, and that the contract will be fulfilled "soon." They also said that there was no delay in finding an evaluator, and that the department "has been in contact with the delegate agencies regarding this grant and that includes providing updates about the contracting process."
The most-recent CDPH LGBT Community Action Plan is from March 2012, 10 years ago, before the legalization of same-sex marriage in Illinois, the rollout of the anti-HIV infection regimen PrEP and profound changes to LGBTQ culture and sexuality because of the widespread adoption of smartphones.
"We have people in this city who give a damn, but we have people in power who are blocking them from getting the good work done," Skora said at a March 31 rally at Daley Center. "We have organizations in this city doing social service work like Brave Space Alliance, the first Black-led, trans-led organization in this city, the South Side LGBTQ center, doing the work the city should have done decades ago. We are feeding people, thousands of people, because this city can't invest in its own (expletive) infrastructure for Black and brown people in this city who live in food deserts.
"We have to pinch and scrape and get private funding, because our city won't throw us a bone to feed its own people."
(As previously reported, BSA runs food distribution to crisis pantries out of its Hyde Park headquarters to sites across the city as well as a food home delivery service. It is also launching a housing program for trans women of color.)
In a subsequent interview, Skora acknowledged an economic argument for Howard Brown, with its clinics and offices scattered across the city, to get the grant, but she also argued that that logic discriminates against smaller community-based organizations.
HIV transmission rates are going down in Chicago: 652 in 2019, down 14% from 2018 and 29% from 2015, the lowest since 1988. Declines were recorded across all genders, age groups, and race and ethnic groups.
That said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that up to 39.5% of U.S. trans women are HIV-positive. While demographic data about transgender people is notoriously difficult to collect, in 2019, 19 trans Chicagoans were newly infected with HIV; 17 of them were trans women, 15 of them were Black and 10 were in their 20s.
In 2019, at least 349 trans Chicagoans were known to have HIV, representing 1.8% of known HIV-positive Chicagoans; 86.8% of them are trans women, and 60.5% of them are Black. And from 2015-19, the number of new HIV diagnoses in this population remained relatively stable: 24 in 2015 and 22 in 2019. Between around five and eight trans Hyde Parkers are HIV-positive, as are around three or four trans Woodlawn residents and between 16 and 29 trans South Shore residents, per CDPH data.
"If the city is going to continue granting HIV dollars and have not been able to stem the tide of increasing HIV numbers in Black trans communities, they're continuing to bash their heads against a brick wall," Skora said.
"The issue that we have is that by denying smaller organizations the opportunity to receive these funds — whether it's for an economic reason or not — prevents the communities that the grant is intending to serve from actually implementing our own solutions and doing what we know works and works best," she said.
Skora said the city should be spending money on as many different organizations as possible that are offering new approaches to solve the problem.
Ab Weeks, organizing director with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, 11211 S. St. Lawrence Ave. a multi-faith liberation theology-oriented community organization, complained at the rally about the money the city is spending on Lightfoot's 71-officer Government Security Detail "while they are spending zero dollars on Chicago's trans community.
"During the uprising, we saw the violent arrest of queer activists at the command of our own mayor," they said. "In terms of using our own tax dollars, she is failing us."
Trans Day of Remembrance is Nov. 22. March 31, Trans Day of Visibility is typically a day of celebration, but it occurred this year in the aftermath of two Black transgender women's deaths: Tatiana “Tee Tee” Whetstone, who was beaten to death and found on March 18 in a trash can in Chatham — no suspect has been identified — and activist Elise Malary, whose body was found along the lakefront in Evanston on March 19 after she had been missing for a week.
"When two Black trans women are found dead in the Chicagoland area in the matter of a week, there's nothing to celebrate," said BSA Director of Communications Jae Rice. "This may be a celebration for some, but for Black trans people, for other trans people of color, this day is a day of 'reminderance.' It's a day to remind Black trans people that we do not matter to this city. It is a day to remind Black trans people that this state does not care about us. It is a reminder to Black trans people that this country does not care about us."
Rice called for people to tithe their incomes to individual Black trans people on a weekly basis, noting in particular Black trans women's lower-than-average life expectancies and disproportionate rates of incarceration. Skora encouraged donations to BSA, at bravespacealliance.org/donate.
Since last March, at least four trans Chicagoans have been murdered.
Having more police on the streets would not prevent the murders, said Weeks, who is also a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, 1407 E. 60th St., because they said police do not keep trans people safe. They argued against the city spending a large portion of its annual budget on the police department over services like housing, food aid, gender-affirming health care and employment assistance. And they said that law enforcement and incarceration deeply harm trans people.
"Trans people are three-times more likely to experience violence at the hands of police," they said. "Cops not only don't solve our murders: they put us in harm anytime we interact with them."
Weeks also chided the city for the results of a 2019 Chicago Public Schools survey that found LGBT students are 2.5-times more likely than non-LGBT students to report having missed school because they feel unsafe or to have experienced sexual violence and three times as likely to have attempted suicide. Skora noted that Lightfoot's campaign promised to invest $25 million to reopen mental health clinics closed under her predecessor; they remain closed, though her administration has invested millions of dollars into third-party counseling centers and non-brick-and-mortar mental health services.
In 2020, the mayor released "Our City, Our Safety," her violence prevention plan. It said her Office of Violence Reduction is working to assist victim services partners by increasing access to resources and specific supports for LGBTQ victims of community violence and enhancing partner capacity to treat LGBTQ victims through trauma-informed training. A long-term initiative is to create a multilingual domestic violence public awareness campaign targeted to, among other demographic groups, the LGBTQ community.
Skora said Lightfoot's administration did not consult with any LGBTQ organizations or elected officials when drafting the plan.
"In the city that has had the most murders of trans women since the last Trans Day of Visibility," Skora said. "She ran on her identity. She ran on so-called transparency. She claims to represent so many communities across this city, and she doesn't give a damn about even inviting us to the table."
"We don't want more of Lori. We don't want more of (Sheriff) Tom Dart. We want more resources for our community," she said. "We want more resources for our community. We're trying so hard to get them from the people who should have been giving them to us a long time ago."
"We cannot sustain the lives of an entire community on our backs, but we have to try every day anyway, because the city fails us every day."