GAGE PARK — A Southwest Side initiative is trying to expand access to LGBTQ education with a paid program for young people to learn how queer people have influenced multiple facets of history.
The Gage Park Latinx Council launched its Queer Riot internship for high school students in the spring. Ten students from Chicago schools meet once a week and get paid for their time as they study queer history and activism, the council’s executive director Antonio Santos said.
“Oftentimes, you think, like queer history as a very specific thing, but the reality is that queer folks have led social movements across time,” Santos said. “Queer folks have always had to organize and strategize to exist, and so we wanted to impart that knowledge into youth so that they can combat a lot of the things that we are taught.”
When he was a young adult, Santos said he sought out new information that combatted a lot of what he’d been told about queer history and expression. He said he sometimes felt isolated in this “unlearning” and wanted to help others avoid that same feeling.
“I wanted to create space for communal unlearning and relearning to empower young people in their queerness to to be the folks that they want to be,” he said.
LGBTQ+ history education exists but it’s restricted to certain settings, Santos said. Colleges and universities often have gender or queer studies classes, but those are only available to students who attend college and seek out that academic plan.
Santos also said materials dealing with queer history tend to center white, cisgender men, which doesn’t comprehensively tell the story of LGBTQ people, communities and organizing.
“There were queer women leading the women’s rights movements, and there were queer folks in the civil rights movements, and there were queer folks in the workers rights movements,” Santos said. “One hundred percent of the education that we’re providing is coming from a [person of color] lens. There is far less experiences written about women and women of color and femmes and people of color in general. And so that’s why we’re choosing to tell those stories, because those stories often times aren’t centered.”
The first group of interns is taking classes through June. At that point, students will take what they learned about queer history and activism to inspire their own organizing, whether it’s to stage a protest, host a community event or something else.
Santos said that practical knowledge of organizing a community action, like handling a budget or strategizing a message, is critical to the learning.
“There are many educational programs, but how do we turn education into action? And how do we give resources directly to the youth to be able to do that?” Santos said.
Diego Garcia, a GPLXC leader who works with the Queer Riot students, said he thinks it’s important for youth to have opportunities to be critical thinkers and have a safe space to express themselves.
“GPLXC allows youth the space for joy, because we know how essential it is to be happy and rest during a time where we’re everyone’s like basically surviving,” Garcia said. “And not only that, but also they allow space for rage. And we know how important it is for youth to express themselves in a time where we’re silenced, we’re being killed on the daily.”
The name of the internship — Queer Riot — is also significant as it’s a way to reclaim words that have had negative connotations.
“[The word queer] was derogatory, … and it was activists in the 80s, who really took that term back and used it as an umbrella for folks who are different from the mainstream norm, and folks who tend to be a little bit more disruptive of those norms,” Santos said. “And so we’re reclaiming that, too, and looking at the term ‘riot’ as a way in which it is a tool used to perpetuate the fight for freedom. And that doesn’t necessarily mean physical violence, but that does mean this idea of being fed up.”
The next group of students starts the course in July. The Gage Park council has enough funding to continue teaching through the rest of the year thanks to a grant from Chicago Beyond, a nonprofit dedicated to investing in community initiatives.
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