Members of the Ad Hoc Committee of Proud Black Lesbians and Gays — the first Black LGBTQ+ Chicagoans to participate in the Bud Billiken Parade — at the groundbreaking 1993 event. From left: Michael Haynes, Max Smith, Jennifer Spruill, Karen Hutt, Michael O'Connor and Shelton Watson. Credit: Tracy Baim/Outlines/Windy City Times
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

NEAR SOUTH SIDE — A groundbreaking moment in which 50 members of a local Black LGBTQ+ group battled discrimination to march in one of the city’s oldest parades is the subject of a new short film being screened at a community center this weekend.

“Why We Marched: Black LGBTQs & The 1993 Bud Billiken Parade” will be shown at Affinity Community Services, 2850 S. Wabash Ave., at 5 p.m. Sunday as part of a free event commemorating the march. A panel discussion featuring the group’s members will follow.

Jano Layne, one of the organizers of the ’93 action, didn’t realize the impact one simple act would have on the city, let alone the country. When the Ad Hoc Committee of Proud Black Lesbians and Gays filed an application to march in the Bud Billiken Parade that year, some didn’t anticipate the rejection.

The tides of discrimination seemed to be turning as Generation X was coming of age, but queer Black folks still grappled with discrimination in seemingly progressive mainstream spaces. Even organizations like Howard Brown Health were struggling on matters of race and equity, Layne recalled.

Not only that, but most of the LGBTQ+ groups were on the North Side — hence the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee of Proud Black Lesbians and Gays, a group specifically created to participate in the 64th Bud Billiken Parade.

The Ad Hoc Committee of Proud Lesbians and Gays gather for a press conference ahead of the Bud Billiken Parade in 1993. Credit: Provided.

“It was just an idea I had mentioned to someone before. During this time, there were groups that were around — a women’s group that had retreats in Michigan — where we’d be able to meet other African American lesbians at a time when other more mainstream groups weren’t as welcoming or accepting as they are now,” said Layne.

Layne remembered running the idea past a good friend, Karen Hutt, a Philadelphia transplant who had recently moved to the city. Hutt was on board and invited Layne to present the idea at an informal gathering of Black queer folks months later, Layne said.

The group was split on the idea at first, but the “nays” eventually came around, said Layne.

Proud City
This story is part of Proud City, Block Club’s LGBTQ+ news hub. Read more stories here.

The committee applied to march in the parade ahead of the deadline, only to be rejected due to “capacity.”

That’s when Layne and fellow organizer Lisa Marie Pickens, founder of Affinity Community Services, got the idea to file another application, renaming the group “Diverse Black Role Models” and removing all “gay” and “lesbian” references.

“We had nurses, doctors and lawyers in the group,” said Layne.

This time, their application was accepted.

The group filed a complaint with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations against Chicago Defender Charities, the nonprofit arm of the city’s oldest Black newspaper and organizer of the Bud Billiken Parade. News of the action made headlines.

That’s when the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund stepped in. Two days of negotiations followed, with the Chicago Defender Charities yielding to allow the group to march under the “Ad Hoc Committee of Proud Black Lesbians and Gays” banner.

‘On The South Side They Were Still Harassing Gay Bars’

Michael O’Connor, another Ad Hoc member, remembers the hope and anxiety he felt around that time.

O’Connor would eventually hold the banner as the group of 50 marched down Martin Luther King Drive. At that time, he was a regular on WVON-AM who was often tapped to discuss LGTBQ+ issues. Some of the people who called in felt that queer folks had no place in a parade meant for children and families and were pretty vocal with their disapproval, he said.

“On the South Side they were still harassing [gay] bars. They were still harassing people coming out of the bars. So I carried a .22 [caliber pistol] and at that time, having a gun was a misdemeanor, not a felony. I didn’t mind a misdemeanor, but thankfully I never really got caught up like that,” said O’Connor.

The Ad Hoc Committee of Proud Lesbians and Gays pose for a picture in an undated photo. Credit: Provided.

O’Connor, who was out at the time, didn’t exactly see himself as a change agent, though he’d worked and canvassed for statehouse politicos like Connie Howard and Bobby Rush. Some of his queer colleagues were afraid to join the march, but signaled their support behind the scenes. One staffer, an attorney who worked out of Rush’s office, told O’Connor she appreciated what he and the Ad Hoc group were trying to do.

Still, the fear remained. O’Connor’s parents were especially concerned about their son’s safety. Death threats the group received certainly didn’t help.

“That was the hard part for a lot of families because when I told my parents, my father and mother reacted like, ‘Oh, no, no.’ And I was like, ‘Well I’m grown, so I’m going.’ My father said, ‘Well, OK. Your insurance is paid off,'” said O’Connor.

Layne and Pickens had similar conversations with their parents in the days leading up to the march, the fear and worry evident in their parents’ voices. A friend who was participating in the march drove the length of the parade route the night before, noting the number of sniper-accessible rooftops. Even parade organizers expressed worry, which resulted in the group being placed at the front of the parade, sandwiched between two law enforcement organizations, Pickens said.

There was division within the Ad Hoc group as well, with the older generation — the same generation that had participated in the civil rights movement decades before — reluctant to do it again. For many, the gains acquired from that battle seemed too great a gamble to wager this time around.

While Pickens and other younger members understood their apprehension, they were committed to seeing the mission through, she said.

“For us, this was imperative and we wanted this to be an intergenerational convening because we’re all connected. We cannot be separated from all parts of our community, and we cannot think that just because a law is in place, that everything’s said and done. That’s why we’re fighting now,” said Pickens.

Still, getting others to join the march was difficult. O’Connor recalls hearing a lot of “nos.” The group circulated fliers around the South Side to get more volunteers.

In the end, 50 people showed up on the hot, sticky day of the parade, including the brother of a friend and fellow marcher who wanted to personally ensure his sister’s safety, said Layne.

“He was a career drug addict. When we were at the parade, his sister told me that the two of them were standing right where he scored his stuff, and she was wondering how long he was going to be able to stick in the parade,” said Layne. “He went through the entire parade.”

Members of the Ad Hoc Committee of Proud Black Lesbians and Gays march in the 1993 Bud Billiken Parade. Credit: Tracy Baim/Outlines/Windy City Times

‘Pass The Torch’

O’Connor was at the front, holding the banner with several friends. Most of them are gone now, casualties of the AIDS crisis, he said. Friends and loved ones had gathered along the route to cheer them on. Soon, their fear gave way to joy and affirmation as the group made its way down the boulevard, he said.

Once they reached the end of the parade route in Washington Park, one of the marchers pulled out a cell phone, offering it to those who wanted to call their loved ones unable to make it to the parade.

It was an emotional, reflective moment for the marchers as they stood together in the grass.

“I was thinking about the fact that 30 years prior to that was the March on Washington, and how they got through. And if they got through, we can get through this,” said Layne.

Not only did they get through it, they inspired others to live their truth. In the weeks, months and years that followed, members received letters from people thanking them for standing up for those who couldn’t stand for themselves.

A flyer created by members of the Ad Hoc Committee of Proud Lesbians and Gays asking for volunteers to march with the group at the Bud Billiken Parade in 1993. Credit: Provided.

Progress was made at the local level with the strengthening of the mayor’s advisory council on gay and lesbian issues, which Pickens was invited to join. And other Black-centered queer advocacy groups began taking shape on the South Side, said O’Connor. People weren’t waiting on someone else to make change — they were doing it themselves.

That’s the message the trio of unlikely heroes hopes people will take away from the film.

“Older generations have to know when to pass the torch. I’m not on the streets anymore but I support organizations like the Black Youth Project 100, Good Kids Mad City and Ujimaa Medics, and many of these young people in these groups actively identify as queer,” said Pickens.

“We have centuries of data on how to do things. Passing that torch and standing behind our young people is one of those things we that we have to reclaim.”

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