The exhibition “Iridescent Footprints: Stories and Glories of Our Lives” opened Friday at the Center on Addison in collaboration with queer faculty at SAIC, UIC, and the University of Chicago. The show is part of the LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project, a program that brings together multigenerational LGBTQ+ adults to promote discussion about the joys and challenges of living out and proud.
The Dialogue Project is the brainchild of SAIC professors Karen Morris (visual and critical studies) and Adam J. Greteman (art education). The pair began the project in 2019, after seeing how their younger LGBTQ+ students felt disconnected from the histories and communities that came before them. At the time, Greteman was volunteering with the Senior Services Program at the Center on Halsted—the midwest’s largest LGBTQ+ community center. He began to notice that, like his students, many older LGBTQ+ adults felt disconnected from the communities and spaces they helped build. Greteman and Morris began to wonder: What would happen if they brought together older and younger generations to engage in thoughtful conversation about their lives?
Four years later, the Dialogue Project now welcomes an annual cohort of approximately 30 racially, socioeconomically, and gender-diverse LGBTQ+ elders and young adults for biweekly dialogue sessions. Each session focuses on a different aspect of participants’ LGBTQ+ experience, exploring the cohort’s intergenerational similarities and differences through storytelling, art making, history lessons, and shared meals. “Iridescent Footprints: Stories and Glories of Our Lives” represents the culmination of their discussions.
The show features art made in blended groups of SAIC students and older adults. One piece, a collaboration between Alice Coleman, 73, and SAIC students Elton Amadou-Connell, 21, Katia Klemm, and Saida Blair, both 24, features a large poster board covered in a stylized brick decal. Glued at the top are the words “Call Me?” in big bubble letters.
“Call Me” was actually my idea,” Coleman says. “I am a masculine-presenting woman who is not just a butch, not just a stud. I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother, I’m the acolyte at my church. . . . In all that you do call me, I’m still me, Alice.”
On a stool in the exhibition, Post-it notes allow visitors to contribute words they use to self-identify, like “pansexual,” ”WLW,” and “queer,” to the board. The piece explores how the language used to describe LGBTQ+ identity has evolved over time.
In the Center’s dining hall a series of cardboard collection boxes hang, decked out in colorful tape, googly eyes, and feathers. Students and elders distributed the boxes to local businesses and public spaces frequented by the LGBTQ+ community. Each box asked people to respond to the question, “What brings you queer/LGBT+ joy?” A large banner above the boxes displays the question in multicolored construction paper letters.
Projected on the adjacent wall are flashes of each handwritten response. Together they read like mini entries in a community diary: “Bratz dolls and monster high,” “Laughing with my queer friends about silly little things,” “dykes on bikes.” One simply says, “Dick (big).”
For one SAIC student, Willow Lipson, centering queer joy has been vital to their experience with the project. “I know for me it’s been really, really cool to see and be around older trans people who are transitioning and just living their life. In media we don’t see trans adults, we see depressed trans kids who are having a really hard time. That is such a real reality but it’s also so important to see trans people growing up, having lives, and enjoying their lives. Things are really scary right now with trans healthcare and our rights [being] eradicated and like even just being in a room with a trans adult can mean so much to trans students. We haven’t grown up yet, and it’s important to see the possibilities that can exist for us.”
This focus on queer joy provides a needed contrast to the political climate hanging over the show. The ACLU is currently tracking 471 anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed in state legislatures across the country. Illinois remains only one of three states not actively pursuing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. (Wisconsin and New York being the other two). With legislation such as Florida’s recent “Don’t Say Gay” bill attempting to ban education on gender and sexuality in K-12 schools, the Dialogue Project represents an alternative model for teaching LGBTQ+ youth about their history and culture.
Despite these challenges, many of the project’s older participants remain hopeful about the legacy they will leave behind. “You know I came into this feeling like there was this huge divide between the elders and the youngsters in the LGBTQ+ community and kinda feeling like an afterthought. I was someone who was an activist, someone who lived through the AIDS crisis. . . . Being involved in this has shifted that,” says Joe Henry, 62. “I’ve made lifelong friends out of this project, both students and elders. So it gives me hope in general, it’s been a really positive experience.”
“I just like being around them and seeing how free they are,” Alice Coleman says. “It’s like back in 1968 you wouldn’t dare run around, we have people here who’re just free. They’re not afraid. I literally have a lump on my head from where I got hit with a billy club when I was at a bar because I was trying to keep a policeman from hurting a person and they hit me and I got arrested.”
This violence is embedded within the very walls of the Center on Addison. Formerly a Chicago police station, the building once held LGBTQ+ folks on charges meant to target and intimidate their community, including some of the project’s own participants. A plaque hanging on the wall at the Center’s entrance reminds visitors of this history and all that has yet to come: “From a place of discrimination to a home of honor.”
“Iridescent Footprints: Stories and Glories of Our Lives”
Through 5/8: open hours 5/2, 5/4, and 5/6 9 AM-2:30 PM, The Center on Addison, 806 W. Addison, generationliberation.com
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