Chicago Heights native LaSaia Wade founded Brave Space Alliance in 2016 to increase the personal and professional efficacy and liberation of oppressed QTPOC on the city’s South and West sides | Photo by Pat Nabong

Once you find it, Brave Space Alliance (BSA) is the kind of place that settles the nerves.

Tucked around the corner on 52nd Place in Hyde Park’s bustling downtown, the thump of house music and late 1980s R&B greeted visitors at the elevator of the Open House event marking the permanent location of Chicago’s first and only Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ+ resource center on the South Side.

Inside, dozens of queer Black and Brown folks danced and shared falafel under festive decor and signage in celebration of non-binary language, respect and diverse bodies. Others mingled and explored what would soon become BSA’s renovated expansion, a comfortable service space where under-resourced and under-recognized QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color) — those often ignored by the white-centered Boystown — can not only come to relax and eat, but be seen and understood by others who want to help them thrive in an ostracizing world. 

Upon entry that Friday night, one attendant said it made them feel like they were “on an episode of [FX series] ‘Pose.’” 

That was Feb. 21, which now feels light years away. Today, BSA is one of dozens of local organizations doing its part to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Founded in late 2016 by Chicago Heights native LaSaia Wade, who serves as executive director, BSA exists to increase the personal and professional efficacy and liberation of oppressed folks on the city’s South and West sides. Currently, BSA provides educational and career services, and other “for-us, by-us” programming centering queer, trans and non-binary people of color who have aged out of youth community spaces. 

A 2018 study conducted by the Chicago Department of Public Health found about 146,000 Chicagoans — roughly 7.5% of the city’s overall adult population — identify as LGBTQ+. Additionally, people of color make up nearly 55% (or 81,000) of the LGBTQ+ community, according to the city’s report. 

Many advocacy groups say those numbers don’t adequately reflect underrepresented identities in Chicago. Specifically, when it comes to the trans community, BSA estimates there are closer to 12,000 trans people living in Chicago compared to the city’s assessment of 10,500. According to the non-profit, that number doesn’t include those who are closeted or stealth (people who aren’t open/as open about their trans status).

BSA’s findings also suggest most of Chicago’s trans population lives on the South and West sides. These communities have traditionally faced a lack of jobs, access to fresh produce and healthy food options and efficient medical and child care centers.

The disparities widen when you add in Chicago’s history of segregation and its lasting effects on Black and Brown communities. Most of the city’s centers servicing the LGBTQ+ population are still located on the North Side, and operated by predominantly white, cisgender staff. 

Thus, BSA was born out of necessity — on a holistic and personal level. Wade, as an Afro-Puerto Rican indigenuous trans woman who uses she/they pronouns, realized very quickly what she was up against . 

“It was just a process of, ‘what does it look like for me to have a space that is trans-centered, but is for everyone?” Wade says about the initial planning stages for what would become BSA. Putting their college degrees, and past organizing work to the test, Wade adds, “Now it’s just like, a trans-woman can be in this position. She can create something.”

BORN OUT OF NECESSITY

As the novel coronavirus sweeps across more than 165 countries, killing more than 18,400 at press time, Illinois has seen its number of cases grow exponentially. On March 11, when the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Illinois reported 25 confirmed COVID-19 cases. 

By March 15, as Illinois cases climbed to 93, thousands of industry workers, freelancers and others with jobs deemed non-essential found themselves out of work. That same day, BSA announced its Crisis Pantry effort, collecting food and essential items to pass out to vulnerable queer and trans folks on the South and West sides during the pandemic. 

Brave Space Alliance collected canned goods and other donations for a Crisis Pantry to help vulnerable QTPOC during the COVID-19 crisis | Photo courtesy of BSA

Today, with more than 1,865 confirmed cases in Illinois, coronavirus spread has caused public shutdowns across the state. Even BSA has undergone a reduction in hours at its Hyde Park location. Though it’s open to receive and deliver donations for community members in-need, BSA is offering many of its services online, where folks can make appointments for 30 minute sessions to get assistance with financial and government services including recently expanded unemployment benefits, SNAP and Medicaid, public housing and virtual support groups. 

“Social distancing can be hard for some,” the organization wrote in a statement shared across its social media platforms. “Our goal is to provide you all with as much resources as possible so that you are able to sustain your well-being.”

In the midst of a pandemic such as COVID-19, where the stability of steady finances and quality healthcare makes all the difference, BSA’s services are more important than ever before to an already vulnerable QTPOC community. According to a 2019 Needs Assessment of Chicago’s LGBTQ population, those who identify as differently-abled, Black, Latinx or transgender/gender non-conforming reported feeling excluded from mainstream job opportunities and access to affordable, comprehensive an culturally-responsive health care. Other concerns for survey respondents included food safety and sustainable housing. Majority of respondents were between ages 25 and 54.

In order to gain momentum for their cause in Chicago, a city with a perception problem around its alleged liberalism, Wade knew they needed a buffer for potential white donors and partners — which meant adding a white person to her team. Six months into BSA’s existence, Wade called on their friend Stephanie Skora.

“There’s no possible way that a Black woman can do this by herself and still be able to talk to white people on the same vibration that they are listening on and actually get through to them in particular ways,” Wade says bluntly. “And Stephanie said, ‘OK. Let me handle that.’”

Skora jumped right in and has served as the associate executive director since. A noted activist and educator whose work focuses on queering Jewish spaces, Palestinian solidarity efforts and the liberation of all trans people, Skora plays good cop to what Wade considers their bad cop. It’s a role Skora doesn’t mind playing as BSA grows.

“Whereas LaSaia could get into a lot of spaces because she’s passable, I could get into spaces because I’m white,” Skora says matter of factly about the role race and gender identity play in navigating the nonprofit world. 

If all continues as planned despite coronavirus causing the nation to press ‘pause,’ BSA will add an additional 3,000 square-feet to its space by September 2020. Expansion plans include an accessible community library and clothes closet, storage for the homeless and a teaching kitchen, as well as a tele-health center with an emphasis on mental health care and medical treatments centering trans needs such as laser hair removal.

The expansion process has put further strain on financial resources, but donations and grant funding have also allowed for the organization to double its staff by hiring Zahara Bassett as Director of Development and External Relations, and Brittney Thomas as Director of Programs.

While Skora says her most conscious effort is figuring out how to build a workplace culture that doesn’t center her whiteness as the professional default, she’s aware her presence as a lesbian, genderqueer trans woman also represents another face on the spectrum of queer identities.

“If we have 10 of the same people and trot them out and say, ‘here’s our all-trans staff,’ we’re doing a disservice to our community,” Skora explains. “Also, I’m the only white employee at the organization.That’s totally fine with me, but I also do HR, so I’ve had to be really intentional as a white person.”

The combination and similarities of Skora’s and Wade’s experiences is at the core of their organization’s model. Acknowledging various privileges such as whiteness, code-switching and passing is what they believe were missing from other centers serving queer communities who have faced difficulty finding substantial employment and clinical services that respect their voices and skills. 

“We want to make sure we’re a place that can hire Black trans people and let them work and be their full selves. We have to make room for Black trans people and trans folks who aren’t passable,” Skora continues. “We have to give an honest experience and an honest diversity of what trans people look like, are like.”

CHANGING THE NARRATIVE MOVING FORWARD

Although Illinois has some of the most progressive protection laws in the nation for trans and non-binary people, the Trump Administration and other federal policymakers continue to make it difficult to exist as a LGBTQ+ person in the U.S. 

For example, under Trump’s Administration, a new policy banning people who have undergone gender transition from the military went into effect in April 2019. Under that same policy, military members who come out as transgender or seek a transition face being discharged, unless their transition began during the Obama Administration’s less restrictive rules, according to Navy Times.

And back in 2018, the Education Department confirmed it is no longer investigating civil rights complaints from transgender students barred from using school bathrooms that match their gender identity, according to the Washington Post.

A poster hangs in Brave Space Alliance’s common room | Photo by Pat Nabong

For Wade and Skora, issues like these makes maintaining work-life balance nearly impossible. Over the years, BSA has become a leader in giving voice to QTPOC issues that are often shelved and forgotten. One of those issues is the murders of Black trans women, which have reached epidemic numbers, according to the American Medical Association

Since 2017, in Chicago alone, there have been several known murders of Black trans women, including T.T. Saffore, Tiara Richmond, Ciara Minaj Frazier and Dejanay Stanton. According to LOGO NewNowNext, Stanton’s case is the one one that has resulted in an arrest. If the case closes, it will be the first time a transgender murder in Chicago has been solved since the 1999 murder of trans woman Barretta Williams. 

Most recently, Kenneth Paterimos, an openly gay Latinx man, was stabbed outside of Richard’s Bar in River West, where witnesses say they heard the perpetrator use homophobic slurs toward the 23-year-old victim beforehand. 

The dangers that QTPOC face each day makes BSA’s work all the more difficult to put down. It’s one of the reasons why the nonprofit continues to drive city officials and established activists and advocacy groups to add diversity to their approaches, languages and policies toward queer and trans people of color.

“Chicago is one of the most segregated cities, with the most lethal policing in the country, the hardest red line laws throughout this country, but Chicago is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been in,” Wade says with a smile.

“I would change it, but I wouldn’t exchange it for nothing else,” Wade continues. “It has the resources to feed itself but it doesn’t want to feed itself because it’s feeding the North Side instead of the South and West sides. Hopefully we will be able to grab the reins and change that.”