Some remember a time when being gay was viewed by some as a sin or an oddity and when bars that catered to homosexuals were a regular target of police raids.
Now, they cherish being able to be who they are, unafraid and proud, yet say their hard-won freedoms can’t be taken for granted.
As Chicago marks Pride Month with its biggest celebration on Sunday, the Pride Parade, these four members of Chicago LGBTQ community say they have much to celebrate.
In college, Becca Sebree wanted to be a stage manager on Broadway.
Instead, the Ohio native ended up in Chicago. Sebree, 30, who identifies as queer and non-binary, is the program coordinator at Northwestern Medicine’s Gender Pathways Program. Sebree is often the first contact for someone seeking a range of treatments: from hormone therapy to vaginoplasty, in which the existing genitals are surgically constructed into a vagina.
“It ranges from people who practically know as much about the surgery as our surgeons do — except how to do it,” Sebree said. “But you also have people who have wanted this their entire life, but they didn’t even know where to start looking, and they know very little about the surgery.”
Sebree talks to anywhere from 75 to 100 potential clients a week, explaining what the program offers.
“I grew up deeply conservative, deeply Christian — being told that queer people were mentally ill, they were secretly upset with themselves,” said Sebree, who estimates that about 75% of people in the gender pathways program are seeking some kind of surgery. “Whether it be top surgery, facial feminization, body contouring.”
Clients often become overcome with emotion, having hidden their true selves for decades. If a client wishes, Sebree will visit in the hospital after their operation.
“Sometimes, they will want me to be there for support,” Sebree said. “Sometimes, you have patients who are really proud of their new body parts.”
Sebree thinks back to growing up in Ohio and the people there.
“Most of them would think I was doing the wrong thing, that I was being sinful, embracing a sinful culture,” Sebree said. “My hope is that people would take a moment to kind of think outside of their own religious beliefs and think about the well-being of the people in front of them.”
Mark Liberson is exhausted and has a sinus infection. Months of planning for one of the city’s biggest LGBTQ events — Pride Fest — have taken a toll on the soon-to-be 60-year-old.
“The spring, summer and fall are the busiest seasons of the year for me, and actually the rest of the year is spent planning for the spring, summer and fall,” Liberson, who has chaired the event on and off for 15 years, said a few days after this year’s Pride Fest wrapped up. “There is an endless amount of work.”
The festival brought 45,000 people to North Halsted Street last weekend after being postponed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic till October, when it rained.
“You are there from 8 in the morning till 11 at night, and you’re running the whole time, dealing with production issues to make sure everything goes smoothly,” said Liberson, who grew up in Homewood.
This year’s event was different by design, Liberson said, marking a return to Pride’s roots.
“Right now, with over 20 states having passed anti-LGBTQ legislation in the last two years and efforts to demonize segments of our community, we have gone backwards,” he said.
Gay people can feel they have a safety “bubble” in Chicago, Liberson said, though it wasn’t always that way.
“At one point in Chicago, people were being arrested, and you would have bars raided over the fact that they were gay bars,” Liberson said. “That history is not very old — it’s from the 1980s. We have to be very aware of our history and think about the future we want to create.”
Coco Sho-Nell has seen the viral video in which children watch a drag queen perform at a Dallas-area club and has heard some Texas lawmakers want to make taking kids to such shows illegal.
But not all drag performances are alike, said Sho-Nell, 41, a native South Sider who has been performing as a drag queen for about 13 years.
“You need, as a parent, to understand and do your research about where you are taking your children,” Sho-Nell said. “There are shows that are geared for everyone.
“Sometimes, people assume drag performers are sex machines that always want to be with the next guy. There is always the perception [that] they are doing drugs. They are these manifestations of a sinner.”
Sho-Nell, who has a day job as a receptionist, wants people to know drag performers cater to a wide range of tastes.
Sho-Nell performs at clubs and theaters and is co-founder of the Chicago chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour, which is billed as capturing “the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and [which] gives kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models.”
She reads stories at public libraries, where the dozens of wigs she owns sometimes prompt questions from kids about where she gets her hair and sometimes whether she is a boy or a girl.
“I usually say I am a being,” she said. “I want to expand their minds. not just thinking someone is male or female.”
Sho-Nell said her most gratifying moment was about seven years ago when she was performing at The Call, a gay bar in Andersonville, for a themed Studio 54 night recalling New York’s famed nightclub.
“At the end of the show, this older gentleman came up to me, and he started crying,” Sho-Nell said. “He said, ‘I used to party at Studio 54, and it was such a great time. You took me back to a time when I got to be around my friends who are no longer here.’
“This is a way you can just be a guiding light for people to have joy and love in their heart.”
Christy Webber is 61 — and not happy about it.
“It just slaps you in the . . . face, man,” she said.
Webber runs a landscaping company with big government contracts that have included working on Millennium Park and Soldier Field. She has about 350 employees and gross revenue last year around $36 million.
But she remembers growing up in a small town in Michigan where, she said, being gay was something “we just didn’t talk about.”
Webber got a degree in physical education at the University of Denver, then a job teaching PE at a Catholic girls school. A nature lover, she decided to start her own lawn-mowing business in the Chicago suburbs. Her first clients: a couple of gay women.
“It was the gay community that really wrapped their arms around me,” she said.
Clients who weren’t gay took a certain pride in having hired a lesbian, Webber said.
“I remember a lady invited me to her yoga party, a luncheon,” Webber said, and the woman said, “This is Christy. She’s a lesbian. She does our landscaping, and she does a wonderful job.”
Years later, when then-gubernatorial candidate Rod Blagojevich took heat for hiring non-union laborers to renovate his house, in response, he told a reporter he’d hired a lesbian — Webber — to work on his yard.
“To be honest, I wasn’t happy about it,” Webber said of being outed so publicly.
She said she’s dealt with plenty of sexism. Her take? Don’t get offended, she says. Listen. Learn.
“Men are generally so stupid that, if you just play that game, they’ll tell you all the tricks and tips and everything you need to do to do a good job and be bigger than them,” Webber said.
She and her wife Jennifer Rule have two children: Teddy, 12, and Oliver 14.
A couple of years ago, not long before she turned 60, she realized how much time she’d devoted to her business.
“I said I didn’t realize how pretty my little one’s eyes were,” Webber said of Teddy. “My wife said, ‘You didn’t even notice?’ I just felt terrible.”
Which brought Webber back to her age.
She said that, when she was young, she wanted to be a boy.
If she were part of a younger generation of gay people, she said, “I would have transitioned immediately to a boy. Now, it’s not a burning desire, so I don’t need to.”