Brandon Johnson speaking into a microphone
Brandon Johnson Credit: Paul Goyette for the Chicago Reader

The day mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson descended upon Lighthouse Church of Chicago UCC was reminiscent of any other political season meet and greet between a hopeful candidate and an inquisitive community of faith. Except it wasn’t the same because Lighthouse is the only predominantly African American and LGBTQ+ -inclusive congregation in the city. The church, part of the United Church of Christ, is led by Pastor Jamie Frazier, an openly gay Black minister. The audience for Johnson’s meet and greet and discussion was flooded not just with congregants but a range of Black LGBTQ+ organizational leaders spanning generations from throughout the city.

Jahari Stamps, a performer and a board member of the Southside Health Advocacy Resource Partnership (SHARP), organized the March 21 event. Stamps pointed out that organizations like the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination, the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus, Brave Space Alliance, Impulse Chicago (a group dedicated to promoting healthier sexual lifestyles among gay men), the School of Opulence Chicago (which strives to promote positivity within the ballroom community and its families), and more were represented in the room. Stamps’s aunt is one of Johnson’s mentors—she gave Johnson his job at General Academy—so Stamps had a personal interest in getting Johnson in front of his queer peers.

Around 50 attendees dressed dapper and looking eager, ranging in age from early 20s to early 70s, had an engaging and intergenerational discussion about what they’d like to see from Johnson, whose LGBTQ+ platform includes a commitment to improving the solve rate of murders of trans people in Chicago, increasing economic opportunity for trans Chicagoans, strengthening human rights protections for LGBTQ+ people in Chicago, ending misgendering in official records, as well as creating and fully funding a Department of LGBTQ Affairs within the Office of Gender Equity and Racial Justice.

Johnson spoke about redirecting city resources to where harm is greatest and where attention has been lacking, and he talked about his background being raised by parents who fostered families as an influence to his leanings.

“This platform will keep you tethered to my personal experience of what it was like to grow up in a home with parents who loved people,” Johnson said in his signature blue suit. “It wasn’t about acceptance in those words. … I’m not just going to accept you or tolerate you. This is about recognizing the humanity of people.”

Jahari Stamps
Jahari Stamps Credit: Paul Goyette for the Chicago Reader

Before the progressive Chicago mayoral candidate arrived and was able to receive questions from attendees, a spirited conversation between the people already present ensued. Frazier asked the group to share their suggestions for what they’d like to see from a new mayoral administration, and there was no shortage of input.

“There’s a lot of buildings being built up on the west side. And then gentrifying the people there, moving them out,” one person said, starting the conversation. They added that people who have lived in the area and paid rent consistently should be legally protected from getting ejected from their neighborhoods when new properties go for sale.

Another person touched on west side developments, as well, and added that they would like to see capacity building for Black and Brown developers on the south and west sides to assist those folks in developing properties.

One attendee who appeared to be in their late 20s said they would like to see investment in Chicago’s homeless youth population. “We have so many vacant apartments and condos, but people can’t live in any of these places or are forced to live in roommate situations.”

Another 25-year-old trans woman emphasized the need for a community space for trans femme youth and girls to explore their identities and safely express themselves in community.

A 30-year-old gay man from the south side chimed in next, one of many who traveled from out south to attend the event on the northwest side, spoke about how queer youth on the south side are neglected and need celebratory programs as robust as those up north.

One particular topic that attendees spent time chewing over was resources for people living with HIV in Chicago. Three young people in their early 20s and 30s spoke about how health care for the Black LGBTQ+ community seems like it’s often reduced to discussing HIV and AIDS. Meanwhile, many of those same people don’t know what “health care” in young adulthood is supposed to look like, and they expressed wishing health care conversations were more holistic and informative.

“I would love to see an administration or a system in place that is invested in mental health in this way that they are investing in these spaces for LGBT health care,” one person said. “Like our health care is more than just STI and HIV epidemics that break out from around sexually transmitted [diseases].”

Although the young LGBTQ+ folks in the room seemed to have consensus around feeling confused about health care directed toward them that solely includes STI messaging, older LGBTQ+ gentlemen in the room felt differently.

“I was almost offended concerning the HIV piece because I wrote the legislation [that made resources for Black men living with HIV more accessible],” said Michael O’Connor, a 66-year-old who used to work for Illinois State Rep. Constance Howard. “The reason why we [created the legislation] was because we couldn’t get [the then-rationed HIV medication] ’cause the white boys were taking it all.”

Tommy Avant Garde, the headmaster of the School of Opulence and a senior who has lived with HIV for 31 years, spoke about the need for support for not just young adults but HIV-positive seniors on the south side, who are usually excluded from the free HIV programs.

Another older gay man responded to all the previous concerns and said, “Everything you are saying here, we were talking about in the 1970s,” and he recommended that an entity be organized that regularly meets and is accountable for tracking these multitudinous queer concerns.

Michael O’Connor Credit: Paul Goyette for the Chicago Reader

By the time Johnson made his way in front of the guests, everyone had been properly warmed up. He opened by acknowledging the 316 mostly Black pastors of primarily fundamentalist denominations who endorsed his presidency earlier that day.

“I was raised in one of the most fundamentalist denominations in the entire world. I grew up in the Church of God in Christ, so I’m extra sanctified . . . I also had an older brother who had untreated trauma and died addicted and unhoused. Because the only place that we knew to go to was the altar. There’s been limitations in how we’ve [demonstrated love].”

Johnson also responded to a series of prepared questions.

How will you ensure there’s a real investment in Black LGBTQ+ people? What concrete steps would you take to do that?

Johnson responded that if his administration was elected to office, he would make sure the LGBTQ+ affairs office in the Office of Gender Equity and Racial Justice has a fully funded staff that reflects the diversity of the LGBTQ+. “[I] also recognize that when it comes to all issues, it’s not different for the LGBTQ+ community, that Black folks have experienced the greatest harm.”

How will you combat violence against trans people, which is on a rise?

To that, Johnson spoke about his desire to invest in services that support housing, mental health, and other preventive measures to help keep childhood anti-LGBTQ+ hatred and bullying from blossoming into “grown-up” violence.

How are you going to deal with the homicide rate for Black trans sisters and mothers?

For this, Johnson eagerly boasted the newly elected police district council members, who would help aid the process of creating a more accountable and hyperlocal system for monitoring how police respond to community concerns ward by ward.

Derrick Glaspy
Derrick Glasby Credit: Paul Goyette for the Chicago Reader

Terry Dudley, 29, spoke to me as attendees meandered out of the space following Johnson’s speech. Dudley is a student at University of Illinois Chicago in public policy, has dabbled in community organizing, and is a self-described natural south sider. This is the first time in his life he’s seen a Black mayoral candidate in the runoffs—the last being Harold Washington, which was before his time. So Dudley was interested in seeing what Johnson had to say. “I have never known a mayoral campaign to have a direct discussion with Black queer people. So that also intrigued me to come.”

Derrick Glasby, 35—aka Cîroc Miyake Mugler—is the midwest father of the House of Miyake Mugler and part of the ballroom scene, aka the predominantly Black and Latinx underground LGBTQ+ queer subculture. He attended with two of his “kids” from the scene, who were 23 and 24, respectively, and also very engaged during the earlier conversation before Johnson arrived. They heard about the event from Vance White, their brother and mentor in the LGBTQ+ community. Glasby plans to vote for Johnson but was not as impressed as he could have been by Johnson’s performance at the event.

“I was looking for a bit more in-depth conversation with the [candidate]. However, what I got was a lot of preordained questions and organized conversation.” Glasby emphasized the need for career readiness, interview preparation, and other forms of higher education for Black LGBTQ+ folks in need, so that they have the knowledge to sustain themselves after government assistance has evaporated.

O’Connor told the Reader that he’s been in politics for quite some time, so he’s used to candidates doing the “soft shoe” when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues.

“They assume that we don’t wanna be housed, that we don’t want to have good transportation,” O’Connor said. “They don’t understand that [LGBTQ+] issues are just like everybody else’s issues because we are all taxpayers. But for so long, we haven’t had the resources. And most of the stuff has been quite frankly for white and gay men. So [a candidate talking to us directly] is a first. It’s unfortunate we had to come up [to the north side] because we live in the most segregated city in the country, and most of us are back south.”

Editor’s note, April 5, 2023: a previously published version of this story listed the wrong last name for Derrick Glasby. Also, the relationship of Glasby to Vance White was categorized incorrectly; White is a brother and mentor to Glasby and his friends, rather than father. The Reader regrets the errors.