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Story by Heartland Alliance October 8th, 2014


My mom was born into the depression, and she was a homemaker. When I was seven, she taught me how to bake and cook and honestly, I was really good at it. Just about that time she also gave me a little camera, and I just loved that thing, tinkering around with it every chance I got. Both the kitchen and the camera gave me a chance to channel my energy into art, and they both stayed with me, even today.

When my mom taught me my way around the kitchen, I don’t think that becoming a Navy chef was what she had in mind, but that’s what I did as soon as I got out of high school. After my term of service I went to college, came back to Chicago and got a job. I hated that job, but it paid the bills. It was then that I started holding little salons in my living room, inviting my friends from the gay community and we’d talk, share a drink, laugh. It revitalized me but it also opened my eyes.


it was the 80's, AIDS WAS HITTING HARD

It was the 1980’s then and AIDS was hitting hard. We didn’t even know what it was at first, but once we had a name for it, it didn’t matter much. In the gay community, our friends, brothers, lovers, so many people were getting sick. I started volunteering with Vital Bridges, which is a program that then delivered food to the doors of those living with HIV and AIDS (it’s now a food pantry and nutrition counseling service but serves the same people) – it’s now part of Heartland Alliance. When I was there I made my mark just like I always have – I started baking again and snuck a cookie in with peoples’ meals. My mom was right. Never under estimate the power of a cookie. It can make all the difference in the world when you’re stuck at home, sick and alone.



It started with volunteering, but soon it felt like everyone around me was getting sick, so I took care of them. Whatever they needed, I was there. That’s what friends do right? They take care of each other. I spent a lot of time at bedsides in those days. A lot of time just listening to people and helping them make their transitions into whatever awaits us on the other side. It was a big weight on my shoulders, but I still had that camera, and you know, that was what saved me.


Photographer for gay rights

I’d walk around and take art photographs of things I found beautiful in the world, just walking, sometimes for hours. And as my eye for photography grew, I found myself with more and more opportunities to use it. In the 1980’s the gay rights movement was growing and I used that camera to show what that looked like. I photographed the pride parade, I was there at gay rights demonstrations. That’s not all, though. I found myself at black tie balls, I photographed political events, the list goes on. I made a business out of it, and it went well for a long time. But eventually it slowed down, and when it did, so did my income. I was paying every dollar towards rent. It was looking like I was going to become homeless.



It was through the gardener in my building that I heard about the building I live in now – Town Hall Apartments, which was built by Heartland Alliance. It’s affordable housing in the Boystown neighborhood, with services nearby and onsite for LGBT seniors. I didn’t think I’d get in, but he encouraged me apply, and I did. I got in.

Being here has made all the difference to me. I can afford my rent again, and I know it’ll stay that way. The community of friends I have here is one of the most supportive I’ve ever had and I can live safely and with dignity. I’ve spent my whole life trying to provide those things to the people around me – safety, support, and dignity. It feels great to have it for myself. And of course, to have a beautiful kitchen to bake in, and a new neighborhood to photograph.

Footnote: Photography by Ally Stewart, Story by Melissa Spear
Chicago, IL, United States
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