New LGBTQ center fills need in north suburban communities of Lake County

Wed. February 17, 2021 9:19 AM by Ross Forman

nikki michele

photo credit // provided

'It’s important for people of all walks of life to see that LGBTQ+ people are here and thriving,' said Nikki Michele, Executive Director of the new LGBTQ+ Center Lake County

Waukegan, Ill. - Nikki Michele moved from Racine, Wisc., where she had lived since 2006, to Waukegan, Ill., about six months ago, so yes, the pandemic certainly impacted her new homelife with her partner, Tracy Sorensen, and their four children (ages 4-11).

“Moving to a new city and state during a pandemic is a strange thing. It's very tough to get a good feel of an area without being able to actually go anywhere,” said Michele, a St. Louis native. “As I've interacted with various people, (such as) police officers, hospital staff, teachers, therapists, doctors (and) neighbors, I've found myself longing for an LGBT Center where I could send people for resources, education, training, support, etc.”

One Sunday morning this past December, Michele woke up and had an epiphany: that she could create such a center, “so I put my lesbian DIY nature to work,” she added.

Michele is now the Executive Director of the new LGBTQ+ Center Lake County.

“Our vision is to make Lake County a safe, healthy, and satisfying place for LGBTQIA+ people to live, work, and establish their families,” Michele said. “Basically, we just want the same things as everyone else. The purpose of LGBTQ+ Centers is to raise awareness to the point that separate spaces become moot. The goal is to be so thoroughly accepted and incorporated into all aspects of society and culture that we no longer need advocacy of this nature.”

Michele said the Center's short-term goal is to provide virtual support groups for both teens and adults. They also are planning workshops that address issues specific to the transgender community.

Long-term, she said, “I'd love to be able to have a Center capable of helping with any needs that may arise, from support groups, to social events, to providing LGBTQ+ cultural training for government agencies, businesses, schools. I'd also love to be able to throw muscle behind policy advancement that directly affects the LGBTQ+ community, as well as to provide opportunities that involve our community in self-advocacy.”

The pandemic has impacted the new LGBTQ+ Center Lake County in multiple ways.

“Social isolation due to COVID has disproportionately affected the LGBT+ population, and we are suffering as a result,” she said. “I've already lost several friends to suicide since COVID started. I'm hoping that our support groups will be a start in addressing some of these problems.”

The pandemic also has slowed their need for an actual building or office, as everything is now done virtually. But, Michele added, “I think it's really important for a community to have a physical space as a touchpoint for the LGBTQ+ community. Representation matters. It's important for people of all walks of life to see that LGBTQ+ people are here and thriving.”

According to national averages and census data, there are approximately 12,500 LGBTQIA+ youth and 40,000 LGBTQIA+ adults in Lake County.  Based on our Community Needs Assessment, the target demographic self identifies as: 15.4% lesbian, 11.5% gay, 15.4% bisexual, 23.3% pansexual, 28.8% trans, 7.7% queer, 9.6% asexual. Age range of respondents was 14-65.

In addition to workshops for transgender, Michele is looking at holding virtual classes on LGBTQ+ history. “Once we are in-person, I'd love to be able to host a variety events, both educational and social, for people of all walks of life, from teens to elders,” she said. “I also think it's important to help allies learn how to better advocate for their LGBTQ+ siblings. I'm looking forward to assisting various organizations as they strive to make their policies more inclusive.”

Michele, who attended Illinois Wesleyan University in the late-1990s, is still active with the LGBT Center of SE Wisconsin. Queer life in Racine was a mixed bag, she said.

“There were definitely times I did not feel safe as an out lesbian. I had times where creepy men leered at me in bars or followed me if I was on a date with a woman,” she said. “Tracy and I were once followed and harassed in a grocery store. We had our fair share of catcalling for sure. When I first put up a Pride flag, it got ripped down twice.

“My oldest child is trans (non-binary), and we had constant problems with staff refusing to use proper pronouns, or respecting Charis's identity. This was the very issue that led me to the LGBT Center of SE Wisconsin to seek out support. Making that connection changed so many things for our little queer family. We found a sense of community for the first time. We found (a) chosen family. We found a way to get involved in advocating for a safer city for all people.

“I was instrumental in getting SafeZone training for my kids' school district, I had the privilege of helping to get conversion therapy banned in the City of Racine, I got to chaperone the very first Pride Prom for the LGBTQ+ high school kids in Southeast Wisconsin. Emotionally, discovering the Center was like when Dorothy opened the door of her house and found a whole new colorful world in Oz.”

Michele added, “I've spoken to so many people (in Waukegan) who have been a part of the large LGBTQ+ community here, but have lamented the lack of resources available. Everyone I have spoken to has been overwhelmingly positive and excited about having a Center here. When Tracy and I were looking at houses in Waukegan, we decided to drive through the downtown area to scope out the vibe. It was June, and there were Pride flags lining Genesee Street. We said to one another, 'Ok, Waukegan! We see you!' It was definitely a contributing factor in our decision to move here.”

Michele has strong support for and from The Pinta Pride Project, which also is based in Lake County and is the organizer of the annual Buffalo Grove Pride.

“I am in awe of how well organized the Pintas are, and how much they have managed to accomplish in a few short years,” Michele said. “I look to them as an example and model for our efforts here. For example, Waukegan was planning on holding their very first Pride Parade this year, and, due to COVID, we have reconfigured our event to closely resemble Buffalo Grove's.

“Imitation is the highest form of praise!”

Michele added, “(During) the last four years, particularly the past year, (it has) had a hugely traumatic impact on marginalized folk. We were already at higher risk of isolation and the mental toll that takes, even before COVID. Add to that the incidence of hate crimes which rose every year under the (President) Trump administration. Watching your elected officials systematically strive to strip you of your rights has a demoralizing effect that is difficult to quantify, but certainly influences our already high-risk status. As we move, hopefully, to a place of healing, both from the ramifications of COVID and from the unjust and harmful government policies of the past four years, our collective trauma is really going to catch up to us. It is vital that we have as much support in place ahead of that wave. The more connected we are as a community, the better outcomes we will have. It is to that end that we are working as hard as we can to get the LGBTQ+ Center up and running.”

For more information about the LGBTQ+ Center Lake County visit lgbtqcenterlakecounty.com.
 

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