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The LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project emerged rather serendipitously in the Summer of 2019. Amidst the 50 anniversary celebrations of The Stonewall Riots, Karen Morris (a lesbian cultural anthropologist) was collecting oral histories for StoryCorps. Some of the stories she collected were with elders that are part of senior programming at the Center on Addison at the Center on Halsted, Chicago’s LGBTQ Resource Center. Todd Williams, the manager of senior services at the Center on Halsted, helped Karen connect with some of these elders and in doing so mentioned that another faculty member from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago – philosopher of education and sexuality studies scholar Adam Greteman – was a regular volunteer at the Center. Realizing that there was a shared interest in LGBTQ+ elders, education, and oral histories, Karen, Todd, and Adam met over coffee in July of 2019 to begin generating possible ways to engage LGBTQ+ elders. Amidst such discussions various ideas were shared – from oral history focused work to a mentoring project – until eventually the idea of creating some type of LGBTQ+ intergenerational dialogues popped up into the conversation.
What would it mean to create a project that brought together LGBTQ+ elders and LGBTQ+ young people, namely college students to talk. As the initial idea was fleshed out, we recognized from other work that LBGTQ+ elders had often expressed disappointment at not having contact with young people. Similarly, in working with LGBTQ+ college students, Karen and Adam remembered talking with students about how they, to some extent, did not realize there were “old gay people,” something that research has documented in terms of the invisibility of LGBTQ+ elders. If elders are disappointed that they don’t have contact with young people and young people don’t realize the existence of elders, what can we do to bring LGBTQ+ elders and young people together? And thus – with further conversations and planning – The LGBTQ+ Intergenerational Dialogue Project was born.
If elders are disappointed that they don’t have contact with young people and young people don’t realize the existence of elders, what can we do to bring LGBTQ+ elders and young people together?
The project sought to to support the needs and interests of LGBTQ+ young people and LGBTQ+ seniors. We wanted to respond to a simple question: what might we learn about our own experiences through deep conversations with those younger or older than us? Specifically, what might we learn about what it means to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community in the past, present, and future?
In the fall of 2019, a partnership emerged between the School of the Art Institute and the Center on Addison at the Center on Halsted to launch an intergenerational pedagogical project to begin to engage those questions. The project brings together racially, socioeconomically, spiritually, and gender diverse cohorts of LGBTQ+ young and older adults in the Chicagoland area for dialogues, collaborative creative work, and shared dinners. We wanted to explore what would happen if members of these different generations—who rarely interact—were brought together repeatedly over a sustained period of time.
In our first six months together, we started to see the possibilities and potential of intergenerational dialogue, alongside the challenges of such work. In March 2020, however, as the world seemed to shut down, we assumed the project would be put on hold. However, almost immediately we started hearing from members of our first cohort that they would like to continue to meet over Zoom. Listening to their requests, the project transitioned to meeting over Zoom, initially twice a week as we were all trying to navigate the uncertainties and fears of the early months of COVID 19.
As our emerging intergenerational community navigated these realities, we continued to think and contemplate the importance and need of this work. This was incredibly visible during these early months as young people moved back home and sometimes found themselves back in the closet and the dialogues being an outlet into queer lives. In different ways, elders found themselves isolated and concerned about their health as members of an at risk community. Many being reminding of their experiences during the HIV/AIDS pandemic in its first decade.
In the second year of the project, a new faculty member, Nic Weststrate, from the University of Illinois Chicago joined us, bringing his background and expertise in developmental psychology and gerontology. With our expanding team, we settled into what has become annual dialogue cycles.” Each September, we welcome a new cohort of 15 younger adults and 15 older adults who meet bi-weekly during the fall and spring semesters. Students joining the project for the first time enroll in a fall class organized around the dialogue project entitled Generating Queers. The course was created in 2020 in response to student requests (read more about the course on “The Class” page of our website). Spring and summer semesters are focused on collaborative artwork around storytelling themes, and social gatherings that offer current participants and alumni the chance to meet, mix, mingle, and laugh.The project continues to evolve and develop as new students and elders join to take a year long adventure with one another. Those from past cohorts maintain connections with one another, as well as plan and host “alumni events.” Such community building showing the longevity of dialogues and the need for more opportunities to meet, dialogue, and learn with and from one another.
In Fall 2022, Lisa Moore, a social worker and cultural anthropologist at the Crown School of Social Work Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago, joined the team as a co-facilitator adding to our interdisciplinary team. During this cohort, Karen Morris and Molly Fulop, an alum of the project, developed and piloted a spring class “Regenerating Queers” that continued to build out how to engage in dialogues through collaborative art making. This resulted in our first public art exhibition Iridescent Footprints.
As an always emerging and growing community, we continually try to work collaboratively to develop the focus of our dialogues to address the interests, ideas, and needs of those in the room. Dialogues over the years have explored issues as varied as gender, faith/spirituality, HIV/AIDS, origins, race, ageism, family, media representation, sex, and alternate care networks. Talking through our varying perspectives can be challenging at times but is more often compelling and beautiful. Story-telling continues to be an important focus of our intergenerational dialogues, and we often spend the first hour of each meeting listening to folks talk about their personal experiences with the topics and histories we’ve chosen to discuss. Over the years, we have experimented with different modes of oral history, art, poetry, essay writing, and activism. Each experiment revealing new layers and lessons from the lives of our participants who, no matter their age, generating possibilities for not only surviving but thriving as LGBTQ+ individuals.
What might we learn about our own experiences through deep conversations with those younger or older than us?
By 2024, over 130 LGBTQ+ younger and older adults have participated in the project, and we have held over 125 dialogues. The diversity of our participants is one of the great strengths of the project. Almost half identify as people of color, half as women, and over a third as transgender and/or gender nonconforming. Both generations include transgender, bisexual, gay, lesbian, and queer folks. Some of our older participants live in Town Hall Apartments, one of the few LGBTQ+ friendly senior public housing facilities in the U.S. Our group includes HIV positive members, political activists, artists, parents who formed families in different ways, folks who came out at various stages of life, and seniors and youth with chronic disabilities. We have various and complex relationships with faith and spirituality. Geographically, we are from both urban and rural areas including the South Side of Chicago, the greater Midwest, Texas, Appalachia, Missouri, Eastern Europe, Pakistan, the U.K., India, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
We believe that the fostering of long-term, meaningful intergenerational interactions can significantly strengthen the LGBTQ+ community. Our diversity provides an opportunity to put theories of intersectionality into purposeful action addressing the lived realities of LGBTQ+ people. Through our dialogues and casual conversations, many of us have discovered that we share significant experiences such as isolation from families of origin, mental health challenges, discomfort with healthcare providers, and discrimination. We also share frustration in our lack of in-depth knowledge about LGBTQ+ history, and a desire to learn about our past and present. Joy, laughter, tension, and risk-taking become part of the emotional work necessary to build a participatory, intersectional LGBTQ+ community that values difference, empathy, and equity among its members.