Coming out is one thing; finding a sense of community—especially as a queer adult—is another. For five LGBTQ locals, their journey to acceptance and lifelong friendship in Chicago was aided by groups of like-minded individuals. From a nerd-culture club and a live-lit posse to a gay hockey league, these organizations offer more than membership—they’re second families.
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Comics writer Katie Schenkel and her partner, Madison Bragiel, have been together since 2005. At the beginning of their relationship, Schenkel says, “Madison thought she was a cis man, and I thought I was a straight cis woman.” Schenkel came out as bi several years ago; later, after the couple moved to Chicago from Indiana in 2015, Madison began coming out as trans. Schenkel credits the Chicago Nerd Social Club—a group on Facebook and IRL for fans of comics, sci-fi, role-playing games and other geeky pursuits—as the place they’ve made most of their queer friends (and found a source of unwavering support) since arriving in town. “Their Halloween party was the first time that we really got to be out as a couple—actually getting to talk to people and socialize with her being out and in a dress—and it was just a wholly positive experience,” says Schenkel. “It’s a very inclusive group. There’s a lot of cis straight people in the group, too, and they’re also super welcoming. It’s been really nice that we can trust that, at any event we go to, we’ll feel safe.”
Chicago transplant Aimy Tien got her first taste of the storytelling scene through a creative-writing class taught by local writer Megan Stielstra, a company member of the live-lit group 2nd Story. “At the time, I was mostly about fiction and poetry, and she told me she thought I’d be great for 2nd Story. I was like, Oh, no, I could never write about myself, ” says the Denver native. “That person would hate everything I do now.” Representation and visibility are important to her, as is making a direct connection with an audience. “When I was a young queer person, I did not see any happy endings for people that look like me in media. I could barely find any queer people of color, period—it makes it that much harder to imagine your own happy life.” That idea informs her own nascent venture, the Queer Joy Project, a multimedia collection of stories and interviews with 500 LGBTQ folks. “I believe joy is truly what sustains political movement, and, for marginalized folks in particular, we don’t talk enough about our joy.”
Brian Hull was football-team captain of his high school, near Ann Arbor, and considered walking on at the University of Michigan. By college, though, he had come out as gay. “I wasn’t going to go back in the closet, and, at that point, there weren’t any out Division 1 football players, so that could have been very traumatic,” he says. Instead, Hull became active in campus politics, serving as student-government treasurer and helping to found the Michigan chapter of Stonewall Democrats. Moving to Chicago after graduation, though, he found himself hanging out mostly with straight friends from school. Then, in 2010, he attended the Pride Parade and saw the Chicago Gay Hockey Association float, which featured Brent Sopel, a player on that year’s championship team, the Blackhawks, carrying the Stanley Cup. Hull soon joined the CGHA; he’s now the group’s vice president and plays on three league teams. “Not since high school had I had that type of athletic-based camaraderie, and to also have the LGBTQ-activism component was really important to me,” he says. It’s also fostered some love connections: “Last year alone, I believe we had five different couples from the team get married.”
Sam Durbin moved to Chicago five years ago, thrilled to find a more expansive gay culture than in his native Oklahoma City. But OKC had already introduced him to drag: “My first job out of college was as a spotlight boy at a drag club—one of the worst gigs in the world—but I learned how the sausage gets made, so to speak,” he says. In Chicago, Durbin debuted his own drag-queen persona, Briawna Banana. The only problem was that Briawna’s comic sensibility didn’t seem to be landing with audiences. But fellow queen Pam Who?!—whose day-to-day personality, Lanny Fox, has a background in Chicago’s sketch and improv comedy scene—saw a kindred spirit. “Pam was like, ‘You need to come to the Annoyance. How about we propose a cute little show there?’ ” Durbin recalls. That “cute little show” became OutHaus, which has been attracting audiences for regular performances (and RuPaul’s Drag Race watch parties) for the past year. “It’s a whole comedy-centric, weirdo crowd that I’m really drawn to,” says Durbin of the OutHaus queens. “It’s how I found my tribe.”