Josephine Baker

Vital Bridges (once known as Open Hand/Chicago) was one of the first frontline organizations serving LGBT people living with HIV and AIDS in the 80s. Their mission was to ensure that people living with the disease weren’t just fed, but recognized and cared for. Around that same period, Chanel was a teenager living in Chicago’s south side. With an unusual amount of family support for the time, she transitioned at the age of 15.

Her strength was only bolstered over the years – as difficult and heartbreaking as those years may have been. Chanel now shares her strength and compassion in her service at Vital Bridges, where she helps manage the front counter at the Uptown pantry. Fighting against discrimination and stigma her whole life, she knows just how important it is to support one another in the community – helping others know that they aren’t alone. It’s that philosophy, Chanel believes, that makes the Legacy Project in Boystown so very important.

“I think it is so important to know your history – it bolsters self-esteem and helps you connect to the world. Nothing like this existed when I was a teenager. There was no internet. I had no idea other trans people even existed. I felt alone, isolated, different, abnormal and suicidal. Imagine living in a world where everything in music, movies, TV and magazines has no representation of who you are, or says that who you are is wrong or bad.”

That isolation can influence everything in a person’s life. When society tells you that you are alone in your experience, it is hard to find the strength to fight. But still, Chanel is one of the strongest people we know at Heartland. With a poise and strength all her own, she changes the atmosphere in the room and provides a sense of ease and comfort to all that she meets. She wants people to know that they are accepted. Chanel herself finds strength in her personal heroes, including her choice for this year’s Legacy of Pride series, Josephine Baker.

“Josephine Baker’s own personal struggles and triumphs made her one of my muses. I gravitated to these people because they were inspiring and courageous people of color – imagine how much more inspired I was to find out there was a queer element. In a world where people will try to make you feel like you’re nothing ’cause you are Black; like you’re nothing ’cause you’re a woman; like you’re evil ’cause you’re gay or lesbian or trans; it’s important to know this is not true. It’s important to know that your ancestors – black, gay, lesbian, trans, woman – all are a great part of the fabric of what made this world great. Regardless of who says you don’t belong, you definitely belong.”