OTIS F. RICHARDSON
Beaufort, South Carolina
3) City/state where you live currently:
South Carolina State College (Orangeburg), BS, Art Education
Northern Illinois University (DeKalb), MFA, Media Studies
Fine artist, illustrator, and greeting card designer. I also work in the newspaper syndication department of Chicago Tribune Co.
6) Did you serve in the U.S. military?
7) How do you describe your sexuality and your gender?
Gay or same-gender-loving male.
8) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?
9) If you are GLBT, please describe when you first “knew”:
I knew as a boy that I was attracted to males. My mother had these thick Sears catalogs in the ‘70s and I would fixate on the men's underwear pages. At that age I didn't know what gay was, but I knew I was attracted to males.
10) Who did you first “come out” to and when?
The first person I came out to was my friend Letitia. This was around '87 or '88. We were both Fine Art graduate students at NIU. We were at a bar in downtown DeKalb right off of campus. We were just hanging out and people watching and all of a sudden Letitia says, "Otis, I don't know how you are going to take this, but I'm a lesbian.” Then I said something like, "Well guess what, I'm gay too.” We are still friends to this day.
11) What troubles did you face as a GLBT person?
I think my first homophobic experience occurred as a college junior. I was walking off campus at night and someone I couldn't see, a block away, called me a faggot. When I yelled something back they refused to come forward. Another incident involved a group of guys in a car who passed by and yelled, "Hey man, are you gay... yeah, he's gay!" It was strange in that those negative incidents forced me to deal with my identity. I wasn't at a place where I was comfortable to come out, though.
12) Did you have mentors in the Chicago GLBT community?
I met Max Smith in the early ‘90s. I was working to find people for a panel discussion on religious homophobia, and I new of Max's work in that area through his published writings in the Black gay anthology In The Life.
Later on, Rev. Karen Hutt, Rev. Alma Crawford, and Pastor Thom Ford, who were all instrumental in the formation of Church of the Open Door in the mid ‘90s. Church of the Open Door served a predominately Black LGBT congregation.
13) Involvement in organizations (GLBT or mainstream):
Deeply Rooted Dance Ensemble (volunteer, donor)
Center For Communications Resources (board member)
Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays (volunteer)
Adodi Chicago (volunteer)
Church of the Open Door (volunteer, donor)
Youth Pride Center (donor)
AIDS Foundation of Chicago/AFC (donor)
Metropolitan Church of Christ/MCC (donor)
United Way (donor)
14) When you were coming out, what were your favorite GLBT bars in Chicago?
I think my first bar was Berlin in the late ‘80s. I also enjoyed the racial and gender diversity of Bistro Too in Uptown in the early ‘90s.
15) What were the key issues faced in the GLBT community when you first came out?
Visibility for Black LGBT people, promoting HIV/AIDS awareness, and promoting effective prevention messages for men of color and youth.
16) What issues do you see as key in the GLBT community today?
The same – visibility for Black LGBT people and effective HIV/AIDS prevention messages – along with increasing acceptance between the Black LGBT community and the Black straight community, especially as it relates to the Black church.
17) How have AIDS and/or other health issues impacted your life personally?
I came out during the height of the safer sex movement in the late ‘80s. I think the fear and scapegoating in the culture which linked AIDS to gay sexuality certainly stunted my own sexual expression. It took many years to find a balance in wanting to fight ignorance about HIV transmission, while at the same time not thinking about sex as a game of Russian roulette.
My HIV negative status has never separated me from most of the men I associate with in the community who are positive. I've always wanted to do what I could to support testing, prevention, and access to quality health care. My friends who are HIV positive were the inspiration for me to participate in the AIDS Foundation Marathon Training Program in 2003.
18) How would you describe the “diversity” within the Chicago GLBT community?
I believe the LGBT community is divided by factions based on race, gender, class, and geography. I think the gay community has to deal with issues of racism, sexism, classism, and prejudice that the larger society must also confront. When I lived on the North Side, Boystown was a major destination for me.
Now that I've lived on the South Side for the last five years, my priority is to assist in the building of community with people of color and allies. We don't have the resources or clout of North Side gay institutions, but we do have the people power, talent, and vision to bring much needed services to the South Side. I just think we have yet to tap into the power that we do have.
19) If you consider yourself a “political” activist, how do you define this?
My focus has been more on “social” activism than political, although I think there is much overlap. I vote and pay attention to where politicians stand on LGBT and progressive issues.
20) Describe what you feel your personal legacy is to the Chicago GLBT community.
As an artist I believe my legacy is one of using the visual arts to bring visibility to the LGBT community. I've had the pleasure of being a contributor to Lambda Publications going back to the early ‘90s. As a graduate student at Northern Illinois University (NIU) I had a ROTC protest poster published in Outlines in 1989 – that was one of the first designs I ever had published.
I've used my art to express the beauty and creativity of our community, and I continue to do that with the line of Black LGBT greeting cards I created called Lavenderpop Greeting Cards. The name derives from Lavender because it's the “gay” color, and Pop because I love popular culture. I think it's so important that we tell our stories and are able to see ourselves beyond the stereotypes society and the media have created.
21) This project is also about “defining moments.” Please discuss some of those in your life.
Coming out to my parents was a defining moment. It was in 1989 and I was a grad student at NIU. I was part of the gay student group on campus; in fact I think I was co-president that year. I was involved in a nationwide campus protest against the ROTC program discriminating against gay and lesbian students. The gay student group held a news conference where I read a statement in support of gay students on campus. There were a couple TV stations there as well as the local DeKalb paper.
Not knowing where the footage would show up, I decided to call my folks and tell them about me and my activism. They took it well at first, but once it sank in my mother had a hard time coming to grips with it. I think her difficulty was less about homophobia and more out of the fear that as a Black man, I would have another strike against me. It was more about wanting to protect me from discrimination and rejection. When I told my parents I was gay they said their love for me didn't change and it's still that way today.
22) Additional comments and memories.
I want to remember Pastor Thom Ford who has passed away [June 30, 2007]. I can't even write all the things he's done for the community and his impact on me. Thom was a sign language interpreter, pastor, community organizer, health care advocate, activist, long term HIV/AIDS survivor, social worker, and a visionary. He was the source of so much knowledge as it related to LGBT people of faith embracing our orientation in the face of a culture that calls us sinners. He had so much hope for our community. I don't want to dwell on the loss, but remember him as a beautiful man who wasn't afraid to speak his truth.