Shelton Watson



1) Birthdate:


2) Birthplace:

Chicago, Illinois

3) City/state where you live currently:

Chicago, Illinois

4) Career:

Technical support specialist

5) Did you serve in the U.S. military?


6) How do you describe your sexuality and your gender?

Gay male

7) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?


8) If you are GLBT, please describe when you first “knew”:

Sophomore year in high school.

9) Who did you first “come out” to and in when?

In 1980 I was depressed about the feelings I was having towards other males and did not want to accept the fact that I was gay. I had been engaging in sex with other guys for some time and had sexual relationships with females as well, but not to the same extent.

As I came to the realization that I was more attracted to guys I sought out someone I could share this with. I am not sure why I needed to tell someone, but in retrospect, because of the person I chose, I believe I was looking for reassurance that even as a young, gay man I was still okay.

I sought out the guidance counselor at my school because I had seen other students whom I believed were gay talking with him. It was late one evening after school and he was working in his office. I entered and sat down looking sort of dejected and he immediately sensed something was wrong. When he inquired what was wrong I told him that I thought I might be gay.

He asked me why I felt that way and I told him about my attractions and about my sexual experimentation. He was very supportive and gave me the assurance that I needed that if I was gay it was still okay.

10) What troubles did you face as a GLBT person?

Interestingly enough, I was stereotyped as being gay long before I came out. Not due to any effeminate behavior – I had always been a big, strapping, masculine, sports-playing kid. The stereotype was more due to my upbringing, my intellect, and my personality.

As a child I was heavily influenced by our family matriarch, my great aunt. She was a very independent, no-nonsense Christian woman. She helped teach and re-enforce manners such as saying “please,” “thank you,” “yes ma’am,” “yes sir,” “no ma’am,” and “no sir.” She was very old school in her discipline, and had no problems taking a switch to me if I stepped out of line. I was not even allowed to say “dag” as a child because she said it was too close to saying “damn.”

When entering the fifth grade I transferred to a Catholic school not far from my home and, being the new kid, I was already a target even though I was known in the neighborhood. My upbringing was a hit with the teachers, who all fell in love with me. I quickly became a teachers’ pet. This did not sit well with my male classmates, and when they found this out coupled with the facts that I did not use slang, was an A student, and had manners, I was labeled as gay.

However by this time I was experimenting sexually with other guys and even though I did not have the traits commonly associated with homosexuals as portrayed in the media, I began to wonder if there was something else about me which betrayed what I was doing I secret.

I lived with the stereotype throughout elementary school, but chalked the taunting up more to jealously on the part of my male classmates than my behavior, and emerged relatively unscathed psychologically.

When I entered high school I carried my upbringing with me. Once again I was a favorite of my teachers and traveled in the academic circles. In high school I had to prove my manhood one time, when someone called me gay, by picking that person up and slamming them into a locker. I was never questioned again.

Since it is not obvious to the untrained eye that I am gay, I have not encountered many problems in the community or at work. Even when I have chosen to disclose there have never been any issues.

11) Did you have mentors in the Chicago GLBT community?

I have had many mentors in the Chicago GLBT community: Max Smith, Israel Wright, Renae Ogletree, Michael Harrington, Ernest Hite, Robert Ford, Michael Norman Haynes, Daniel Parker, Karl Rubish, Larry McKeon, Lisa Pickens, Sherri Jackson, Susan Stanley, Jackie Anderson, and Karen Hutt.

12) Involvement in organizations (GLBT and/or mainstream):

The Ad Hoc Committee of Proud Black Lesbians and Gays (co-founder)
Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays (co-founder)
Adodi Chicago (co-founder)
Group Dialogue (board member)
Book Forum (board member)
Chicago Commission on Human Relations: Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues/ACGLI (board)
Horizons Community Services (board member)
Community Advisory Board for Howard Brown Health Center Vaccine Trial (board member)
Belmont Rock Pride Committee (board member)
The Color Triangle anti-racism coalition (steering committee member)
Chicago Department of Public Health Grant Review Committee (volunteer)
United Way Priority Grants Discrimination Committee (volunteer)
Children’s International (donor)
Human Rights Campaign/HRC (donor)

13) When you were coming out, what were your favorite Chicago GLBT bars?

Sandy’s on 74th & Cottage Grove from 1984 until it closed.
Rialto’s on Van Buren from 1984 until it closed
Stop & Drink on Clark from 1984 until it closed
The 411 Club on 63rd from 1987 until it closed
The Powerplant on Halsted from 1984 until it closed
The Ritz Manhattan from 1986 until it closed
The Waterworks from 1986 until it closed
The Clubhouse on Halsted from 1988 until it closed

14) What were the key issues faced in the GLBT community when you first came out?

For the African American GLBT community I believe the primary concern was safety. There had been several attacks on patrons leaving bars on the South Side. HIV was just beginning to raise its ugly head in the gay community, but due to the fact that it was seen as a “white, gay man’s disease,” the African American community did not pay much attention until more of us became infected.

15) What issues do you see as key in the GLBT community today?

I believe that the key issue facing GLBT communities is equal rights. We need our relationships legitimized and we need to be given equal protection under the law in the areas of housing, employment, and civil liberties.

16) How have AIDS and/or other health issues impacted your life personally?

The first person I knew to be infected with HIV was also the first person I knew to die from complications. He was a creative and vibrant person. A dancer with a beautiful body and spirit to match. I knew that this disease was sexually transmitted, and knew that with sex being as prevalent as it was among gay men, it would be widespread in the community.

One of the members of the groups I belonged to in 1988, Book Forum & Group Dialogue, had just lost his lover to the virus, and more people were disclosing their status. I was surprised how quickly people were becoming infected. The images of the virus which we were seeing on TV were not reflected in the faces of the people I saw before me. These were not white, leather-clad men in San Francisco and New York. This made the virus more personal and brought it closer to home.

In 1989 I attended the 3rd Annual National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership forum at the Hyatt Regency Peachtree in Atlanta, Georgia. It was at this forum that I met Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint, Craig Harris, Donald Woods, Phill Wilson, George Bellinger, Jr., Keith Boykin and so many other figures who would prove to be role models and spokespersons for the Black, Gay community.

The forum focused on issues of empowerment and visibility for Black, gay men, women, and transsexuals. But there was also an urgent desire to address the issue of HIV becoming more prevalent in the African American community. Many of the people mentioned above were already infected and some were full blown. A whole track of the forum was dedicated to setting up and delivering services to those infected with and impacted by the virus. I was aghast to see just how many of the over 400 people who were at the forum were already infected. By the end of that year I was to be included in that number.

I came back to Chicago invigorated after that experience, determined to live my life openly and honestly, and determined to help make life in Chicago better for other Black, gay and lesbian people who felt they could not stand up for themselves.

I have lost so many close friends and comrades in arms whom I have met only in political circles; and each one is a great loss not only to me but to the world. They were like stars burning brightly in the heavens which burn out but do not immediately fade away, because their light will continue to be seen from earth for decades to come, and their impact will continue to be felt by all they touched.

17) How would you describe the “diversity” within the Chicago GLBT community?

The GLBT community really is a microcosm of the larger community in terms of things which divide us. Racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc. All the isms which affect the larger community manifest themselves in the LGBT community.

One would think that because we share the common oppression of homophobia we might find a common ground from which to see each other as brothers and sisters in a common struggle first. But homophobia affects each ethnic group differently, and in the hierarchy of oppression homophobia takes a backseat to racism for most African Americans.

Disparate treatment of African Americans in Boystown is seen as an extension of the racism experienced in the larger community. I am not aware of LGBT African American Americans who have faced discrimination in the areas of housing or employment because of their sexual orientation that is seen as a white phenomenon. This is another point of division between African American and white LGBT communities.

But I believe that homosexuality is more mainstream due to the political attention it has been given lately. Because of this I believe that GLBT people from different walks of life feel more comfortable being out, and coming out earlier.

We are seeing more and more youth of all colors openly expressing their sexuality today.

Similarly we are reflective of the larger community in terms of our diversity. LGBT people in Chicago come from all different backgrounds and each brings with it a unique perspective to the community. Cultural, ethnic, spiritual, political, economic, and artistic are just some of the differences we bring to the community. All the differences are valid, and within each difference is something valuable to be added into the stew which makes up our community where one difference or flavor enhances the others.

I have seen our diversity at work as we sat around the table together trying to devise new solutions to address old problems like with The Color Triangle, each difference reminding us that there is a diversity of ways to look at situations.

I see our diversity at work as I watch members of the leather, fetish, and S/M communities raise money for HIV prevention during the largest gathering of leather men and women in the country Memorial Day weekend in Chicago at IML (International Mr. Leather). I see our diversity celebrated and acknowledged each October as we recognize the individuals and organizations which have made significant contributions to the quality of life in the city of Chicago when we induct them into the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

18) If you consider yourself a “political” activist, how do you define this?

I do not describe myself as a political activist – I consider myself a human rights activist. I don’t consider myself political in the least. I believe you should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; and politics appears to me to be about sacrificing some things to get others to support your effort to do the right thing.

19) Describe what you feel your personal legacy is to the Chicago GLBT community.

After I am gone I would like to be remembered for having tried to empower African American, Same-Gender-Loving people to stand up for their rights and to build organizations which support the community and to build a greater sense of shared responsibility within the community.

I would also like to be remembered for attempting to bridge the gap between all the GLBT communities, across age, gender, racial, geographic, socio-economic, and sexual lines. And for trying to improve access to services, and ensure that the rights of all LGBT are protected and enforced by law.

20) This project is also about “defining moments.” Please discuss some of those in your life.

When I came out to my high school guidance counselor and found acceptance it was a profoundly positive experience because if he had reacted negatively I might have gone into the closet and never ventured out.

I also think defining moments in my life were attending the Leadership Forum conference in 1989 in Atlanta and attending my first Adodi Retreat in 2004 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Both had a very deep and lasting impact on me as a vision of how life in the LGBT community COULD be.

Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, the book is edited by Tracy Baim and features the contributions of more than 20 prominent historians and journalists. It is published by Surrey Books, an Agate imprint, and is hard cover, 224 pages, 4-color, with nearly 400 photos.
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