Gays find home in Chicago

Chicago hosted the 2006 International Gay Games. It also has the U.S.'s first government-recognized gay neighborhood. And up to 400,000 people attend the city's Gay Pride Parade each year.

Known for its wind, the Blues Brothers and Al Capone, Chicago has yet to land on the map as one of the nation's most gay-friendly cities.

Local officials hope to change that with the Center on Halsted, a $20 million (14.9 million EUR) gay community center on Chicago's North Side that officially opened this month.

Designed by the architectural firm Gensler, the 65,000-square-foot (6,038-sq. meter), eco-friendly facility has a computer lab, office space for community organizations, a black-box theater, a gym named after tennis star Billie Jean King, a Whole Foods supermarket and a rooftop garden named for Mayor Richard M. Daley.

"It's really an amazing dream come true," said Tracy Baim, editor and publisher of Windy City Times, one of the city's oldest gay publications.

There are 160 gay community centers in the nation, and about 10 new facilities each year, said Terry Stone, executive director of the National Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Centers.

Leaders around the country have blamed Chicago's lack of a central organization for keeping the city out of nationwide programs, such as a get-out-the-vote campaign, said Richard Burns, executive director of New York City's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.

Burns noted that community centers are the largest gay organizations in cities around the country, from New York to Los Angeles.

"9 a.m. to 11 p.m., it's the queer Grand Central Station of a community," he said.

Baim and others say the main hub for the gay community here has moved from place to place over the last 20 years because organizers couldn't afford the building.

Chicago's first openly gay alderman, Tom Tunney, said the AIDS epidemic diverted money elsewhere for a while.

"The funding priorities in the '80s were all about AIDS funding," Tunney said. "This would've happened years ago if the AIDS epidemic did not hit so hard in Chicago and this nation."

Those concerns led to the growth of the Howard Brown Health Center, a full-service clinic for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community whose initial focus was sexually transmitted diseases. Baim said successful fundraising for the clinic's new home in the '90s convinced donors that capital campaigns in the gay community could work.

So when organizers began serious talk about the Center on Halsted several years ago, Mayor Daley offered financing on a former Chicago Park District storage facility located near the heart of the city's official gay neighborhood.

At the Center on Halsted's ribbon-cutting ceremony June 5, Daley called the new facility "an inspiration."

"To me, it is a labor of love," Daley said. "This is a center that just is not concrete and steel but names behind it who have worked in the community for so long who have struggled for so long."

Executive Director Modesto Tico Valle said the center will draw people from across the country.

"The center is becoming a tourism attraction," he said. "We do want people to come visit Chicago, come visit the center. There's definitely a lot to do here."