Thanksgiving meal at LGBTQ center provides safe space for guests to celebrate with their ‘chosen family’

The holiday season can be especially difficult for LGBTQ people, who may feel misunderstood or unwelcome at family-oriented holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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Don Bell (left) and Michael Snyder enjoy a Thanksgiving holiday lunch at Center on Halsted on Thursday.

Don Bell (left) and Michael Snyder enjoy a Thanksgiving holiday lunch at Center on Halsted on Thursday.

Santiago Covarrubias / For the Sun-Times

For Stefanie Clark, a 76-year-old transgender woman and activist, the Center on Halsted’s annual Thanksgiving meal is where she feels a sense of family during the holidays.

Clark said she doesn’t have a family she can visit on Thanksgiving or Christmas since coming out as transgender four years ago. Instead, she spends holidays volunteering at the city’s largest LGBTQ center to give back to her community.

“Our needs as LGBTQ people are so different, so we have to offer this kind of familiar support to each other,” Clark said.

The Center on Halsted LGBTQ community center offered a Thanksgiving lunch on Thursday.

The Center on Halsted LGBTQ community center offered a Thanksgiving lunch on Thursday.

Santiago Covarrubias / For the Sun-Times

On Thursday, Clark walked around a room at the Center on Halsted greeting guests, who ranged from teenagers to seniors, with her warm smile as she helped staff and other volunteers serve turkey, stuffing, potatoes and other Thanksgiving staples.

Clark said she was thankful to have LGBTQ friends she could spend holidays with, including another transgender woman who Clark helped transition and a gay man who recently had brain surgery.

“This is my chosen family, we love each other and this is our family tradition,” Clark said.

She carried business cards, which she passed out to guests who she thought she could connect with other LGBTQ-affirming resources. Her best friend and roommate, Jane Callahan-Moore, also volunteered.

Stefanie Clark (left) with her roommate and best friend, Jane Callahan-Moore, during a Thanksgiving lunch at Center on Halsted on Thursday.

Stefanie Clark (left) with her roommate and best friend, Jane Callahan-Moore, during a Thanksgiving lunch at Center on Halsted on Thursday.

Santiago Covarrubias / For the Sun-Times

Nearly 160 people visited the Center at 3656 N. Halsted St. for its annual Thanksgiving meal. The room buzzed with hearty chit-chat and laughter as its guests bonded over the welcoming atmosphere.

Volunteer Luka DeKelaita said he usually spends Thanksgiving cooking and hosting about 18 family members with his husband in Lincoln Square, but they decided this year to help at the Center instead.

“So many places and services are not safe for the LGBTQ community, especially for transgender people, so my husband and I wanted to give back by helping a space that brings our community together,” DeKelaita said.

Adria Hunter, corporate relations manager at the Center, said the annual meal creates a safe space for LGBTQ people to celebrate the holidays.

“A lot of LGBTQ folks, depending on their age range, have lost loved ones to the HIV/AIDS crisis or have been rejected by their own biological families,” Hunter said.

The center also hosts a similar meal on Christmas day for LGBTQ youth, seniors and people experiencing housing instability.

Luka DeKelaita (left) and husband Tom Ballentine volunteered at the Center on Halsted’s annual Thanksgiving meal on Thursday.

Luka DeKelaita (left) and husband Tom Ballentine volunteered at the Center on Halsted’s annual Thanksgiving meal on Thursday.

Santiago Covarrubias / For the Sun-Times

Don Bell, a 70-year-old gay man in the center’s senior housing facility, said the holiday season can be especially difficult for LGBTQ people, who might feel misunderstood or unwelcome from family-oriented holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Many of us are away or estranged from our families or communities of origin, so we’ve come together and made a conscious effort to fill that gap in our lives,” Bell said.

Bell’s friend, Michael Snyder, a gay man who lives in senior housing in the Lakeview neighborhood, said he didn’t want to deal with the hassle of traveling this year to visit his family on the East Coast.

“This gave me a place to go with people who are close as family,” Snyder said. “I’m tired of having to portray someone I’m not, and here that’s not going to happen.”

As the meal drew to a close, the scent of pumpkin pie wafted through the air as younger guests ran up for second and third helpings, taking to-go boxes of leftovers home with them. Others stayed late to play bingo.

“We all need family, friends and community. I’m grateful for my chosen family here,” Bell said.

A volunteer serves lunch at the Center on Halsted’s annual Thanksgiving meal.

A volunteer serves lunch at the Center on Halsted’s annual Thanksgiving meal.

Santiago Covarrubias / For the Sun-Times

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