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At my agency’s annual fundraiser, I shared a story that I’ve kept private over this past year that I’d like to share with you now. I originally decided to keep it private because I was so struck by the darkness and the cruelty of it that it didn’t feel necessary to allow it to touch other people, but after living with it all year, I’ve come to question if I saw the best part. Maybe there was more to it. After you think about it, you can let me know.

Good evening. Welcome to Dare to Dream 2022. Welcome to the new folks who are with us for the first time tonight and welcome back to the long term supporters and the founders who gave us our original reason to celebrate rainbows and unicorns. Let’s take a quick peek at some events this year that might remind us of the importance of Youth Outlook’s work.  

It’s a bit of a fight out there right now for us. I have lost track over this last year of how many times I’ve said to people, “This isn’t right. We’ve done this before.” It feels almost surreal, the current atmosphere, this violent pushback against our community…against our kids, our rainbows, our unicorns.

Shortly after Dare to Dream last year, we entered an agreement to have a picture with Santa night about two weeks before Christmas. On the other side of that agreement were Trans Santa and Dr Klaus, and HBO films. HBO was making a documentary on Santas of all representations and had been filming Trans Santa already when we agreed to have Santa come and take pictures at the Thursday night drop in center. How fun would that be to have a Santa who represented our drop-in center members? We would do this. Our rainbows and unicorns deserved to meet Trans Santa.

So we did it. Carolyn and Andi put the whole night together planned with space for pictures with Santa and activity stations, and gender-free gingerbread beings to decorate and opened the RSVP list to community members who wanted to do pictures with Santa too. In short order, that event sold out.

Then the rumblings started. One of the local politicians picked up on the event announcement and reposted it for her conservative base to ridicule and complain about. The pressure against the host church started, the pressure against Andi started, and bad went to worse went to vile in just days.

When one of the local hate groups reposted it, we started getting threats that they’d be there to disrupt. As soon as they jumped in, the Little Boys who Like To Tell Everyone How Proud They Are invited themselves, and before we could blink twice, both groups were planning to protest the night of the event. To make matters worse, we also heard rumors that some other folks would be there to counterprotest.

Where we had envisioned little kids and toddlers decorating gingerbread people, this was now the making of an action film. This was meant to be an innocent, joyful, magical event, with wide eyed little unicorns wearing gingerbread crumbs telling Santa what to bring them for Christmas and teenage unicorns who no longer believe in Santa hanging around with friends and stuffing gingerbread people in their pockets for a snack later. We were seeing Santa, for crying out loud. This was about love.

We entered our evening with Trans Santa with 2 squad cars and a van full of Downers Grove cops at the location where we were supposed to meet, and 3 squad cars, some plainclothes cops circling the building on foot in Naperville where we had been forced to take refuge to keep our kids safe, ducked behind two enormous armed guards at the door. This was a professional and a personal first for me—watching moms carrying babies too young to walk, one dressed like an orange Ewok, past armed guards to go meet Santa Claus. About 45 minutes in, I heard that the Little Boys Who Like To Tell Everyone How Proud They Are had located us and were outside our building, held off by the two armed guards and (as far as I know) one very unarmed minister who was going down fighting if he needed to.

We’d come to celebrate. We’d come, seeking –as our Director of Operations says– “queer joy”, and in order to have it, we required firearms and locked doors, the adults keeping cheerful expressions so as not to alarm the little unicorns and that one orange ewok that I can’t forget.

This isn’t right. We’ve done this before. We’ve marched. We’ve held tarps and umbrellas to prevent the traumatized families of NIU students shot on campus from having to see the wrenchingly cruel signs that the Westboro Baptist Church members were compelled to create and display. We’ve held the hands of the kids brutalized in their schools and we held space for parents whose kids—whose unicorns—did not survive what this culture demands of them.

We have done this before and I’ll tell you this—this is exhausting. And I’ll tell you this one other thing. Even though we are tired and running low on patience, we are far from done. As a growing, visible community, we will never give up our fight. We will never stop advocating and educating. And as long as we breathe, we will NEVER turn our backs on our rainbows and our unicorns.

I saw the danger in that night. I saw the exhaustion. No doubt. I saw armed guards at the door of our drop-in center and I saw and felt a few pangs of fear. But I also saw unflagging courage. And patience. And determination. I saw an unarmed minister stand shoulder to shoulder with our armed guards as he stood his ground to protect his family and friends. I saw moms walk right by those guards, intent on giving their child a moment with Santa. And I saw Santa, warm and welcoming, sitting just off to the side of those armed guards, greeting family after family, kid after kid, and offering them a glimpse of a Santa that looked like and understood them. Surrounded by weapons of destruction and a sense of pressure, Santa offered the families…and all of us, really…a moment of peace and a blessing of connection on a cold December night that counters the looming violence. We did get to see queer joy. We did get to see love. As adults, our moments of magic are few and far between, and Trans Santa brought us magic. I haven’t believed in Santa Claus for more than 50 years. But Trans Santa? Trans Santa…I believe.

Watch for the movie Santa Camp, due out from HBO this month. Watch for the magic!

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