How to Support Queer Businesses in Chicago During Covid-19 Pandemic

Since being declared a “pandemic” by the World Health Organization on March 11, the COVID-19 outbreak has put major cities, states, and entire countries on lockdown. "Shelter-in-place” orders -- like the one declared by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker -- are meant to stop the spread of the virus and save lives, but they're also putting intense pressure on the economy, and especially small businesses. As a sudden lack of both supply and demand has brought operations to a halt, employees have been furloughed or entirely laid off, and some doors have shuttered permanently. 

In response to the crisis, online relief funds for employees, GoFundMe pages for beloved, local businesses, and other fundraising efforts began circulating on social media platforms almost immediately. For LGBTQ+ small business owners -- those who chose to create their own space after years of navigating systemic discrimination in employment, finance, healthcare, and housing, whose existence relies heavily on the support, activity, and creativity of their already marginalized community and vice versa -- the immediate squeeze and future uncertainties feel much more urgent.

In a briefing published on March 20, the Human Rights Campaign reported one in five LGBTQ+ individuals lives in poverty, and that the top five industries they’re most likely to work in -- including hospitality and retail -- will be some of the greatest affected by COVID-19. With that in mind, here are five ways you can lend a hand and support Chicago’s LGBTQ+ small businesses that are also paying it forward in the time of coronavirus.

Place an order for pick-up/buy online

“This initial response of love and support through online orders has been overwhelming,” says Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville. "As the crisis continues and the economic reality sets in for all of us, we understand that buying a book may not be considered an ‘essential’ item at the top of everyone's list. For those who can afford to continue buying books from independent bookstores like ours, maybe consider buying not only a book for your household but also a book for someone who can't afford it. You can also support us and communities disproportionately impacted by this pandemic through our partnership with Chicago Books to Women in Prison.”

Other businesses like Jennivee’s Bakery, an LGBTQ+ friendly, trans-owned shop marrying Filipino and American baking styles and flavors in Lakeview, are still taking orders through delivery services like Postmates and Grubhub, as well as take-out. Jennivee’s is also offering special delivery pricing for large and special orders.

Pre-pay for future sessions

With bars and clubs shuttered and parties canceled, event photography duo GlitterGuts has found help from those (optimistically) planning for the future.  

“We’ve definitely had a few people pre-pay for headshot sessions, which is awesome. That’s great!” says co-founder Sarah Joyce, adding that folks with the financial means to pay ahead have allowed for GlitterGuts to keep up with some overhead costs for the time being. “We have a website set-up where you can book one. As soon as we can be face-to-face with people again, we’re happy to do that. We have a huge studio we’re working hard to keep! We also have a sliding scale, and we’re happy to do that, we love to work with people.”

For the party photographers, March was gearing up to be a busy month after the winter lull January and February usually cause. Once folks were instructed to stay home, the duo went back to the studio. With one of the few options being small business loans, that further induce rather than relieve stressors, future portrait sessions and online sales of photography zines and buttons are helping them get through to the next month.

“We’re so in between every industry that’s heavily impacted. Bars closed, we’re closed. Arts organizations aren’t throwing events, we’re not -- we’re not part of one industry, we’re part of a million,” Joyce says. 

Keep your tickets! 

Traveling events like concerts, book tours, and major league sports have all postponed upcoming dates until the coronavirus is contained and people are able to gather in large groups again. Five Senses Reeling, a Seattle-based event production company catering to drag tours and LGBTQ+ allied artists across the country including Chicago, followed suit once other popular acts that would have audience overlap within the community began communicating future reschedulings. 

Creative Director Dylan Austin says that, while the company is offering refunds to those who want them, there was relief when the majority of fans who had already purchased tickets to shows featuring “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestants Miz Cracker, Bob the Drag Queen, and Monet X Change wanted to hang onto them. 

“In the context of whether or not you can put on one event safely and legally, we were about to put on 100-something,” Austin says of announced and unannounced show dates. “The concern became apparent right away... What we’re about to see hopefully, within the calendar year, is that when people can leave the house, they’re going to be desperate to do so. No one bought those tickets without really wanting to see that show, so everyone’s been pretty on board with that.”

Now, Five Senses Reeling says it’s in more of a position to be a source of entertainment and a source of stability for the organizations and artists it works with -- including pride groups and nonprofits such as Drag Out the Vote. 

“There’s work that can be done while we’re all locked inside,” Austin says. “It’s always been a mission, whether or not we’re talking about a global pandemic, to take advantage of our team’s creative resources, the connections we have and the platform we have to help organizations and artists like that, and have a reason why we do things other than touring the nation collecting ticket sales.”

Show up, virtually

Many folks have adopted digital meet-up platforms like Zoom and HouseParty to host hangouts with friends and special events despite the current ban on physical gatherings of more than 10. Kristen Kaza, principal of No Small Plans Productions -- an intersectional event production company and the co-founder of Reunion Chicago, a sliding scale events space for women, LGBTQ+ & POC creatives, brought her monthly dance party Slo 'Mo: Slow Jams For Queer Fam online in light of COVID-19. 

“The response was swift and spread fast with great support and appreciation. It was incredibly uplifting to witness. I knew that it would really resonate but I didn't expect over 5,000 views and donations from over 200 people,” said Kaza of the night’s experiment. “The best part was seeing everyone connect in the feeds and share their videos and photos dancing and feeling good! It truly felt like a unifying moment.

“We've had an amazing response and take that support seriously. With the funds raised after paying ourselves and a stipend to the Whistler [the bar Slo’ Mo usually hosts at], we're establishing reserve funds for other folks in our community impacted by social distancing. And we are thinking of how to make this kind of online content sustainable and more streamlined, as we rapidly learn about the many platforms we could use to share it. There is definitely a learning curve, so people eager for more online parties, classes and programs should have grace with promoters and artists who have just been faced with the daunting challenge of how to use them in a matter of days. But great things are and will continue to come of this.” 

Spread the word! 

Today, word of mouth has also gone digital. Businesses can be made with just one tweet or Instagram post that catches fire. Every day, sharing on social media exposes millions of people to each other, websites, services and causes they would otherwise never know. 

A food and essential items crisis pantry organized by non-profit Brave Space Alliance, the city’s first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ+ resource center on the South Side for queer, non-binary, and trans folks of color got a boost after President Barack Obama tweeted local media outlet Block Club Chicago’s feature on its efforts. The center in Hyde Park is currently collecting non-perishable food items, hygiene products, baby food, diapers, and more. 

In this time of self-quarantine, where connection -- particularly to clientele -- can feel tenuous, a link or kind post can remind folks of why they started these businesses in the first place. Maybe even start with this article. 

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Jessi Rotti is a contributor for Thrillist.