A Chicago-based LGBT organization that's received millions in federal, state and city tax dollars has also hosted such events as awards ceremonies for erotic films and a "rubber fetish" convention. And a state lawmaker says others are afraid to question such activities and funding because they're afraid of "being labeled."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has helped secure taxpayer funding for the Center on Halsted. (AP/Stacy Thacker)
The Center on Halsted describes itself as “the Midwest's most comprehensive community center dedicated to advancing community and securing the health and well-being of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) people of Chicagoland,” with programs ranging from "volleyball, dance performances and cooking classes to rapid HIV testing, group therapy and vocational training.”
It also hosted the annual “Grabbys Award Show” last year and a 2009 event called “Mr. International Rubber.”
State lawmakers are aware, but few want to look into the matter, said Illinois Senate Minority Whip Tim Bivins, who would like to see a state audit.
“I certainly think sunlight should be shed on it,” Bivins told TheBlaze. “An audit would let us know what they're doing with the money. If you're paying to keep the lights on, even if they are just renting the building out, there are objections to be made as to how the money is spent.”
Bivins said he believes any organization that receives taxpayer money should be held to a certain standard of propriety.
“I put it into context. If this were any other not-for-profit such as United Way, Red Cross, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, etc. ... and they rented out a building owned by them for heterosexual sex events, I am quite confident that every government body and citizen would be outraged and funding would cease immediately,” Bivins told TheBlaze.
“Nobody will even talk about this because they're afraid of being labeled,” Bivins added. “The AIDS hotline, I have no problem with that. But if another nonprofit with state funds was throwing wild parties, there would be calls for investigations and resignations.”
Rahm Emanuel advocated for the Center on Halsted during his time as a U.S. House member and has continued to do so as mayor of Chicago. The center says Emanuel was a strong advocate for the group while serving as President Barack Obama's first White House chief of staff.
As a member of Congress, Emanuel in 2005 secured a $1.25 million earmark for the group from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund construction of a new building for the organization's headquarters.
Speaking at the center's gala this year in March, Emanuel boasted about securing an earmark for the group "when George W. Bush was president. You can imagine the task of getting federal funds at that point."
The center praised Emanuel and the man who currently holds Emanuel's old House seat, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), for $475,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services to fund a research on aging service programs for people with HIV.
"A $475,000 grant from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, with the support of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, helps to fortify Center on Halsted as a leader in LGBTQ senior services" in 2010, the center's website states.
The city of Chicago had long given the organization city funds before Emanuel was elected mayor in 2010. The year Emanuel took office, the center received another $317,827 from Chicago's Department of Family and Support Services and $109,314 from the Chicago Department of Health.
The 2013 Grabbys Awards Show, held May 25, 2013, at the Center on Halsted, was for “highlighting top talent and performance in the gay erotic film industry.”
“We’re excited to bring the show to the neighborhood where we live and work. The Center on Halsted is a wonderful organization and we’re thrilled to partner with them this year,” Grabbys co-producer Mark Nagel said in statement at the time.
In November 2009, the new 65,000-sq.-foot Center on Halsted building was the site of the Mr. International Rubber event, billed as the "preeminent annual men’s rubber fetish event."
A news release posted on the Center on Halsted's website announced that the master of ceremonies for Mr. International Rubber was Eddie Hibbs, "aka Sister Erotica Psychotica of the Los Angeles Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.”
Quigley honored the Center on Halsted in a House floor in April 2013, before Grabbys Awards Show took place in May but after the event had been announced.
"Center on Halsted has become the Midwest's largest LGBT community center and a model for similar organizations across our nation," Quigley said. "Patrons of all ages, backgrounds and economic status participate in the wide assortment of public programs and social services offered at the center."
Quigley's office did not respond to inquiries from TheBlaze.
Another $2.6 million has been allocated to the organization from Illinois' Department of Public Health and Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
The Center on Halsted ignored repeated phone and email inquiries from TheBlaze seeking comment.
Because it’s politically charged, Bivins said, he does not expect a lot of scrutiny.
“I've been told this is the Democrats' shining achievement, a sacred cow,” he said.
There is a solid track record for funding the group going back for more than a decade.
Before Emanuel was mayor, the city of Chicago gave $350,000 to the organization's capital campaign for a new headquarters in 2002, and another $350,000 for the same campaign in 2006. In 2008, the city of Chicago gave another $225,000 to the center for children and youth services.
In 2010, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity gave the center a $106,519 grant.
From 2010 to 2013, the Center on Halsted received a total of $1.14 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which included the $475,000 earmark for aging research. It received a $1.6 million grant for HIV testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011.
Bivins said this is an indictment of the state appropriations process, but a consistent one.
"As has been the practice in Illinois as witnessed by the $100 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative now under investigation both state and federal the answer is yes," Bivins said. "This is typical Chicago way politics, funnel state and federal monies to friends, donors through grants contracts and not for profits."