Adler University is welcoming a trio of LGBTQ+ advocates — political activists and business owners Art Johnston and José Pepe Peña, and award-winning author and speaker Danny Ramadan — as keynote speakers for the fall commencement ceremonies.
Johnston and Peña will speak at the Chicago and Online campuses’ commencement on Oct. 22 at the Chicago Theatre. Ramadan will speak at the Vancouver Campus ceremony on Nov. 19 at The Orpheum Theatre. All three speakers will receive Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degrees, which recognize achievements in the humanities or for philanthropic work.
Art Johnston and José Pepe Peña
Johnston and Peña’s 45-year love story is fully intertwined with a history of social activism. The couple first met at a gay bar in 1973, at a time when police raids at such establishments were the norm. Then, in 1982, the couple opened their own — the historic Chicago gay bar Sidetrack.
Over the next four decades, the duo found themselves at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ+ and civil rights. They lobbied and helped pass gay-inclusive human rights ordinances at the city, county, and state levels. During the AIDS crisis, the couple raised funds for organizations serving those affected. Sidetrack, which distributed condoms and health information during the crisis and beyond, continues to be a central meeting place for groups, organizations, and elected leaders to address today’s challenges.
“It all started with the fact that I worked at a gay bar,” Peña said of how the couple’s activism started. “Being a bartender, I saw a lot of things that were wrong — bar raids, intimidation from police. Some of the things we saw were horrifying. At the same time, during those days, most of the activism was coming from bars. It’s where we could meet and organize.”
In the 1990s, Johnston was among the founders of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights — now known as Equality Illinois, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ rights group. The organization has helped pass inclusive hate-crime laws and marriage equality at the state level (two years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges).
The couple’s love and activism were recently chronicled in the documentary Art and Pep, which has been shown in various educational and community screenings. The independent documentary has screened at over 25 film festivals across the world and premiered on Peacock on June 1. It received the Audience Choice award for Best Documentary Film at the 2022 Chicago International Film Festival and Best Documentary Feature Film at Stamped Film Festival.
“To be invited by Adler certainly was overwhelming,” said Johnston. “It was thrilling to learn more about Adler and what its graduates are doing in the world. One of the things we hope to talk about is the joy in fighting back. I know if we can do this kind of work, I know anybody can do it. I know the education and training students get at Adler will prepare them to continue this work against social injustice. It can be done.”
Finding a community of queer folks while growing up in Syria can be quite difficult. Yet somehow, Ramadan found that sense of belonging with a group conducting underground work to support and provide housing to other queer Syrians.
“I enjoyed creating a place for folks to feel safe and welcomed. I did this in Damascus and later in Cairo,” Ramadan said. “Then, when I came to Canada in 2014 as a refugee, I felt quite alone.”
That need to build a community led Ramadan to create An Evening in Damascus, an annual fundraiser that aims to assist other LGBTQ+ Syrian refugees and offer them a safe and dignified passage to a new home in Canada. Since 2015, it has raised over $300,000 for Rainbow Refugee Society, which aids in the safe arrival of refugees from across the Middle East and North Africa region.
“It started as this community event at somebody’s basement, and now it’s one of the most glamorous events in Vancouver,” he said. This year’s event — to be held Oct. 17 — will include belly dancers, drag queens, and voguing.
For his activism, Ramadan was named among the Top Immigrants to Canada in 2017, and he received the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Award for Excellency. He was also sainted by the Vancouver Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and given the title Saint Guiding Light to Sanctuary, New Home and Safety.
In addition to his advocacy work, Ramadan is an award-winning author, educator, and public speaker. Ramadan’s latest novel, The Foghorn Echoes, recently won the Lambda Award for Gay Fiction. His 2017 novel, The Clothesline Swing, has been translated into multiple languages. He is known for his TED Talk, The Refugee Tree, which was filmed in Vancouver in 2016. In it, he shares his intimate experience of uprooting himself from his homeland to flee from homophobia and the challenges of arriving in a new country as a refugee.
Being invited as a keynote speaker would mark a full-circle moment of sorts for Ramadan, who once worked at a local community center for queer and trans folks in Vancouver.
“One of the things I loved was working with practicum students from Adler who would provide the counseling services,” he said. “I knew if a student was from Adler that they would know what they’re doing. I enjoyed working with those students, especially the ones who were curious, who came in aware they had limitations in their understanding of the LGBTQ+ community, and who were willing to learn. Having that curiosity and self-assurance were the reasons these practicum students were successful. I’m hoping that’s something everyone at the commencement ceremony and Adler can feel connected to.”