How a children’s museum got a nationally-recognized LGBTQ advocate to be an unpaid intern.

“I stumbled upon the help wanted ad while doing research for a diversity and inclusion program. The ad read, “Intern needed to support Chicago Children’s Museum’s (CCM) initiative to welcome and engage the LGBTQ community. Contribute ideas and develop activities that build awareness and sensitivity to the LGBTQ community. Photograph LGBTQ families on-site to diversify museum’s photo library.”

My first thought, a childrens museum has an initiative for the LGBTQ community? Thats brave.
My next thought: apply for the position.” – Theresa Volpe

By Theresa Volpe and Katie Slivovsky

Photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

“Sorry, can I have next week off? I’m going to The White House.”  Yep, that’s what my intern, Theresa Volpe, said to me last spring.  She and her family had been invited to Washington D.C. in recognition of their efforts to help pass the Marriage Equality bill in Illinois.  Theresa had testified at the state capital with her partner Mercedes Santos and their two children by her side.

[Click here to read Theresa’s testimony]

Also in recognition of their advocacy, Theresa (below, left) and Mercedes, were the first* same-sex couple to be legally married in Illinois.

*Mercifully, a few same-sex couples with a terminally-ill partner were allowed to legally marry right after the bill passed in 2012.

 How did this accomplished advocate come to volunteer her time for 6 months at Chicago Children’s Museum?  Let her tell you.—Katie Slivovsky

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

In Theresa’s words:

I stumbled upon the help wanted ad while doing research for a diversity and inclusion program. The ad read, “Intern needed to support Chicago Children’s Museum’s (CCM) initiative to welcome and engage the LGBTQ community. Contribute ideas and develop activities that build awareness and sensitivity to the LGBTQ community. Photograph LGBTQ families on-site to diversify museum’s photo library.”

My first thought, a childrens museum has an initiative for the LGBTQ community? Thats brave.

 My next thought: apply for the position. I saw this as an opportunity to give a voice to LGBTQ families and call attention to the need for public institutions to be more welcoming and inviting to all family structures. (Plus, I had an interest in the inner workings of museums.)

My cover letter outlined the incident which prompted my family to be involved in the fight for Marriage Equality in Illinois. I explained how our son had been hospitalized and was near death with kidney failure. My partner, Mercedes was with him.  I, however, was denied access to the pediatric intensive care unit when a hospital administrator declared I was not his “real mother.” (Thankfully our son is fine now.)

Within three days of receiving the application, the HR Department at CCM called to set up an interview. I’ll admit it; I was hesitant. Did I really want to open this can of worms? Like the museum, my heart was in the right place, but my life was not. My publishing company, BrainWorx Studio, was in transition, I was already up to my eyeballs in advocacy work, and I have three young children.

WHY was I strongly considering an unpaid internship?

The answer is easy. I met the staff at CCM. If I had any doubts before walking into the interview, the staff I met would seal the deal.  They wore rainbow-colored tags on their museum IDs.  They practically screamed, “Ally!” Their presentation and explanation about CCM’s efforts and its policy for welcoming, engaging, and including the LGBTQ community was truly impressive.

Katie, who introduced this article and co-founded AFM in 2011, said this about CCM’s position: “As a children’s museum, our job is to do what’s best for kids. For us, it’s not political or controversial. All children deserve to see their family structures and gender expressions reflected in their communities. No one should feel invisible.” I wanted to be involved and CCM wanted me!

Shining a Light on CCM

The LGBTQ-focused committee had logged a lot of hours in the 4 years before I arrived. I looked closely at the good things that had been done before and it occurred to me that if I hadn’t had a clue about CCM’s efforts, then other families in my community probably didn’t either. I made it my goal to bring more awareness about the museums overall inclusiveness to Chicagos LGBTQ community.

We started by amping up the events planned for International Family Equality Day, an event created by the Family Equality Council and celebrated around the world on the first Sunday in May. CCM had hosted the event twice before but attendance had been spotty.

We met with CCM’s Marketing staff who helped us focus on getting the media’s attention.  They suggested we create an experience or activity that would make a big visual impact, resulting in a good photo op (often the difference between drawing media attention and going unnoticed.)

1,500 Yards of Ribbon

We settled on having visitors tie colored ribbons to the museum’s three-story central staircase.  We would launch the program on IFED in May and continue it right through June, Pride Month in Chicago.  Not only was the idea doable on the museum’s tiny budget, it created a visually captivating statement about CCM’s commitment to the diverse family structures visiting the museum.

And…it turned out to be the photo op we were looking for!

Photo Credit: Windy City Time/Hal Baim

Photo Credit: Windy City Time/Hal Baim

Getting Ready

I personally reached out to various LGBTQ organizations to tell them about the events and the museum’s initiative. I invited them to participate or asked them to spread the word. I was mindful of the “communities within the communities,” and sought opportunities to invite families of color by reaching out to Latino, Asian, East Asian, and black LGBTQ organizations. I also looked for ways to be inclusive to families in different income brackets.

To CCM, it was also important for families with gender expansive children or parents to feel welcome in a comfortable setting. Early on in my internship, CCM’s large signs identifying the “Boys” and “Girls” restrooms had struck me as something a child struggling with gender identity might be confused by.

Also, a transgender parent might feel more comfortable going into a non-specified bathroom. I spoke with staff at Lurie Children’s Hospital Gender & Sex Development Clinic. They recommended that prior to IFED, CCM purchase and install “All-Gender Restroom” signs on the family bathrooms–which we did.  Katie wrote more about the sign here, titled “The Value of a $27.00 Sign.”

4Available for $27.00 here.

Connecting with LGBTQ families directly was more challenging. I drew from my own connections with the Chicagoland Rainbow Families, COLLAGE, GLSEN, and GLAAD, speaking directly to each to make sure these organizations knew CCM was welcoming to all families, including their own. The majority of the LGBTQ families attending IFEC learned about the event from one of these four organizations.

What else do LGBT families need and want from a children’s museum?

I believe LGBTQ parents appreciate the opportunity to meet each other in a family-friendly setting.  Speaking from experience, my family tends to have more “mom and dad families” as acquaintances than families similar to our own.  Before CCM created the LGBTQ-focused initiative in 2011, they had conducted focus groups with LGBTQ individuals and come to the same conclusion. We created the Hospitality Suite and Resource Room where LGBTQ families could meet up.

On three, free-admission evenings in May and June, we transformed the museum’s multi-purpose workshop room into a warm and welcoming place full of LGBTQ family-friendly children’s books, snacks, and music. We also had a resource table with materials about school safety, reproductive resources, support groups, organizations, gender identity clinics, and LGBTQ family-friendly children’s books.

Music to Fit the Day

I asked a children’s musician friend of mine, Stacy Buehler**, to perform on International Family Equality Day. Stacy, an early childhood educator and songwriter, wrote “Celebrate Love” which debuted at CCM!

I also invited Jason (pictured below), a transgender teen, to perform a song he had written about the importance of being yourself.  I’m so inspired by his insightful lyrics. Click here to watch Jason sing “Shakily Soaring”

Photo credit: Chicago Children’s Museum/Jon Resh

Photo credit: Chicago Children’s Museum/Jon Resh

Jason (seated in chair) performing in CCM’s multi-purpose room.  The sign outside welcomed all: “Hospitality Suite and Resource Room: Materials and Support for LGBT families and friends. ALL welcome!”

Since the museum is always family-friendly and ready to serve all people, there was no need to transform exhibit experiences but we did add a few special programs on IFEC which were available to all. Visitors could:


  • Write on a 20’ long chalkboard , expressing their ideas about “What Makes a Family?” and reflecting on commonalties among families.
  • Make Family Flags to share the unique make up of all families.
  • Be part of a family group photo in front of the Rainbow Staircase.
  • Participate in a video shoot about what makes their family special. [Click here to hear **Stacy Buehler’s original song, “Celebrate Love”:

Prepping Museum Staff

With such an obvious show of support for the LGBTQ community, we wanted all museum staff to feel comfortable talking about the museum’s initiative and handling any visitor complaints.  Katie connected with all guest-facing staff and simply reminded them to handle a complaint about our rainbow staircase the same way they would handle a complaint about our “no coffee in the museum” policy: 1) calmly restate the museum’s policy, 2) keep the conversation brief (without brushing off the guest), 3) never engage in debate or add personal statements about the policy, and 4) let visitors know that completing a comment card is a solid way to ensure their voice will be heard by management. [Chicago has diverse guests from hundreds of cultures, some of which are very conservative. CCM has had more complaints about its no-coffee policy than its rainbows.]

The Outcome

Throughout May and June, nearly 80,000 visitors walked through the rainbow staircase as they moved among three floors of the museum. About 1,500 people added a ribbon themselves.  Amazingly, the rainbow was complete on June 26 when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nation-wide.

Photo credit: Chicago Children’s Museum/Jon Resh

Photo credit: Chicago Children’s Museum/Jon Resh

CCM’s Rainbow Staircase in 2015. A sign nearby said, “Lets make a rainbow! Were celebrating International Family Equality Day and Pride month. WANT TO ADD A RIBBON? Get one at the Admissions Desk. Brought to you by All Families Matter, a year-round initiative that furthers the museums commitment to all families by actively welcoming the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.


Several dozen people visited the Hospitality and Resource Room over the three evening events; a good showing but we had hoped for even more.

The overall spirit of the events was joyful, despite receiving a tiny number of negative comments, less than a handful. Staff were excited about the museum’s overt show of welcome and inclusion.  We saw many happy, smiling visitors of all types explaining to their children exactly what the rainbow signifies. One teacher told Katie, “If a children’s museum can show this big sign of welcome to LGBT people, I can too. I’ve wanted to put a rainbow sticker on my classroom door; seeing this gives the courage to do it!” Yes!

The most memorable moment for me came when I saw a mother nervously fumbling through a stack of children’s books before settling on the floor with her son to read “The Tale of Two Mommies.” She continued to read one book after another. When she finished, she approached the table where I was handing out resources. I learned she came to the museum on IFED looking for information on how to deal with her family. Then she asked, “What would you do if your family was trying to turn your child against you? I told my family I’m a lesbian. They’ve been telling my son I’m a bad person.”  I got the feeling I may have been one of the few—or only—other lesbian moms she had ever talked to. I told her I was sorry her family wasn’t treating her better and asked, “Do you think your child knows you love him?”  “Of course! I tell him every day,” she answered.  His knowing she loved him, I said, was the most important thing.

I commended her for being courageous enough to bring her son to the event. I provided her with names of organizations and an LGBTQ family playgroup. I encouraged her to seek out other LGBTQ families. When her son sees other families similar to his own, he will learn he is not the only kid with a lesbian mom and it’s okay, as long as he knows he’s loved.—Theresa Volpe

(Back to Katie:) I like to joke that before Theresa came to CCM, our eight person, interdepartmental committee consisted of a few 20-something gay people and a few 40-something straight people.  NONE of us are gay parents of young children or gender expansive!  You can see how essential it was to work with Theresa, a member of the demographic we were trying to reach, who is creative, organized, determined and a great communicator with a huge network of contacts. When her internship ended in June of 2015, Theresa kindly agreed to join our committee permanently as an (unpaid) advisor.  On to 2016!—Katie Slivovsky


KateKatie Slivovsky is the Exhibit Development Director at the Chicago Children’s Museum.  In 2011, she helped found CCM’s initiative to actively welcome, engage and include the LGBTQ community.  Katie chairs an interdepartmental committee which assesses the inclusiveness of the museum’s environment, plans LGBTQ events, hosts International Family Equality Day each year, provides staff training, and more. 

ThersaTheresa Volpe is a writer, author, editor, and co-founder, with her wife, Mercedes Santos, of BrainWorx Studio Inc., an educational publishing development company. She is an LGBT family advocate, and mother of three.  She and her family were instrumental in the fight for marriage equality in Illinois.  They testified before the Illinois Senate in support of the marriage equality bill and lobbied legislators in Springfield.  In recognition of their efforts, Theresa and Mercedes were the first same-sex couple to be married in Illinois.


One thought on “How a children’s museum got a nationally-recognized LGBTQ advocate to be an unpaid intern.

  1. Pingback: Museums Showcase LGBTQ Families - Mombian

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