I grew up as a postmodern queer; the very question of being "out" often seems irrelevant. So, when I heard about Out and Proud in Chicago, I wondered: What could I possibly find interesting about the times when people actually thought that being "out and proud" was a necessary part of living and organizing?
A lot, as it turns out.
Full disclosure: I write for Chicago's gay paper, Windy City Times, published by Tracy Baim, who's also the editor of the book. I'm briefly quoted in its pages, and I'm a Chicagoan involved in a long-standing love-hate relationship with the city. So this book is about people and places with which I have close and often intimate connections. That speaks to the nature of the queer community in Chicago, which is a lot like queer communities anywhere else: Metaphorically or literally, we've all been in bed with one another at one point or the other.
This is the first book-length representation of Chicago's gay history. Given the richness and depth what it makes visible, it's surprising that there hasn't been one like it before. For too long, queer history has been defined by the coasts.
Perhaps we've neglected this history because so many of us, especially queers, tend to flee the Midwest. There are a number of reasons for that, not the least of which is the blighted winter we endure every year. In addition, there are the racial; ethnic; and economic divisions, carefully kept in place by decades of urban planning that tokenizes people of color and develops a spectacular skyline for tourists while entire neighborhoods are displaced outwards.
But this is also the city of the Haymarket Riot and with strong roots in the labor movement. That kind of insurgent history is evident in Out and Proud, which moves from the 1800s to the present. A series of brief essays, accompanied by rich and revelatory photographs, brings to light pieces of Chicago queer history, many of which are now irrevocably lost. In the '20s and '30s, the "Black-and-tan" clubs on the city's south side Bronzeville neighborhood were racially integrated and hosted famous (and infamous) drag balls. "The 10% Show," produced by John Ryan, was the city's first television program dedicated to the community. My personal favorite among the photographs is of an article by David Stienecker in the September 1969 Mattachine Midwest magazine. It names and describes a cop who was particularly zealous in entrapping gay men in public restrooms.
Mattachine Midwest was among the best-known but by no means the only gay and lesbian organization. Members of DAGMAR (Dykes and Gay Men Against Repression), an early precursor of Chicago's ACT UP chapter, are shown marching against the Reagan administration. Of particular interest to anyone in the media is the history of the gay press in Chicago. If you apply the term to mean any kind of visual and textual attempt to get the word out to community members, these include Freedom and Friendship, the publication of the Society for Human Rights, the "oldest documented homosexual emancipation organization in the United States" founded by Henry Gerber in the 1920s. In the 1970s came zine-like publications like Killer Dyke and Lavender Woman, none of which exist today. What emerges from this is not only the history of gay publications but a lesser-known and almost-forgotten lesbian presence in Chicago's "gay movement."
As I write this, the gay bar down the street has its doors open in the last days of summer; customers walk in and out of the bathhouse next door; and I roam my Uptown neighborhood in t-shirts emblazoned with queer images. Out and Proud reminds me of a time when none of this could be taken for granted (and that it's still a luxury in many places). That sense of relative privilege should also prompt questions about what we might choose to learn from this history. It's easy to exult in how far we've come, but the book also provides evidence that not all of "us" are part of the "we."
In 1964, sheriff's deputies raided the Fun Lounge, a gay bar on the city's outer limits, and arrested more than a 100 people, 8 of whose names were published by the Chicago Tribune the next day in order to shame the "powder puffs." The event galvanized Mattachine Midwest into action and sparked further gay and lesbian resistance to police harassment.
Nowadays, raids on Chicago gay bars are almost unheard of, but what does that really signify? How and why did this city become so "gay-friendly"? What does that say about the rise of gay political power and its connection to the Daley machine? Today, we pay little or no attention to the older, small neighborhood bars in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods that are routinely "inspected" to extinction. Meanwhile, gays and lesbians on the city's north side work explicitly against efforts in favor of low-cost housing in order to maintain their property values.
Looking even further back, there's ample evidence that many of those involved with early gay and lesbian organizing may have espoused far more radical politics than is evident in the "movement" today. Jonathan Ned Katz reminds us of Henry Gerber's essay "In Defense of Homosexuality," where, according to Katz, he "refuses to align himself with either position, conceding that both inborn and social reasons may influence sexual object choice." Contrast that with today's conservative insistence by most so-called gay activists that we deserve our rights because of our immutable biological traits of homosexuality. Out and Proud reveals the varied patterns that make up Chicago gay history and that there are parts of that history we might want to resurrect.
Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community
Edited by Tracy Baim
Publisher: Surrey Books, 2008; 224 pages