Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame honors puppeteer, others.

    Having just read Thomas Dyja's excellent The Third Coast, with its touching portrait of Burr Tillstrom, the Chicago puppeteer who created "Kukla, Fran & Ollie" and almost single-handedly got television rolling (his show was designed to push parents to buy television sets for their children, and boy, did it ever), I was glad to see Tillstrom named this week to Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. I was also proud that my Sun-Times colleague Andrew Patner was honored as well. And, heck, okay, I was happy to see myself there, too, as a friend of the community.
       My first thought was of all the people, starting with Andrew, continuing on through Jon-Henri Damski, Paul Varnell, Rick Garcia, Lori Cannon and many, many more, who helped me better understand the gay perspective (Paul, of course, would deny that such a thing as a gay perspective exists, and, as always, he has a point).
      I thought, it might be worthwhile to pull together a little of what I've written about gay Chicago over the years. My interest in the community began with an assignment—a night editor sent me to the Town Hall district to attend an outreach meeting the police were holding. (If you make it to the end—it's long, I know, but once I started I had trouble stopping— notice a very different story about the police in 2010). I kept returning to the community because it's interesting and few in the mainstream press were paying attention. The injustices gays suffered and suffer demanded attention. As proud as I am to be in the Hall of Fame, I'm prouder of the work that prompted them to invite me.
On relations between the gay community and the police:
   In recent months, the Chicago Police Department has been asking the city's gay community to talk about its safety and crime concerns. The message from gay residents is disturbing:
     They're afraid of the police.
    "We are as afraid of cops as we are of any criminals and street bashers," said Jon-Henri Damski, a columnist for Windy City Times, a gay publication. "They are as likely to take their badges off and attack you. Of course, there are good cops. But that doesn't reduce the inherent fear of getting hurt and calling the cops."
     Paul Varnell, a homosexual activist who has written about hatred of gays among police officers, said: "I've been arrested and I've been mugged, and frankly I prefer being mugged."
                                                                  —Nov. 17, 1991

On the memorial service for ACT-UP activist Danny Sotomayor:
    Margaret Sotomayor stared up at the police sergeant, looming a good foot taller than she, and uttered a timeless statement of entreaty and reproach.
    "I am the mother," said Sotomayor, trying to force her way into the tribute that friends of the late gay activist Daniel Sotomayor were holding at the Riviera Theater last week. "This is unnecessary, to throw us out of here."
     While 300 people cried and hugged and watched a slide show and documentary film about Daniel Sotomayor's life, Margaret Sotomayor and her children stood outside on the sidewalk and held a vigil of sorts.
     The Sotomayors felt slighted by not being invited. The planners thought the family had not been sufficiently supportive in the terrible last weeks of Daniel Sotomayor's battle against AIDS.
     But the arguments of both sides are not as important as what they symbolize - the tragic breaches that often form between homosexuals and their families. 
                      —March 18, 1992

From a story examining transgender life in Chicago:
     Jenny has sparkling blue eyes, a small, upturned nose and a cascade of curly blond hair tumbling over her right shoulder.
     With a rhinestone nail charm centered on each red fingernail, a dab of blush at her decolletage, and deftly applied make-up, it's easy to believe her when she says she spent three hours getting ready to go out.
     The shimmery blue and silver dress is custom-made, she says, and it's easy to believe that, too, since with the spike heels, Jenny tops out at perhaps 6-foot-7.
     "I'm a bigger girl, I know," she says, smiling radiantly. "I can't go out to a mall—hey, I've got a football player's shoulders."
     So instead, Jenny has come here, to a banquet hall on the Northwest Side of Chicago, where the city's tiny, secretive transvestite community is having one of its many regular social functions. . .   
                           —May 24, 1992 

On the idea of gay history:    

     Almost any library worthy of the name has more books. Almost any mid-size business archive probably has more papers. And even the cash-starved Chicago Public Library is open longer hours.
     But the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, a large storefront on North Paulina Street, is important not for the number of volumes on its shelves, nor the limited number of gray archival boxes stacked in back, nor its severely restricted hours of operation.
     Gerber/Hart is the only gay and lesbian library and archives between the coasts, and the largest outside of San Francisco and New York. With the first national lesbian and gay history month scheduled for October, Gerber/Hart is the symbol of an idea that still is upsetting to some quarters of society—that gays and lesbians have a distinct culture, a history that is worthy of study, preservation and understanding.
     "We're here to serve a unique need," said Kevin Boyer, board president of Gerber/Hart. "We provide a safe space for people who want look at materials that are gay- and lesbian-related. Our patrons know they are not going to have to ask a presumably heterosexual librarian for The Joy of Gay Sex."
     The library represents a growing consensus that gay history is an area worthy of serious study - a view that took years to emerge.
                  —Aug. 28, 1994

Pride Parade, 2011 (Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze)
On the first meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce: 
    Wednesday's chamber of commerce meeting had everything you would expect. A lot of small talk and much exchanging of business cards. An audio-visual presentation. Repeated mention of the need for vigorous participation in committees. The group was mostly men, as is typical at chamber functions.
     There were a few things you might not expect. The food spread was more than the usual pretzels. There were mushrooms stuffed with crab and little boiled potatoes and fresh strawberries. And the men at the meeting sometimes exchanged greetings by kissing each other on the lips, a definite clue that this wasn't a chamber of commerce meeting in Peoria.
    Rather, it was the founding meeting of the Chicago Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, held upstairs at Ann Sather's Restaurant on Belmont Avenue.
     Chambers of commerce are in every town in America worthy of the name. The chamber is a fine, basic, American institution which has done much to foster our country's thriving business climate. Just the name—"Chamber of Commerce"—summons up visions of barber shops and hardware stores and firm handshakes.
     And I doubt that many chamber members in America would deny gay Chicago business owners the right of banding together to further their interests. Few businessmen would argue that a gay chamber in Chicago somehow poisons the institution of chamberhood and thus diminishes the sacred commercial spirit of straight chambers in Minneapolis and Akron and Des Moines.
    So why is it, then, that we must go through some sort of national catharsis over whether gay people can be permitted to marry legally?
                —March 31, 1996

On the Gay Pride Parade:

    At Belmont, the parade route was lined with gay men, many naked to the waist, as if ordered up by the dozen from Central Casting. I walked along the parade route for an hour before I saw somebody who stood out. He was a tall man, also shirtless, and as I passed I noticed he had "HIV +" branded on his back in letters almost 2 inches high.
      I wanted to talk to him, but was hesitant. He presented a fearsome image—entirely bald, with a long braided goatee.
      Taking up a position behind him, I pondered my approach:
     "Excuse me, sir, but I noticed your brand. . . ."
     "Quite a brand there, my good fellow!"
      Working up courage gave me a chance to inventory his body markings. An array of multicolored biological hazard warning signs—those circular, thorned symbols—beginning on the side of his neck and cascading down his right arm. A phrase in Greek across his lower back. On his left leg, snakes.
      After a few minutes, I went over and inquired about his decorations.
     "It goes back to testing HIV positive," said the man, Brian Short, 40, who lives in the South Loop and turned out—as outwardly fierce people so often do—to be niceness itself. "I was tired of being ashamed of that and wanted to find a different way to express it."
              —July 2, 1997
On a Methodist minister being "tried" for performing a gay marriage ceremony.
     The Methodist Church is holding a trial in a few months to see if the minister at the Broadway United Methodist Church should be booted out of the clergy for performing a rite marrying a gay couple.
     The immediate reason—it's against the Bible—grows pale the more you look at it. Many things are banned in the Bible, from dishonoring your parents to eating lobster. Going hammer and tongs after gays, the way organized religion feels compelled to do, seems awfully selective. Why boot out just gays, and the ministers who unite them, and not, say, adulterers? Why not those who swear? They're banned, too.
     I suppose the quick answer is that gays are targeted because they can be. The Methodists can't very well toss out a minister for marrying an interracial couple, or a Methodist and a Baptist, or a liar and a thief. Gays are one of the few subgroups left that can be openly persecuted. The awning of law and custom we've built up doesn't quite cover them yet, and certain people are horrified at the thought that it someday might. Who would be left to openly loathe?
     Part of it is that the rest of society is so quiet when gays are persecuted. Yes, we cluck our tongues when young gay men are brutally murdered, as if to say, `Well, we don't want to kill them now, do we?" But the fear of being labeled gay is so strong that it is easier to be silent or look away.
    Let me get this straight: God cares about our sexuality, but not about our moral courage. Right . . .            
                  —Nov. 27, 1998

On Jews and gay marriage:

     A few years back, I noticed, to my surprise, that a Jewish congregation meets at the end of my block. It is made up entirely of gay people, but the convenient location dwarfed any scruple we might have had at mingling with such an unorthodox—so to speak—group. We signed up for High Holy Day services.
     While I wasn't worried about praying with gays—I didn't worry that I would catch it—I did worry what they'd think of us. We would be in the minority. Breeders, with our little baby. I expected to be scorned. We sat in the back row, and every time our baby cried I rushed him out.
     The third or fourth time this happened, I sprang to my feet, and was halfway out the door when the rabbi stopped in mid-sentence.
     "You know," he told the congregation, "when I was growing up, I loved to hear the sound of the babies at the back of the synagogue. It's nice to hear it again."
     I stopped cold, necktie under my ear, sweat on my brow, howling baby squirming in my arms. I looked around. And people were smiling back at me. They were not disturbed to find this unexpected straight family in their midst. They were pleased.
     I thought of that moment this week, when the main organization of reform Judaism endorsed the performance of homosexual unions. I was glad we were returning the favor; it seems clear that the main result will be a number of people who otherwise would be ostracized at a moment of personal happiness will, instead, find a measure of acceptance. 
              —April 4, 2000

On "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy:" 
     It seemed to suggest that all gay men were fungible sources of fashion wisdom and that any random group would do. There, beneath all the Mod Squad hipness of "Queer Eye," crouches a rather ugly stereotype—that gay men are somehow snappier than straight men, better dressers, better decorators, knowing connoisseurs.
Jon-Henri Damski
    "Well, aren't they?" I thought, and struggled to name a gay man who wasn't rather better decked out than us straight boys. That's when Jon-Henri Damski wandered into mind, looking, as he always did, like he slept in a hallway in the Belair Hotel, the fleabag on Diversey where he lived (in a room).
    As much as "Queer Eye" is lauded as a breakthrough of unabashed gayness into mainstream TV (as opposed to "Queer as Folk" which was more of a cult hit), it will be someday seen as an offensive relic, like those salt and pepper shakers of grinning, red-lipped black boys holding watermelons.
    "Queer Eye" will eventually be viewed the way we would see a 1940s radio show called "Dance Time with the Darkies." 
                  —Oct. 10, 2003

On an ancient pagan tradition: opposing gay marriage:
    'I have a ceremony to attend," lisps one of Juvenal's loathed fellow Romans, more than 1,900 years ago. "At dawn tomorrow in the Quirinal valley."
    "What is the occasion?" chirps his dainty pal.
    "No need to ask," says the first. "A friend is taking to himself a husband; quite a small affair." And off they trot to the ceremony.
     Like a good many people, apparently, Juvenal hated gays—he hated lots of things, but had a special hate for homosexuals.
    That is the beauty of the classics. They remind us that the issues we tie ourselves into a knot about, and consider evidence of our own fallen state, are really the evergreen issues of history, only we don't know it because we're too busy trying to shove our religious dogma down strangers' throats.
    Homosexuality was open and tolerated in Rome, and, perhaps for that reason, Juvenal can barely wait to launch into them in his Satires—a quick introduction damning the clatter and corruption of the empire and then, boom, the entire second satire, a rant against gays for their effeminacy, their brazenness, and the very existence of guys such as Gracchus, the former priest of Mars, who has the audacity to actually marry somebody, who "decks himself out in a bridal veil" and weds in a little ceremony.
    Anything familiar here? The similarities are quite stunning. Grumpy old Juvenal—the patron saint of crusty pundits—ridicules the short crew cuts of these queers, "their hair shorter than their eyebrows," and presciently predicts our exact situation regarding gay marriage.
    "Yes," he writes. "And if we only live long enough, we shall see these things done openly: People will wish to see them reported among the news of the day."  
           —Feb. 16, 2004

  From a column about Kraft Foods being pressured for sponsoring the Gay Games:
    Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is great. My boys love it; they prefer Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to homemade. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is inexpensive, and easy to prepare, and I admit that I slyly withhold a few tablespoons in the pot when I'm doling out lunchtime bowlfuls so I can savor a bit of its warm cheesy goodness myself. I believe you should buy lots of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
     Normally, I'd keep that burst of enthusiasm to myself. But I read that the usual gang of faith-based hate groups are pressuring Kraft because of its sponsorship of Chicago's 2005 Gay Games—perhaps acting under the notion that gays participating in athletic events somehow ruin the idea of sport, the way they wreck marriage. The groups are threatening a boycott. 
     That's their right. But what is the opposite of a boycott? A buyup? Seeing how Kraft, in a rare show of corporate courage, is standing up to these bullies and sticking with their sponsorship, I suggest those who agree with Kraft have a duty to show our approval by buying Kraft products. The Gay Pride Parade is just around the corner, and I would suggest that those holding parties whip up a batch of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese—it really is good, sort of. Or set out a brick of Velveeta, in silent tribute. You don't have to eat it.
                                                                                                      —May 25, 2005

From a column on why a separate Chicago high school for gay students is a bad idea:
     Late Tuesday, backers of the city's first high school catering to gay and lesbian students withdrew their proposal for the time being. Good. The special school is a bad idea, and not just because the name—"The Social Justice Solidarity High School"—sounds like something Kim Il Jong would establish in Pyongyang.
     There is no question that gay students—or students whose classmates suspect they are gay—can find their lives made living hells by their brutish peers. But is the solution really to isolate them for their own safety? Isn't that sort of punishing the victims? Don't we have a Plan B—say, teaching students not to torture those different from themselves? Just an idea. It isn't as if the issue is limited to gay students.
    Even if a homosexual haven solved the problem at hand, would one  school be enough for the job? The CPS surveyed high school students about their sexuality, and a whopping 9 percent said they were gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure. CPS chief Arne Duncan thinks the true number might be even higher.
     That's a lot of students—as many as 10,000, by my count. Too many for one rainbow reserve, or whatever you call it. Are we doing this because a special school is really the best solution, or because rounding up the nonconformists and sticking them somewhere out of sight—the Oubliette Option—is a hallowed public school tradition?
    But heck, if the CPS is going to create a gay gulag, at least come up with a decent name—the Oscar Wilde High School and Sanctuary from the Frequent Cruelties of Life, or something.      
                               —Nov. 19, 2008

From a column about gay Chicago cops hosting a global convention for LGBT law enforcement officers:

     When I attended GOAL's final meeting for the conference at the Town Hall station last week, I expected something quiet, maybe even covert: a handful of determined officers grimly planning in hostile territory.
     Instead, there were two dozen off-duty cops, in shorts and T-shirts, young, old, men, women, transgender. They were packing heat, wearing badges, eating cookies, laughing and going over last-minute preparations—tickets sold, hats designed, posters printed.
     "This has been an incredible two years of work and planning," Off. J. Jamie Richardson said. "This is a very significant, historic moment. This is a huge step. I can't believe the police department agreed to do this"—"this" meaning take part in the conference, which is drawing 400 officers from around the globe.
     The conference began Tuesday evening—a reception with Mayor Daley—and runs through Sunday's Pride Parade. Sessions include mainstream topics such as "Effects of the Taser" and "Terrorism Awareness," and gay-specific topics, such as sexual-orientation hate crime, same-sex pensions and "Transgender Issues Within Law Enforcement," featuring a presentation by South Elgin Deputy Chief A.J. Moore, the highest-ranking transgender officer in Illinois. (CPD has four transgender officers, Richardson said).
     To be honest, I felt behind the times—this wasn't the CPD as I understood it to be. It's a common misperception.
     "Many people think of the Chicago Police Department as being one of the last bastions of homophobia in the city and that's just not true," said Bill Greaves, the city's liaison to the gay community. "They would be surprised at how the department has improved over the past 10 years."     
                              — June 23, 2010

     From a column explaining how Christianity—and not tolerating gays—toppled the Roman Empire.   
    Ignorance is the great engine of human misery, the fertile  field where its fruit, hatred, grows in all its awful forms, from  the first human, crouching on a dark savannah, screeching terrified defiance at a shape silhouetted on the horizon, to Rep. Ronald  Stephens, rising to his feet in the Illinois House, blaming "open homosexuality" for the fall of Rome."If you look at the sociological history of societies that have failed," said Stephens (R-Greenville), "what are some of the  commonalities? One of those is that open homosexuality becomes accepted."
     A common idea: Mighty Rome toppled because it allowed those light in the togas to prance unchallenged through the Forum. We're on our way to ruin, too, not because of ascendant China or a collapse of  political discourse, but because we allow gays and lesbians to live their lives with only moderate harassment.
    That's funny. Not ha-ha funny, but ironic funny, and demands we  shine a light down this well of ignorance.
     First, the Roman Empire—even lopping off the first 700 years, from Rome's founding to Julius Caesar—lasted 500 years.
     We should only fall so quickly.
     Second, such a swath of land—the empire stretched from Great  Britain to Egypt—had, over half a millennium, various views  toward homosexuality. Yes, at times Romans would chat about their catamite lovers with an ease strange to our ears. But other times they'd be put to death for it.
     If tolerance didn't topple Rome, what did?          
                —Dec. 3, 2010
 After spending 15 hours watching two mothers raise their four young children for a Mother's Day article:
     Opposition to gay marriage is a religious scruple. And on that level, I accept it. Follow your faith, reject any gay marriages you might be tempted to enter into. I’m with you. It’s a free country.
    However ... it being a free country for you means that it’s a free country for others, too. Shocking, I know. Not only for people who are gay, but for straight people who don’t subscribe to your view of faith. People who realize that our culture’s steady march toward recognizing traditional subhumans as actual individuals with rights, starting with women, then blacks, then people with disabilities, is finally coming around to homosexuals.
     And while your faith screams that this is bad, there’s still nothing in the fact-based world to justify trying impose your view on non-believers. Rep. Joe Walsh, if you recall, made one of the more popular lunges: claiming that gays make bad parents. That isn’t true.
      But even if it were true — are we now not letting people marry based on what kind of parents they’d be? Because meth addicts and senior citizens can marry. Deflating one false argument only leads to the next. Not worse parents? How about tradition? The marriage-is-unchanged-for-millennia argument is also popular, also untrue, and a particularly laughable stab at reasoning. You wouldn’t accept that logic from your doctor. “Calm down — leeches are a medical tradition going back centuries!” You want tradition? Buy a butter churn.
     I believe most people opposing gay marriage are not bigots — they’re just immersed in their own insular worlds and don’t know any better. As I sat in that small house in Skokie, the thought grew: If only those religious folk could see this family living, reading, loving, praying, tickling together, they wouldn’t try to set their faith as a stumbling block before them. That’s inhuman, and it’s changing. Many religious folks have made the leap; the rest will. Or they’ll die off and their kids will. Like science, like most things, religion can be put to good or bad uses. It is our servant, it’ll do what we like, though lots of people pretend it’s the other way around.  
         —May 13, 2012


  1. Great stories Neil! Your continued willingness to point out the LGBT narrative is truly appreciated. You move humanity forward with every word...thanks.

  2. Congratulations! You are a fine representative of all us "friends of the community".

  3. It's obvious why you are a member of the Hall of Fame: You have been the voice of reason for decades! Congratulations!

  4. Neil, Kudos on your selection! I am very touched by your words in general and by your mentioning/remembering our history of conversations going back almost 25 years now. And if Kukla, Fran, and Ollie are not there at the ceremony (ok, Kukla and Ollie, it would be pretty hard for Fran to be there . . . ), I say we walk out! ;-)

  5. And to you, Andrew. I will make overtures regarding springing Kukla and Ollie, but given who their warder is, I'm not optimistic.


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