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Activist, former WCT employee John Pennycuff dies
Visitation, Thursday, Feb. 2, 3-9 pm, Jaeger Funeral Home
by Tracy Baim, Windy City Times

This article shared 12790 times since Sun Jan 29, 2012
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He was a gentle giant, a white man who crossed racial, geographic, ethnic and gender boundaries to help build a Chicago community for all LGBTs. John Pennycuff, 47, died Jan. 29 after a two-month illness.

Pennycuff's husband, Robert Castillo, was both his partner in life and his partner in hundreds of protests, starting soon after the couple met at a health club March 19, 1991. They would have marked 21 years together next month. Castillo is joined in his grief by hundreds of friends, colleague and family members.

There will be a one-day visitation, Thursday, Feb. 2, 3-9 pm, Jaeger Funeral Home, 3526 N. Cicero, 773-545-1320. Donations to the costs of the funeral would be appreciated. Please email for details on where to send donations.

In a 2007 video interview for, Pennycuff was asked what he felt his legacy would be. "I did what I could with what I had," he wrote. "Getting married was a high point of our lives!!" He said defining moments in his life, in addition to getting married, were "taking Robert to my family reunion, coming out to my family" and having a long-term relationship.

Most people expressed shock and great sadness at the loss of Pennycuff, 6'2" with blue eyes, a warm smile, big laugh, and always a strong commitment to the rights of all people.

Pennycuff served for many years on the Chicago Commission on Human Relations Mayor's Advisory Council on LGBT Issues, was a member of Queer Nation Chicago, was office manager of Windy City Media Group ( publishers of Windy City Times ) for several years, had worked for the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce and for 35th Ward Ald. Rey Colon. He was also a volunteer in ACT UP, the Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition, Equal Marriage NOW, the Coalition Against Bashing, and many other groups. He donated to many organizations and political campaigns.

In 2003, Pennycuff was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. He used the occasion to hijack the microphone and push for a $1 million increase in city HIV/AIDS funding. Prior to the induction, he had also protested the event—a rare "triple" in activism: protesting outside, speaking out inside, and shaking the mayor's hand as he received his crystal award.

In front of Mayor Richard Daley, Pennycuff stated: "Last Wednesday, the Mayor released his proposed budget for 2004. It was at that time that many of us were shocked to learn that, despite intense lobbying by AIDS advocates for a $1 million increase in HIV-prevention funds, the city was proposing an increase of a mere $100,000. I'm here tonight to give you several reasons why $100,000 is not enough!!" He listed several points, including that more than 11,000 people in Chicago had died of AIDS. And because African Americans alone account for 65% of recently diagnosed adult AIDS cases and 61% of recently diagnosed adult HIV cases.

The couple also pushed hard for transgender inclusion in city and county laws. For one of Mayor Daley's Pride Receptions they made and handed out 500 buttons stating "I support the Gender Identity Amendment." Their years-long efforts paid off. In November, 2002, the City Council added gender-identity protections to the city's Human Rights and Fair Housing ordinances. As Windy City Times reported at the time: "Members of It's Time, Illinois ( now the Illinois Gender Advocates ) , Equality Illinois, and ACGLI all attended the City Council vote. IGA had worked on the measure for seven years. ACGLI's Robert Castillo was particularly pointed out for his work on the measure. Castillo and his partner John Pennycuff were constant advocates for the amendment."

From 1992-2000, as a member of Queer Nation/Chicago, Pennycuff helped to organize anti-violence marches, lobbied for the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance, and marched with gay contingents in Chicago's downtown St. Patrick's Day Parade. He also lobbied for increased housing for people with HIV/AIDS. He showed up to support African American LGBTs marching in the South Side Bud Billiken Parade.

Pennycuff and Castillo were nearly inseparable, often holding up opposite sides of Queer Nation and other banners.

In 1995, Pennycuff joined the city's Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues' Advocacy Committee ( which was renamed Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues ) . He later became a full member of ACLGBTI, which was shut down last year as several councils were combined into one. Pennycuff had stepped down from the committee earlier in 2011, and he was too ill to attend the last meeting of the group in December 2011.

In February 2004, Pennycuff and Castillo were among the same-sex couples who traveled to San Francisco to be among the first few thousand same-sex couples married in the United States. They waited in line from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., when City Hall stopped issuing licenses for the weekend. They returned and got married March 5; however, a decision by the California Supreme Court nullified their marriage. They remarried in San Francisco June 27, 2008—and their marriage is among about 18,000 in legal limbo as the battle against anti-gay Prop 8 winds its way through the courts.

"The marriages were the proudest moments of my life," Castillo said. "Especially the first time, during the 'Winter of Love' in San Francisco," where Mayor Gavin Newsom married gay and lesbian couples.

"When John and Robert were married in San Francisco [ in 2008 ] they returned to Chicago to lead the Chicago Gay Pride Parade," remembered photographer Israel Wright. "What an exciting time to finally see our fellow comrades celebrating such a joyous occasion."

The couple traveled to San Francisco again in 2009 to witness first-hand part of the Prop 8 trial.

Pennycuff and Castillo were first in line when Cook County started its domestic partnership registry Oct. 1, 2003. They took turns waiting starting at midnight, and at 8:30 a.m. they became the first gay couple to have their relationship validated by Cook County government. Cook County Clerk David Orr issued the historic certificate. Pennycuff and Castillo carried a photo taken by Nightlines ( now Nightspots ) more than 10 earlier when they were part of a marriage protest at the same building.

They protested many times for marriage rights. On. Feb. 11, 2006, they were among couples trying to get a marriage license from the Cook County Marriage License Bureau. "Thank you for providing disappointment to us and other loving same-sex couples who wish to marry," Castillo said at the time. "Thank you for allowing the County Clerk to use you to turn away your brothers and sisters. Thank you for serving as a reminder why we must continue to fight for marriage equality."

On June 2, 2011, they were among the few dozen couples who were united in a public civil union ceremony at Chicago's Millennium Park. Judge Patricia Logue officiated at their union.

The couple's activism ran deep enough to cause them to get them arrested for their cause, including for dancing together at Sidelines bar in Harwood Heights in February 1994, soon after the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance passed. Three couples were dancing—two gay male couples and one lesbian. Only the two male couples were arrested. They were nicknamed the "Dancing Queens" during the subsequent trial, the first to use the new law protecting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Lambda Legal represented them in the case. The bar eventually settled out of court, but their high-profile activism had an impact—the bar had to post a non-bias poster and paid a cash settlement.

On Easter Sunday 1993, Queer Nation protested again the Armitage Baptist Church, protesting their anti-choice anti anti-gay positions. A group went to the church to observe. Two Queer Nation members walked up to the pastor, and they were removed from the church. Pennycuff and this reporter were also arrested and held at the jail for a few hours before being released, and all charges were later dropped.

Pennycuff and Castillo took their activism beyond LGBT issues. On March 20, 2003, they were among 850 arrested at the now infamous anti-war demonstration opposing the U.S. government's war on Iraq. The March 26, 2003 Windy City Times reported on their arrests, as well as other LGBT anti-war activism.

"Many of those arrested in a Chicago Police Department roundup of non-violent protesters March 20 were GLBT, including several well-known activists who described an out-of-control police force angry that demonstrators had initially gotten the upper hand," Windy City Times reported. "Among those arrested were John Pennycuff and Robert Castillo, longtime activists who said they were just observing the march. Both were handcuffed behind their backs, forced to stand in paddy wagons to 111th Street, and the jail cells were so crowded people took turns sitting overnight in the jail. Neither Castillo or Pennycuff … were charged."

Both Pennycuff and Castillo were plaintiffs in the civil-rights class-action. Pennycuff was physically injured when his hands were handcuffed so tightly that it caused him swelling and pain. His individual case was settled in 2009. Castillo is one of the class members in the civil-rights class-action, Vodak v. City of Chicago, which is set to go to trial Feb. 21, 2012 at the Dirksen Federal Building.

Pennycuff and Castillo were also active in Logan Square politics. A rainbow flag outside of their previous home was a frequent target of vandals, who burned or ripped down the iconic gay symbol—including after their domestic partnership was registered in 2003, when they received two hate-filled, unsigned letters. "I was shocked at first, I couldn't believe we would get hate mail," Pennycuff told WCT. "This is the first time we have received hate mail in the 12 years we have been activists in the community."

They were active as a couple in local politics, including with the Unity Park Advisory Council, where Pennycuff volunteered—it was a park where he had played as a child. Pennycuff was also appointed a lay speaker in 1999 at Grace United Methodist Church of Logan Square.

Among the protests Pennycuff attended was one against the House of Blues in 2004, when the venue booked anti-gay singer Capleton.

Castillo, distraught at the loss of Pennycuff, fondly remembered his partner honoring his request to sing a Barry Manilow song, "I Am Your Child," in their apartment. "I keep think of him singing that, dancing, his arms swinging at his sides," Castillo said, holding back tears.

The 2003 death of their friend and fellow activist Gerardo Montemayor strongly impacted Pennycuff and Castillo. They wrote an essay in the Aug. 1, 2003 Windy City Times about their memories of him. "He leaves a giant hole to fill and our community may not ever realize how important his work was, but many of us who have had the privilege of knowing and working with Gerardo will make sure that his fire will continue to ignite us," the couple wrote. "Besides being an activist, Gerardo was and will always be our 'sistah.' Sleep well our prince."

Those same words could also reflect the life of John Pennycuff.

On the day Pennycuff died, when the police came to the apartment, there was some confusion, but Castillo said he did not want to make a big deal out of it. He had handed the officers their civil union certificate from the state of Illinois, but one officer still asked who the "next of kin" was. "I said I was his family," Castillo said.

Pennycuff was born in the Logan Square area of Chicago and attended Monroe Elementary and Taft High School. He transferred to, and graduated from, Badger High School in Lake Geneva. He attended classes at Columbia College.

Survivors include his mother Dorothy Ives, sister Tracy Ives, brother Jeff Pennycuff, and many other family members and friends.

A funeral and memorial will be planned. Windy City Times will update as details become more available.


Following are remembrances of John Pennycuff from community members and friends:

William B. Kelley: "John was always a determined advocate for community concerns. Sometimes he also found himself in a peacemaker's role, maybe because of his personality, maybe because of his abiding religious commitment ( he was also active in his United Methodist Church ) . He was always beside Robert Castillo as an ally and spouse. Though his demeanor was quieter, he was as dedicated as Robert to promoting the welfare not only of our sexual-minority population but also of other groups in need of justice. He and Robert, individually and together, have been a force for community empowerment ever since they were in their 20s."

Gary Chichester: "When I first met John and Robert in the '90s, it was a time when I thought activism was non-existent in the youth communities. My mind was quickly changed as I saw their energy and the style of their activism. Their energy not only recharged my desire to create change, but showed the LGBT youth of today the way to go. John will be greatly missed and my heart goes out to his husband, Robert, and his family."

Laura Rissover: "I am deeply saddened at the death of John Pennycuff. He was one-of-a-kind, and his absence leaves a tremendous void in my heart, and the community. Since meeting John at a Queer Nation meeting more than 20 years ago, we have been friends and co-conspirators. It is impossible to tally the evenings we spent together dreaming about possible futures, planning protests and marches, writing press releases and speeches, and hitting the streets to put our convictions into action. Yet, this is not what I remember most about John. Yes, he was always on the front line, hand in hand with his husband Robert. Yes, John was brave and tireless, dedicated to working toward his vision of equality for all people, always. And yet … what I will remember most about John is his soul. John was gentleness and kindness personified. He was a peacemaker. In 20 years, I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone. He was what I aspire to be. John was an optimist, and could bring a little joy into any situation. John and Robert were once arrested for dancing together at a bar in the suburbs. I bailed them out of jail, and although it had been a harrowing experience, John emerged with a shaky smile, shouting movie quotes about being falsely imprisoned. He could finish your sentences for you, ease the tension in a room with his quirky laugh, or fold you into his arms as you mourned together the loss of another friend, too soon, too young. The community has lost an irreplaceable ray of light, Robert has lost his loving husband, and many of us have lost a dear friend. John always said that he did all that he could, with what he had. It is his legacy and challenge to us that we strive to do the same. Be at peace, John. I miss you."

Judge Pat Logue: "The news of John's passing was a shock and made me so, so sad. John was as gentle as a teddy bear but turned fierce as a mama grizzly when it came to standing up for LGBT equality, relationship rights, and many other issues. John grew to become an immovable force for our community and on broader equality issues. He stood side by side with Robert Castillo as formidable political partners and, most importantly, loving husbands to one other. It was my great honor to marry them ( again ) in Millennium Park and represent them for Lambda Legal. I'll never forget the roller coaster ride of the 'Dancing Queens' case—from John and Robert being arrested and jailed for dancing together at a bar and, ohmygosh, sharing a kiss, to the vindication of the civil trial, where we countered the bar's claim of being a 'family values sports bar' by making sure the hearing officer knew the lyrics of the song ( 'Stroking' ) playing during their arrest. We shared many laughs and our work overlapped many other times, the lawyer in me giving a brief shudder and then a broad smile learning of John's most recent adventures for equality, understanding the need for multiple strategies to move forward. My heart goes out to Robert and the rest of John's family circle. Along with so many others, I will miss John and his smile dearly.

Rick Garcia: "The loss of John Pennycuff is a huge loss for the LGBT community in Illinois. As far back as I can remember, John was out, proud and committed to fairness and justice. John never wavered if there was an issue to be addressed—whether a demonstration at the Cardinal's mansion, a City Hall or Cook County Commission meeting or traveling to Springfield to advocate for our community. He was tireless, and a real fighter. He will be sorely missed. But, his legacy lives on in the many successes our community has had because of his tenacity, bravery and commitment. May he rest in peace and may his life be an example to all of us."

Mona Noriega: "As activists we live our lives consistently trying to move the line of acceptance, taking on the task of trying to move society to be more accepting and more loving of who we are. I am in shock at the unexpected loss of a comrade in the struggle for equality. It makes me realize that in community we are more family than we sometimes think. Like family we fight and fuss, over a comment here, a particular tactic there, but despite the fine points of disagreement, we so agree on the larger picture of celebrating who we are and demanding acceptance. Robert has lost his Prince Charming, his soul mate, the man who made him laugh and hope, and with whom he shared dreams and conquests. The community has lost a gentle soul who believed in the goodness of us all. I will miss that very special smile that he flashed at me and the dream we all shared of equality. None of us will forget you."

Israel Wright: "First I want to say goodbye to one of Chicago's treasured soldiers in the pursuit of equality and recognition of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning people. My connection to John and Robert date back far too many years and too many activities to capture in such a short space. We did so many activities together that now it seems so historic and yet happening without much effort. It is hard to imagine a world where John and Robert are not working together to make significant changes in our society. As a photographer for Windy City Media Group I had the opportunity to photograph lots of community events to which John and Robert lent their support. They transcended the racial, economic and ethnic barriers, to make sure we were all aware of changes that were needed to create equality for all of us. If there was a demonstration it was not surprising to look up and see John and Robert holding signs marching along with others John was the quiet man who did so much to make sure we all were treated fairly."

Ed Negron: "Whenever there was a protest or something was being lobbied you could count on John Pennycuff to be there. John was one of the most sincerest, devoted members of the LGBTQ Community. He was a gentle giant."

Joey Mogul: "John was a genuinely kind human being who consistently and tirelessly advocated for the rights of all people, including LGBT people, police brutality survivors, and victims of injustice. He was a treasure and he will be sorely missed by us all."

Beth Kelly: "I was stunned and saddened to learn of John's passing. He was an exemplary activist and I was honored to work with him for several years as a member of the now-defunct Chicago Human Relations Commission's Advisory Council on LGBT Issues. Chicago's LGBT communities, and the city, are diminished by this loss. He will be much missed."

Lori Cannon: "As we approach the 20th anniversary of Danny Sotomayor's death ( 2-5-92 ) , I can't help but reflect on both John's and Robert's deep and abiding affection and respect they both had for Danny, in life and death. John was very public about his feelings on the life, work and activism of Danny. He told me some his favorite cartoons over the years, and I was happy to offer him a collection of copies. It was obvious how tickled he was for he and Roberto to receive them. John showed many kindnesses over the years. I'll always remember him as a humble and selfless sort. His loss is quite a shock. I hope the end was peaceful for him. He and Robert made a memorable team. My deepest condolences go out."

DJ Harry T: "John was a gentle giant that when he and Robert would walk into the room, they just lit up the place, embracing you with a warm smile and big hug. I'm going to miss you so much!"

Jim Darby: "I can't believe that John is gone. He was so young and handsome and one of those people that I expected to be around forever. I'm numb. I first met John and Robert in 1993 at a Memorial service that Chicago Gay Veterans were holding for Allen Schindler. Robert and John said there would be a demonstration to be held at the Federal Building to protest the Navy's cover-up of Allen Schindler's death. We were pleased to be included. And it was the first of many protests and demonstrations that they convinced us to participate in. The Irish Parade was the worst—the marches Against Violence were the best. I was constantly amazed at how this pair could get so many people to come out no matter what they were doing. The protest against the State of Colorado Tourist Office [ to protest Amendment 2, an anti-gay law in that state ] was the most bizarre. They brought a cake with candles up to their 8th-floor office, and lit the candles. The poor secretary thought they were going to throw it in her face and immediately rang for security. We were all escorted out by the police. Such a handsome and perfect pair. The world is just not going to be the same without John."

Pennycuff's 2007 interview with Tracy Baim for the Chicago Gay History Project is online here, under the "Biographies" button:

Also please see a 2003 guest viewpoint in Windy City Times by Pennycuff: Views: $1 Million Increase ... And Nothing Less at the link:—And-Nothing-Less/894.html .

This article shared 12790 times since Sun Jan 29, 2012
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