Queer Legacies: Stories from Chicago's LGBTQ Archives is a new book by Gerber/Hart Library and Archives President and University of Illinois at Chicago History and Women's and Gender Studies Professor Emeritus John D'Emilio.
D'Emilio told Windy City Times that "through short, focused stories about an individual, event, organization or issue, I hoped to make the history of Chicago's LGBTQ communities come alive and to emphasize the importance of preserving and sharing widely these pieces of our history."
Focusing on Chicago's LGBTQ history has been important to D'Emilio because it is less visible than what people know about New York City or San Francisco's queer histories. D'Emilio added that he wanted to utilize Gerber/Hart's collections because they are rich and varied.
"The collections range from oral histories to the papers of individuals and organizations stretching over more than half a century," said D'Emilio. "So much of the documentation is not about famous people and headline-making events, but of individuals and groups whose work nonetheless made a difference and helped create the world we live in today. It can be eye-opening and inspiring to read about these lives and moments from the past. Stories like the ones I tell in Queer Legacies can give us a sense of connection to and appreciation for our LGBTQ ancestors."
D'Emilio said so much of what he found during the research process surprised him. He pointed to the story of Robinn Dupree, a "female impersonator" who looked after younger trans women and other performers. Another story involved Merle Markham who only officially came out publicly and joined the lesbian feminist world of the 1970s and 1980s after decades of living "in the closet" with a female partner.
Other surprises included a gay Mass in the 1970s where it seemed like the Catholic Church was on the verge of welcoming LGBTQ people as full members and the long history of police harassment and violence toward the LGBTQ community that included the decade after Stonewall where Chicago police were still raiding bars and arresting people for being queer.
"It was also revealing to discover how far back in time transgender organizing in Chicago goes," said D'Emilio. "The Transvestite Legal Committee and the Transvestite Information Service both existed in the early 1970s."
D'Emilio said he would like to see this book added to the list of resources for the new LGBTQ-inclusive mandated public school curriculum. He added that the 38 short, self-contained essays that span from the 1950s to recent years are perfect for middle and high school students to delve into.
As for what D'Emilio hopes the readers take away from the book, he said it is important for everyone to realize that many people have made a difference "by acting against oppression and for justice and equality for all. And we can be inspired by the lives of individuals that were not headline-making leaders and by campaigns that have disappeared from contemporary memory. I also hope that readers, especially younger readers, come away with an appreciation for how exciting historical research can be.
"The collections at Gerber/Hart are available for anyone to look through and make surprising discoveries. You do not need to be a professional historian or writer to explore and learn from them. I hope readers appreciate, as they move from the earlier essays to those describing more recent events, they learn that so much has changed in the last half century and so much more needs to change."
When asked what his plans are for forthcoming books, D'Emilio said he wants to write a short overview of LGBTQ activism history from the 1950s to the present that can be used in classrooms with the working title Armies of Lovers. Another book will focus on significant episodes in the history and politics of sexuality in Chicago across the 20th century.
Unabridged Books is hosting a Zoom book discussion and Q&A with D'Emilio on Thursday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m.
To register for the event, visit unabridgedbookstore.com/event/queer-legacies-virtual-event-john-demilio-owen-keehnen-and-gerberhart-library-archives .