Pictured Lonnie Bunch at the launch of the gay series. Photo by Tracy Baim
Historian, author and educator Lonnie Bunch has been president of the Chicago Historical Society since 2001. In the time that he has been there, he has overseen a number of programs of interest, the latest of which is Out at CHS: Exploring the LGBT Past. In March of 2004, the first presentation in the series, From Cole Porter to Tina Turner to Pansy Division: A History of LGBT Music, was attended by a full house of eager and enthusiastic audience members. Two more programs are scheduled for the coming months. The first is From Drag Balls to Vogue Balls: Gay Dance in African American Society, which will be lead by George Chauncey and Jonathan Jackson, on May 27. The one after that, to be led by Toni Armstrong, Jr. on Sept. 26, is titled Women, Womyn, Grrls, and Kings: Chicago Lesbian Feminist Women's Music Culture Since the 1970s. I spoke with Mr. Bunch about Out at CHS.
Gregg Shapiro: Exploring the LGBT Past is a groundbreaking series for both the Chicago Historical Society and the LGBT community in Chicago. What can you tell me about the genesis of Out at CHS: Exploring the LGBT Past?
Lonnie Bunch: As part of the process of really getting to know Chicago (after accepting this position and moving from D.C.), I made a point of meeting with representatives from all parts of the community, including representatives from the LGBT community. Those early discussions made clear that there was a need in the community for LGBT history to be addressed. It fit with my interest in documenting and talking about the histories of under-represented communities, as a way to make the history of our city and nation as rich, comprehensive, and inclusive as possible. And, quite frankly, it's an audience-building opportunity. So, about 18-20 months ago, along with leadership from the Center on Halsted and the University of Chicago Lesbian and Gay Studies Project, we formed a planning committee, and things took off from there.
GS: I understand that there were 475 people at the event in March. Were you pleased with the attendance? Did the number exceed your expectations?
LB: We were very pleased by the response—we filled the house.
GS: How would you describe the make-up of the audience?
LB: Clearly we were successful in appealing to the LGBT community, which was a key goal for the initiative, but the audience also included members of the Historical Society and people simply interested in a lecture on popular culture.
GS: What type of feedback did you receive regarding the first event?
LB: Very positive, not only from those who attended but also from the foundation community inside and outside the city. We're putting resources behind a strong marketing effort for the first year of programming to build up the audience, and clearly it paid off with strong attendance for the first program. I was also very pleased that a number of attendees became CHS members.
GS: Are there plans for any kind of physical exhibit at CHS to tie in with the Out at CHS programs?
LB: An exhibition is one of the components we're looking at for this multi-year initiative, and we will develop plans with our program partners.
GS: The next two events, 'From Drag Balls to Vogue Balls: Gay Dance in African American Society' and 'Women, Womyn, Grrls, and Kings: Chicago Lesbian Feminist Women's Music Culture Since the 1970s' are to be held in May and September, respectively. Have you started thinking about events for 2005 and beyond?
LB: Yes, the committee has already started to flesh out the 2005 programs, though we won't announce them until this fall. We are fortunate that there is such a rich and in many ways untapped history from which to draw.
GS: Will you be doing any events in conjunction with Gerber/Hart Library and Archives?
LB: Our desire is to work collaboratively with institutions that are part of the LGBT community. Our collecting and exhibition activities will be developed in consultation with them.
GS: Do you feel like by having this program, the Chicago Historical Society has been presented with the opportunity to take advantage of the fact that Chicago has become a center for queer studies with the presence of John D'Emilio, George Chauncey and others?
LB: Our work at CHS is always driven by scholarship. Having access to prominent scholars here in Chicago certainly makes our job a little easier, and enables us to present the strongest possible programs.