Imagine inheriting a house and finding a treasure trove of more than 2,000 photos depicting lesbian life in Chicago during the pre-Stonewall era. That's just what happened to case worker Patrick Gourley.
Gourley first met Norma Roos ( Aug. 1919-Dec. 1, 1999 ) and Virginia Kaitchuck ( Nov. 1919-Oct. 18, 2001 ) a little more than 20 years ago. They met because Gourley would forget to close the garage door of his three flat apartment just behind Roos and Kaitchuck's house and Roos would chastise him when he got home.
Over time, Gourley became their friend and caretaker. He would drive Roos to the grocery store since Kaitchuck didn't leave the house and when Roos wasn't able to leave the house Gourley ran all of their errands for them. Gourley didn't meet Kaitchuck at first and the couple wouldn't let him in their house for a long time but that changed as they got to know him. When Gourley came back from a vacation in San Francisco he discovered that Roos and Kaitchuck had been hospitalized and were staying in the same room. Roos never made it out of the hospital and Kaitchuck ended up having her leg amputated but was able to come home before she died.
"I'd done a lot of work in front of the house and the guy I was dating asked if I was getting any sweat equity with all the work I was doing and I said no," said Gourley. "I was encouraged by a lawyer friend to approach Virginia about what would happen to the house since she didn't have any heirs. I asked her how she would feel about bequeathing the house to me and she agreed to give me the house when she died.
"Even though Norma and Virginia had paid off the mortgage it still cost me about $25,000 to get the house in shape. Also, it looked like Norma and Virginia didn't get rid of anything except everyday garbage so the house was hip deep with their stuff. It took me about six or seven months to wade through everything that they owned since they'd lived in the house for decades. Of all the people to inherit their house it was providential that I did because when I found these photos I knew they were important so I saved them."
During a chance meeting between Gourley and filmmaker Michelle Citron at Gerber/Hart Library and Archives ( Gourley was a volunteer at the library ) in the early 2000s, the seeds were sown for two documentaries: Leftovers, a 22-minute film narrated by Citron that tells the story of Roos and Kaitchuck in the last years of their lives juxtaposed against the photos of when they were younger and Lives Visible, which tells the story of Chicago's pre-Stonewall working-class lesbian community. Citron, who also taught at Northwestern University for 28 years and Columbia College for eight years, was at the library doing research for her short film Mixed Greens and asked Gourley if he knew of any women that she could interview who'd been in Chicago during the pre-Stonewall era. Gourley invited Citron over to his house to look at the photos he found of Roos, Kaitchuck and their lesbian friends.
"These photos are an amazing collection. There is no collection like this that we know of that features what life was like for lesbians in the pre-Stonewall era. Norma took these snapshots with her brownie camera over a 40-year time span," said Citron. "I just felt that the first film was so much about them that a second film was needed to give them a context as well as showcasing Chicago's pre-Stonewall working class lesbian community. I spent a year scanning about 80 percent of the photos and during that time Patrick found more photos that I was able to use for my films."
"What was really amazing to me is the photos show Norma and Virginia and the other lesbian couples showing physical affection for each other that cannot be mistaken for anything other than two women in love with each other," said Citron. "They displayed physical affection in public places like the beaches, parks, on front stoops and the bars."
"Although they remained closeted their whole lives they were able to live full lives and not hide who they were," said Gourley.
Both Gourley and Citron noted that Kaitchuck was a bit of a mystery since there wasn't much information about her and she never shared much about her life to Gourley before she died. There was more information about Roos because she was an athlete and very involved in high school. She was voted best athletic girl of her graduating class and was featured in newspaper articles. Roos was a National Bowling Champion and played baseball during WWII with the National Girls Baseball League. She was on the Parichy Bloomers and the Tungsten Sparks teams and they played on Parichy Field where the Eisenhower Expressway Harlem Road exit now sits.
Citron said that Leftovers is currently traveling the film-festival circuit and when it's done it will be added to the Queer Feast website so people have access to it. As for Lives Visible, Citron said it's a work in progress and in order to finish the film she needs to raise $1,500. Lives Visible has already received one grant through the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events called the DCASE Artist Grant.
"I'm at the point now where I'm editing the film but in order to complete it I need what are called finishing costs and that is where the second grant from the 3arts Foundation crowd funding comes in. They match a third of what I raise," said Citron. "If I don't raise at least $5,000 they won't give me the money."
Leftovers is a part of a larger project that Citron has been working on for a decade called Queer Feast and she has made four films each representing a different course in a mealAs American As Apple Pie, Cocktails and Appetizers, Mixed Greens and Leftovers.
As for where Citron got the name Lives Visible, she noted that it comes from Gertrude Stein's famous book called Three Lives. "It's about making these lives visible that have been invisible," said Citron. "That's what these photos are doing. Bringing these women to life again."
"This stuff is so approachable because it's not a history course. It's about these two women living their lives," said Gourley. "It's filling up in a juicy way a part of our history that is unknown to most young people."
"I want people to understand history. I taught a cinema class last year and when I asked my students about Stonewall not even half of them raised their hands. I think it's really important that we understand where we came from," said Citron. "It's honoring our ancestors on some level. I want people to know Norma and Virginia. They were invisible at some level and it's really important historically for them to become visible. I don't want their stories to die just because they aren't here to tell them. Young LGBT people need to know what went on before they were born."
See www.queerfeast.com and www.livesvisible.com for more information. To contribute to Lives Visible, visit www.3arts.org/projects/lives-visible .