Working in the gay press should probably be measured in dog years. Right-wing threats, death and destruction, physical assaults, robberies, property destruction, and that's not to mention the internal struggles within our great rainbow communityit all makes those years seem so much longer.
But while hundreds of reporters have come and gone through the years of gay media in Chicago, I feel very fortunate to have done this since 1984, one month out of journalism school. I had been doing newspapers since I was 10 years old, shadowing my mother, Joy Darrow, when she was managing editor of the Chicago Defender, creating a family newsletter, and then working on grammar-school, high-school and college newspapers, as well as starting my own feminist newsletter in college.
Still, when I graduated with a journalism degree from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in May 1984, I assumed I would never have a career in journalism. I didn't think I could be an out lesbian and a reporter, so I readied myself for a typesetting career supplemented by activism and journalismjust as in college. I packed up my 1966 Mustang with all my college memorabilia and headed home to Chicago.
Within a few weeks, my mom heard about a part-time job at GayLife newspaper, owned by Chuck Renslow. I worked doing typesetting and some writing for it, while also freelancing for the Chicago Tribune, where my stepdad Steve Pratt was a reporter and editor of the City Trib section. And to pay the bills, I was typesetting at night for an advertising firm.
Given the low wages and lousy hours, attrition was a fact of life in the gay press. I moved up from editorial assistant to editor of GayLife in 12 monthsin time for the June 1985 Pride edition.
I was really lucky to graduate when I did. There were a few dozen Chicagoans who had done the heavy lifting of gay journalism in the 1960s and 1970s, into the early 1980s. They started newspapers, radio shows and newsletters. They fought harassment, struggled to pay the bills and somehow created a thriving media world by the time I started at GayLife. My role models included Marie J. Kuda and William B. Kelley, who had reported in the 1960s for the Mattachine Midwest Newsletter, and Toni Armstrong Jr. and Jorjet Harper, who were lesbian journalism pioneers.
By the summer of 1985, there were stirrings at GayLife. When a group left to start Windy City Times, I joined them as founding managing editor. I left again, 18 months later, to start Outlines newspaper, and then added subsequent sister publications ( Nightlines, BLACKlines, En La Vida, Out!, Clout!, Identity, etc. ) over the years. More on that elsewhere in this issue.
Bars, Bombs and Crises
Since there were so few pages in the gay newspapers, and of course no Internet, the power of the press in the 1980s was in choosing just what to cover. It was always a battle for space, and to this day there has never been an edition where we didn't have far too much to print. Making decisions on what to include, whom to cover and what photos to run was always difficult. A lot of what we were writing about was news briefs, AIDS developments and local organization events.
From the start, I was plunged deep into the gay and feminist communities. I covered Mountain Moving Coffeehouse for Womyn and Children, the Pride Parade, sports leagues, gay and lesbian business owners, gay bars and, most importantly, the growing AIDS crisis.
My first bylined cover story for GayLife was June 14, 1984, about a man arrested for placing 24 bombs in Chicago, claiming to be the "North American Central Gay Strike Force Against Public and Police Oppression." He was a lone wolf, likely not gay. But I have to say that I did not even remember that story until recent years, when I started to work on gay history projects, including co-writing and editing Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community and launching www.chicagogayhistory.org . Having worked pretty much seven days a week16-to-18-hour dayson LGBT news and issues for all these years, it's funny how little I remember of some of the actual stories. But the memories come flooding back when I page through those yellowing issues of the papers.
In that same GayLife issue, I also wrote about the closing of the Jane Addams feminist bookstore, after seven years in business. I took photos of the Pride Parade that month and covered the Proud to Run Race.
My first major interview was with ex-Mormon Sonia Johnson, running a third-party race for U.S. president. My interview ran July 12, 1984, and she attacked even Geraldine Ferraro, who was the Democratic vice-presidential pick that year. ( Johnson later came out as a lesbian. )
One article I wrote in the June 20, 1985, issue of GayLife led to a series of articles ( including some at subsequent papers ) on the anti-gay terror striking the University of Chicago and Hyde Park community. A right-wing newspaper, the Chicago Patriot, had been published by students and included offensive remarks about AIDS, gays, investment in South Africa and more. Later, when I worked on related stories about events at the U of C, and actual anti-gay attacks, I received phone calls at home threatening my life if I continued to cover the stories.
Of course, I continued investigating the stories, but I was scared. In later years, we received threats, usually through the mail, including some suspicious powder soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks. We also were robbed of all our computers, suffered additional robberies and even had our windows shot at ( when we were not there ). Our news boxes were vandalized ( dirty diapers being a favorite ) and stolen. I was arrested covering an early-1990s Easter Sunday pro-choice demonstration at a right-wing church on the Northwest Side. The arrest and threats were never a deterrentthey usually were a motivator.
I also wrote a lot of editorials for GayLife and subsequent gay papers, but I was always most comfortable doing news articles and interviews. I did some fluff stories, business profiles, and lots of sports news since I played in the lesbian sports leagues, and I took thousands of photos a year. And because I am a pack rat for history, I have saved almost every press release and photoincluding those by other photographers.
Once I made the move to Windy City Times in September 1985, I felt freer to explore all parts of the LGBT community. I had never felt constrained by GayLife Publisher Chuck Renslow, but Windy City Times soon had a larger advertising base and therefore more space to cover the community. It was all about the space ( no overflow of articles to the Internet yet ).
Even though I was managing editor, at a small paper that means doing everything, including typesetting and delivery. I found that such chores kept me more interested than just doing writing or editing all day. The cover of our first Windy City Times, on Sept. 26, 1985, was my story about the new Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues appointed by Mayor Harold Washington.
The years 1985'87 were among the most devastating and exciting in Chicago's gay community. AIDS was tightening its terrifying grip on our city, slightly delayed from the East and West coasts. We lost some of our own staff ( travel writer Richard Cash was among the first to die ) and one of our WCT founders, Bob Bearden, to AIDS. There was a large push for the city's gay-rights bill; gays were running for office; more gay businesses were opening; sports and culture groups were thriving; new nonprofits were starting; the 1987 March on Washington sparked a huge growth in local groups back in cities such as Chicago; and ACT UP formed to take a no-prisoners approach to fighting for access to a cure for AIDS.
During the 18 months in my first turn as managing editor of Windy City Times, until May 1987, I was so excited and honored to cover this incredible growth in the community. The highlight was a huge downtown rally in July 1986, when all parts of the community came together to push for a city gay-rights bill vote. There was a buzz unlike any I had witnessed earlier. There were people of all races and genders, thousands strong in Daley Center Plaza. I snapped photos, took notes, and had tears in my eyes seeing such community unity. We ran the phone numbers of all 50 aldermen and encouraged readers to call their elected officials.
That unity has rarely shown itself, but when it does, I am a sucker for the emotions of the moment. Yet I am also realistic, and for the most part the community's divisions have been the hardest part to cover. The sexism, racism, ageism, classism and geographic divisions make this city a smoldering pot, not a melting pot. I was called a "cunt" and other names by men threatened by a woman publisher.
Of course, there are also the sinister elements, those who are just gays gone bad, who steal from nonprofits, abuse drugs and alcohol, destroy businesses and organizations, or even in some cases murder. I have covered my share of serial and spree killers within the gay community, those so distorted and so ashamed of their own true selves that they have to kill to cope, from John Wayne Gacy ( who was arrested long before I started, but who was put to death in 1994 ) to Larry Eyler ( who was on the scene when I started at GayLife ) and later Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrew Cunanan.
The high-profile cases of murders and suicide have been especially traumatic to write about. The 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, the murders of numerous transgender, lesbian, bisexual and gay Chicagoans, and the spike in reported LGBT youth suicides are very difficult to report. Windy City Times did a series on youth suicide in 2010, and at that time I wrote about my own suicide attempt while in college. I have infrequently used personal difficulties to relate the stories of our movement, but it is not easy getting personal with the political.
So it is not all parades and galas, bartenders and athletes, that keep this LGBT world spinning. As a journalist, you can get pretty disgusted and burned out with the difficult stories.
But then, what always kept me going was the true heroes of our community, those who were martyred for our movement in deaths due to AIDS, cancer, murder, car crashes or other tragedies, or those who have been able to soldier on, keeping committed to their activism for decades, despite the burnout, despite the bitter community infighting.
There were many other notable moments over my 31 years:
Meeting and interviewing Mayor Harold Washington in 1986 was a highlight for me as a 23-year-old journalist. He was a big teddy bear of a man, warm and fierce at the same time. Covering his re-election was exciting and rewarding. And I even had the guts to ask him about the rumors about his sexuality ( he denied them ).
The push for the city's human-rights ordinance was at a fever pitch in the mid-1980s. The forced ( and failed ) vote under Washington led to heightened community activism, and eventual passage under Mayor Eugene Sawyer in 1988. The work of the Gang of Four and hundreds of other activists and politicians was fantastic to watch and cover. Reporting about the City Council for the final winning vote in 1988, under Mayor Sawyer, was phenomenal.
In 1985, I drove to northern Minnesota to interview Karen Thompson in one of the more tragic stories of the 1980s gay movement. Her partner, Sharon Kowalski, was severely injured in a November 1983 car accident, and Sharon's family won court victories to keep Karen out of her life. This badly affected Sharon's recovery and future health. Interviewing Karen less than two years after the accident, and after Sharon had been moved to a nursing home, was difficult, but her story served as an example to gay couples across the country to get their legal paperwork in order. Sadly, these types of cases still happen.
Attending and covering the 1987, 1993 and 2000 Marches on Washington were life-changing experiences, as was being at the 1994 Stonewall 25 March combined with the Gay Games in New York. Priceless. The 1987 march and related events were especially pivotal and inspiring, including taking photos of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and Chicago attorney Renee Hanover and others being arrested at the U.S. Supreme Court protest.
I witnessed the courage of Black LGBT activists in pushing for inclusion in Chicago's Bud Billiken Parade. Janice Layne recommended applying to be in the parade, and when activists won ( with the help of Lambda Legal ) and subsequently marched in the event, I was happy to walk the route taking photos. This was a wonderful event to cover, and the acceptance from the onlookers brought tears to my eyes. I had watched the parade as a child, because my mom, Joy Darrow, covered the parade for the Chicago Defender.
Starting BLACKlines and En La Vida newspapers brought emotional highlights for me, especially the first-anniversary party for BLACKlines at the DuSable Museum, with my mom mixing the punch. This was just shortly before she died, so it is an important memory for me. Since Joy, as a white woman, had been managing editor of the Defender for eight years, she was especially proud of me for launching BLACKlines. The economics couldn't support those papers after 10 years of publishing, but I was very happy to have been publisher of such important monthly media.
Receiving the 2005 Community Media Workshop's Studs Terkel Award, presented by Terkel himself, was a career highlight. I am also thankful for the other journalism and community awards I have received, including induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame at age 31, and induction in 2014 into the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Hall of Fame and the Chicago Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame.
Being covice chair of the board of Gay Games VII in 2006 was a once-in-a-lifetime experience as an organizer, showcasing Chicago to the worldand breaking even, financially. I think we did our city proud, despite the odds ( and people ) against us. Doing outreach for the Games and speaking in more closeted towns, including Crystal Lake ( where our rowing events were held ), proved educational even to this jaded journalist.
Founding the Chicago Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in 1995 was also an important accomplishment for me. I believe it was the first gay and lesbian business group to use the word "chamber" in its title, and now that has been replicated all over the countryand the world. Around that time I also received the Crain's Chicago Business 40 Under 40 Award, which made me feel accepted beyond the gay community.
The chicagogayhistory.org website has been a labor of love for me, interviewing hundreds of current and former Chicagoans on gay issues. I launched this in 2007, and want to do many moreonly time and funding restrict all it can be. This also got me thinking about writing books on history, and I been lucky to have published my 11th book this year, on Barbara Gittings.
Producing the films Hannah Free, starring Sharon Gless and terrific Chicago actors, and Scrooge & Marley with a host of actorswell, those are experiences I can't even compare to anything else. And they are simply other ways to tell our community's storiesjournalism on the big screen.
Interviewing Barack Obama in 2004 for his U.S. Senate run, and doing a 2010 in-depth book on him, Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage, are certainly high points of my journalism career. Going to the White House for his June 2012 Pride Month reception, and getting a hug and kiss from the president, was amazing.
In recent years, stepping away from journalism to coordinate the March on Springfield for Marriage Equality in 2013, and the LGBTQ Youth Homeless Summit in 2014 have really challenged me. I especially want to focus on community-wide solutions to complex issues that impact not just our community, but beyond. I think we LGBTQs have the talent to lift all boats even more than we already do, so a new group is officially launching next month, Pride Action Tank ( as a project of AIDS Foundation of Chicago ), to help us work better in coalition with one another, and the mainstream.
Journalism Juggling 101
The funny thing for me all these years has been the multiple hats I have had to wear, just to keep doing what I love most: reporting. Some people have criticized the conflicts of interest I have to navigate in doing this, but it was the only path I knew to follow in order to keep doing the work. I decided to co-found Windy City Times at age 22, and run my own paper at age 24 so that I could control my own destinyas a writer. It took me a long time to claim the title of "publisher" at Outlines, even though that was what I wasand nobody else was doing that work. For decades, I have been lucky enough to have shareholders in the paper who have allowed me to make a lot of mistakes as I worked through sleepless nights on a very long learning curve.
So I do sales, writing, editing, photography, delivery, opinion columns, and whatever else it takes to keep Windy City Times visible and thriving.
And I don't take that surviving lightly. Having almost died a few times in my life, I have never taken my days for granted. I also came of age as a gay media reporter when the city had just a few dozen diagnosed cases of AIDS. This was like coming into a war zone, as people on our own staff, and all over the gay community, began to die very quickly, with no end in sight. I was covering the deaths of men ( and some women ) my age or just slightly older. Many of them never received coverage in the mainstream media, so it fell on the gay press to document their lives. That pattern is repeating with the murders of transgender women of color. The mainstream is barely noticing this plague, and we as a community must pressure to help and change this narrative.
Looking back over thousands of obituaries over the years, and hundreds of funerals I attended, it was the greatest honor to cover the war years, as a young person just getting to understand what her "community" was, making sure our community's heroes are not forgotten.
I remember their faces, their smiles, their anger and their tears. And that is what keeps me motivated.
This essay was adapted from Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Community Newspapers in America, edited by Tracy Baim, published in 2012 by Prairie Avenue Productions.