The founding of Windy City Times was filled with the usual gay drama ...
Pictured #1Jorjet Harper, Tracy Baim and Toni Armstrong Jr. in 2005. Photo by Hal Baim.
#2 The 1986 Windy City Times staff photo, with Tracy Baim and Jeff McCourt front left, followed by Larry Shell, Ben Dreyer, and Bill Burks. Standing, from left: Photographer MJ Murphy, Chris Stryker, Hugh, Steve Alter, Shani, Jorjet Harper ( hidden in back ) , Larry Bommer, Yvonne Zipter, Albert Williams ( hidden ) , Chris Cothran, Jill Burgin, Jon-Henri Damski, and Mel Wilson. #3 Author Jorjet Harper in 1985. #4 Early Outlines staffers Pat Bechdolt and Ann Hageman. #5 Outlines writers Kathy O'Malley and Jorjet Harper. O'Malley died in the early 1990s.
In the Beginning ...
On a sunny September morning 20 years ago, I took the Clark Street bus north to Winnemac to hand in my resignation at the GayLife newspaper office. I didn't even go in—I just slipped it through the mail slot, got back on the bus going in the other direction, and went home to begin writing my first article for Windy City Times, which had not yet published a single issue.
Strictly speaking, I wasn't a GayLife employee so I didn't have to formally resign, but the owners of the new paper had asked anyone who was going to work for them to resign first, to avoid any legal problems. I was a freelancer. I had been writing occasional reviews and interviews for GayLife for about four years. In the year leading up to the GayLife staff's so-called 'mutiny,' I had been doing more writing, and had also begun to help out with the typesetting after Tracy Baim had been promoted to managing editor in the summer of 1985.
It had been a bad summer, in a number of ways. AIDS was, of necessity, becoming more and more of a preoccupation in our lives. In May I had attended my first AIDS funeral—Chicago entertainer Christopher Street, someone I had known from my Open Mic days at His N' Hers bar. He had come down with a cold that turned into pneumonia and died three weeks later. That was typical then; almost as quickly as you heard someone had been diagnosed, he or she was already dead. No cocktails, no nothing. Gay papers and magazines were all speculating with increasing urgency as their obituary sections became noticeably longer, and the tabloids were shouting about the 'Gay Plague'. The scope of the epidemic was just beginning to be realized by the general public. Reports about AIDS at that time were confused and often conflicting. Nobody really knew how contagious it was—only how lethal. Everyone was spooked. That summer, the mainstream media finally began reporting widely about AIDS after actor Rock Hudson died. Many straight people were doubly shocked, because they'd had no idea he was gay.
The GayLife office was long and thin, dusty and funky, with a big old typesetting machine near the back. I remember one afternoon, while I was typesetting, a group of employees had gathered around the small office television to watch a report about AIDS, that announced it was possible that one gay man in five was already infected. To be 'infected' back then was a death sentence. There were five gay men watching the report, including Bob Bearden, GayLife's sales manager. 'My god,' he said, 'If that's true, one of us is going to die.' They all just looked at each other. What could you say? It was chilling.
The events that led to my handing in my resignation on that September morning, however, had nothing to do with AIDS, since I felt that if anything, I needed to be more of an activist, more involved in gay and lesbian rights, at a time when the community was coming more and more under seige. But I do recall that when I went into the scuzzy, rarely cleaned toilet at GayLife, I would wonder how really infectious, how easy to catch, the virus could be. And if I was having such thoughts, the general homophobic public was surely liable to see all gay men as disease-carrying pariahs.
For awhile, before Tracy Baim became editorial assistant in 1984, I had been the only woman writer on the paper—except for someone I'd never met named Mimi O'Shea. Mimi wrote play reviews and interviews that were very 'insider' in tone, gossipy and sometimes, I thought, over-the-top snide. I wondered who she was, and pretty much assumed she was a straight woman who hung around the gay scene. One night a man called me up and introduced himself as GayLife's new entertainment editor, and wanted to chat with me about future writing assignments. His name was Jeff McCourt, he said, 'but you may know me better by my pen name, Mimi O'Shea.' We arranged to meet at the old Parkway diner on Clark Street. Mimi told me I would recognize her at the restaurant by her business suit ( she was coming right from work ) and her beard.
Jeff apparently worked in the Loop as a closeted options trader and moonlighted at night as the vivacious Mimi O'Shea, star reporter. I was surprised to learn that he was Bob Bearden's lover, since his style was the antithesis of Bob's. Bob was calm, soft-spoken, and charming. Jeff was operatic and hyper—but he certainly had a lot of energy. He talked nonstop, hardly letting me get a word in edgewise. He had big ideas for how to improve the entertainment section, he said, and was writing articles in that week's entertainment section not only as Mimi O'Shea but also as Hanz Gunther. He said the Mimi O'Shea name started as 'a kind of joke.' He didn't tell me what the joke was, but I sat there trying to interject a sentence here and there about my concerns as a writer, and managed to get in one or two remarks that seemed to register. I mentioned that I wanted to review the recent biography of Alan Turing. Jeff had never heard of him, but was quite interested when I began telling him about Turing's life, and he said that by all means I should go ahead with it. It soon became clear that Jeff knew nothing at all about lesbian life in Chicago, but that didn't concern me too much, since Tracy had initiated a lesbian section in the paper. I knew she would keep pressure on the guys to remind them that the gay and lesbian community had lesbians in it. Back then, it was a bit of a thorny issue all around.
My Turing story ended up as the lead feature in the entertainment section of the Pride issue. Jeff was effusive in his praise. He said it was the best piece he'd ever seen in GayLife, and 'saved' the entertainment section of the Pride Week issue.
So the grim, ever-expanding AIDS situation aside, I was feeling pretty good about what was going on at GayLife. Jeff was personally rather overbearing, but he liked my writing and I had no complaints about his editing. And as managing editor, Tracy was a little human dynamo, just out of college and filled with seemingly boundless enthusiasm for the gay and lesbian movement and how she could contribute to it as a journalist. I felt that despite her youth, she really knew what she was doing.
There was a lot of gossip floating around after the GayLife 'mutiny' that made everyone into a villain, as if the owner of GayLife was Captain Bligh and the employees were all scofflaws and scoundrels. I don't recall it that way at all. The main issue was not personalities. It was that GayLife was in bad shape financially. Paychecks began bouncing—more and more frequently—and there's nothing that lowers employee loyalty like having to hastily cash a paycheck for fear it will bounce.
Sometime in the late summer I began to hear murmurings from Jeff that he and Bob were negotiating to try to purchase the paper. Jeff was to be the money man, and with Bob's experience in sales and his good reputation in the gay community, this sounded like a potentially good solution to the paper's problems. Then Jeff told me that after reviewing all the finances, he and Bob were thinking of simply starting a new paper. Bob, who was bringing money into the paper only to see his own paychecks bounce, was ready to walk. Tracy—whose paychecks had also been bouncing—trusted and admired Bob, and if he went, so would she. And if Tracy was going to leave GayLife to help start a new paper, I was certainly going to do the same. Jeff came up with the new paper's name: The Windy City Times. He told me he thought it would be best—easier to sell ads to non-gay businesses—if there was nothing 'gay' in the title. I didn't like that—to me it sounded closeted, and I got high on visibility. But I was just a freelancer, after all—and after awhile I warmed to the name.
Despite the ongoing backdrop of the AIDS crisis, it was an exciting time to be a writer of cultural pieces for the gay and lesbian community. I had a lot of new ideas for things to write for Windy City Times that had never occurred to me at GayLife. Being there at the beginning of the new enterprise, I felt more involved. All sorts of exciting topics in feminist, lesbian, and women's writing in general began to emerge for me in this expanded writing horizon, and gay men's literature was, at the time, just at the beginning of an astonishing burst of creativity as well, one that was fascinating to follow.
I did movie reviews, interviews, opinion pieces, all sorts of things. Taking my cue from Mimi O'Shea, I wrote Lyric Opera reviews under the ponderous pseudonym of Johanna Buckingham ( a composite of my two grandmothers' names ) . I did a 10-part series of articles called 'Sappho: Who Was She?' that were later reprinted in expanded form as columns in Hot Wire: Journal of Women's Music and Culture. I pretty much have Tracy to thank for giving me the thumbs up to roam wherever my curiosity about new gay and lesbian cultural territory would take me, and to write about it.
I don't have a copy of the first issue of Windy City Times anymore, but I recall the herculean efforts, the long hours, and the excitement fueled by exhaustion in those initial months, as the paper started to get off the ground. At first, the office was in Jeff and Bob's big condo apartment on Melrose Avenue just off the lake. We had use of typesetting equipment in a Loop office building at Lake and Wabash, where Sarah Craig worked. I had known Sarah from the time she was a co-editor of GayLife, several years earlier; she had since started her own typesetting business with Chris Cothran ( both Chris and Sarah have since died ) , and Tracy had made arrangements with her to use it for Windy City Times. But we could only use the typesetter on nights and weekends, after Sarah was done with her own work. The typesetter was ( like many typesetters in those days ) quirky—it didn't run properly if the room temperature was higher than 60 degrees. Tracy, Toni Armstrong Jr.—who also typeset—and I spent many an evening in this uncomfortable cold, working from late evening until dawn. It isn't easy to typeset with gloves on; my fingers were often numb by the time the pile of articles was all entered into the machine. I remember nights when Tracy and I took turns, one typesetting while the other tried to get an hour or two of sleep on Sarah's office rug.
By November, Jeff and Bob somehow managed to install a typesetter into the empty basement of their condo building. ( Typesetters were huge in those days—maybe the size of three refrigerators stuck together. ) I don't know how they placated their neighbors, and there was a spot of trouble with a city inspector since it was a residential building. I was glad I didn't have to go down to the Loop at midnight anymore, but if anything, it was colder than before, since the basement was unheated and had a broken window. In fact, the door that led to the street was broken off its hinges, and you had to lift the whole door to move it. Imagine trying to type in an unheated basement when it's 8 degrees outside. Were we dedicated or what? Bob reinforced the windows with plastic, and tried to arrange the plastic draperies around the machine to keep the heat in for us—and not incidentally to keep dirt and debris from the basement ceiling from falling on the typesetter. In short, working conditions were less than ideal. But we were idealists, activists on a mission, so we pressed on. Everyone worked really hard, determined that the new paper should succeed.
That October everyone had come down with bad colds that were tough to get rid of, and then the flu season started. Toni and I kept getting cold symptoms whenever we worked at Sarah's office because we had to keep the temperature there so low and we were freezing. Then, in Jeff and Bob's basement, where the huge typesetting machine surrounded you like the flat faces of giant ice cubes, freezing to the touch, a penetrating cold kept leaching into the room. I even brought a small space heater from home, but that couldn't compete with the cold. So just about everybody who was working on the paper got sick from spending extended periods of time in that unhealthful basement atmosphere.
Bob, however, never got better. In November, after I'd had the flu, he asked me what my symptoms had been. Was I unable to hold down food? I said no, I'd just had a temperature, and felt too nauseous to eat much, had a sore throat and a headache and general body aches, and slept a lot. Bob said he'd been having severe diarrhea, throwing up, and shivers. And—though he didn't say this to me then—he'd been having them for over a week. It was at that point the thought first crossed my mind that he might have AIDS ( the term HIV-positive hadn't been invented yet ) , and I began to notice how thin he was, too, much thinner, I thought, than when I'd first met him. He continued to be sick on into December. I saw him now and then in his bathrobe upstairs in the office—where at least it was warm. His face had become gaunt.
By late January, Bob was on a respirator, near death from AIDS. He got better, and worse, and better again. Jeff was a basket case, and Tracy, who was a lot closer to Bob than I was, was devastated. Jeff told me the doctors were somewhat hopeful in Bob's case, because he was the first AIDS patient at Cook County Hospital to ever come off a respirator alive and breathing for himself again. He'd managed to fight off the pneumocystis. Then he developed some other immune-deficiency related problems, including a blood infection.
Well, that left Jeff to do Bob's job. For awhile, Jeff alternated between going out with his attache case to sell ads, and lying in what appeared to be a semi-catatonic state on the livingroom sofa of his apartment, staring at the ceiling. He talked, as usual, with assurance, but it was clear that he was not paying attention at all to the newspaper's daily doings. At one point, as he was lying on the sofa, his face very pale, he asked me—still staring at the ceiling—if I was going to do a review of Margaret Atwood's new book. 'It was in last week's issue,' I said, as kindly as possible.
We struggled on, very demoralized and sad, but gathering new recruits and supporters and advertisers and publishing issues that in my opinion were far better, more comprehensive, more wide-ranging and readable, more balanced in reporting, than GayLife had been. Jill Burgin assumed the sales rep responsibilities. Tracy was running the entertainment section as well as the news. Jon-Henri Damski divided his time between writing his whimsical, philosophical columns and visiting Bob in the hospital.
As it happened, the first actual Windy City Times AIDS death was not Bob Bearden, but our travel writer, Richard Cash, who was a longtime friend of Bob and Jon-Henri's. He went into the hospital to get tests to see if he had AIDS, and died there two weeks later. It was another serious shock to the barely four-month-old newspaper.
Then that spring, Jeff and Tracy negotiated for the 'office' to finally move into an actual office space—in the building behind the Rodde Center on Sheffield—and a new mood, more businesslike, set in. There was far more space, on two floors ( no basement with falling debris and broken windows was a big plus ) , and the paper was finally functioning like an actual business, with more freelancers and staff coming on. At this stage, I remember a lot of arguing and shouting. A lot. At the condo, I think people refrained from shouting a lot, since Bob was sick in the next room. There were no such restrictions now, and tempers were just as frazzled. Well, it wasn't 'just' another newspaper, but a political voice for gay and lesbian rights ( LGBTQ came up a bit later ) and the community, and people had different ideas about what that meant, and different levels of concern, and different opinions of what should be done, and how. We were all pretty much making it up as we went along. I remember one big staff meeting in which Jeff, in a major tantrum over some photography issue, jumped up and down on printed copies of the newspaper. At the time, Bob was still alive, home from the hospital but not capable of returning to work again or of doing much of anything. He mostly stayed in his bedroom at the condo. After a final bout of seizures, Bob died in January 1987—just a year and a half after that AIDS television report we watched at the GayLife office.
By the summer of that year, 1987, many of the staff of Windy City, including Tracy, myself, Jill Burgin and others, were poised to start a new paper yet again, and had another so-called 'mutiny' that was the beginning of Chicago Outlines—the paper that would in 2000 buy the WCT name and revive it—but that, as they say, is another story. In Chicago, the 'gay press wars' have occurred with a kind of internal, predictable logic that is fascinating, really, and I feel privileged to have been part of the growth of the LGBT press in this city, and of the larger LGBT worldwide movement for social equality.
Recently, at the Windy City Times 20th anniversary photo shoot, I was introduced as one of the people who was there at the paper's founding. One of the young writers asked, 'What hasn't changed? What's the same now as it was then?' I made a joke of it, since it seems like just about everything has changed now—the issues are very different, and the everyday technology has been transformed. No more typesetting. No more typing on paper and delivering your article by hand to the office. No more cutting little pieces of photo paper and waxing them by hand onto a layout board. My god, no more white-out correction fluid!
But later I thought about that question more seriously. One thing that has not changed: There is still no cure for AIDS. Twenty years later. Still. No. Cure. No vaccine. Not even on the horizon. In the year of Windy City Times' founding, 12,000 people, mostly gay men, were diagnosed with AIDS—and half of them were already dead. It was a chilling, alarming statistic then—two years before ACT UP was founded, two years before the first AIDS quilt. Today, it's estimated that 14,000 people are becoming infected every day. Even given the agonizing moments, the losses of friends we sustained, the arguing and demonstrating and successful political, social, and cultural work that we poured our time and our souls into back then—I have to say that in hindsight, the future for all of us, gay and straight together, looks considerably more challenging than the past.
Happy 20th Anniversary, Windy City Times, and congratulations to you, Tracy. It's a paper I think Bob Bearden would be proud of.
Jorjet Harper is the author of Lesbomania and Tales From the Dyke Side.