Lambda Legal marked its 50th anniversary with The Bon Foster Civil Rights Celebration May 19 at the Art Institute of Chicago. The event honored Windy City Times Owner and Co-Founder Tracy Baim.
The celebration was named after Chicago attorney and civil rights activist Robert Bonvoulier "Bon" Foster, who died in 1991 from complications due to AIDS. Foster gave Lambda Legal a large sum of money specifically to open a regional office in Chicago.
Guests were greeted with an opening reception featuring cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and a five-piece jazz performance by Sun Ensemble. Ahead of the speeches, a video was shown chronicling the work Lambda Legal has done over the past five decades. The video ended with the message that Lambda Legal has had and will continue to have an "unprecedented past, unstoppable future."
Event co-chairs Chappell Communications Group Founder and Principal and media commentator Terrence Chappell, Feeding America Vice President of Development Daniel Nisbet and Lambda Legal National Board of Directors Executive Committee member and Ice Miller law partner Diane Bell welcomed the packed house to the event.
Chappell spoke about how, especially in the past year, the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community are at risk, and "they are really coming for all of us." Nisbet called on supporters to continue funding Lambda Legal's "vital mission."
Bell recalled how Lambda Legal "had to sue the state of New York in order to be recognized as a not-for-profit, and for its very right to exist." She added that what started as a small group of lawyers in New York City has grown to a nationwide team fighting for LGBTQ+ rights and the rights of everyone living with HIV. Bell said that their mission is all about "bringing down injustice … "representing love in the face of hate and the values of a free and equal democracy."
State of Illinois Human Rights Commission Chair and former Lambda Legal Midwest Regional Director Mona Noriega introduced Baim. She added that, "We cannot assume our safety nor can we assume legal precedent that establishes and protects our rights are guaranteed."
Noriega reminded attendees of how important it is to "have a press that covers issues that are relevant to our lives," which was the reason Lambda Legal recognized Baim for her decades of work as a journalist. She went on to chronicle Baim's journalism career, which began at the age of 10 with a family newsletter and continued throughout her school years, to her first paid reporter job at GayLife newspaper after Baim graduated from college. Noriega highlighted Baim's co-founding of this publication, starting other publications and, more recently, rescuing The Chicago Reader from going out of business and founding the Chicago Independent Media Alliance, among other non-journalism endeavors over the years.
"As we witness the killing or jailing of journalists trying to report world events, we must cherish and protect a free press," said Noriega. "We must thank and honor those who report on, find value and validate our queer lives, and we must especially protect the individual journalists who take the hits, who might miss out on their social and family life covering a news story, who stay up nights writing to meet a deadline, and [work] even harder to endure are all the criticisms and even threats to their lives. Yup, Tracy has done all of it. She has consistently reported on the beauty and tragedies of life and of queer life and that is why today we honor her at this year's Bon Foster Civil Rights Celebration."
Baim was greeted with cheers and a standing ovation. She called this honor "amazing" and recalled her many decades of covering the work Lambda Legal has done for the community.
"I have seen what a critical building block it has been to our movement," said Baim. "Without Lambda Legal, including the Midwest office launched by Mona and … the amazing Pat Logue, our movement … might have just collapsed. So, thank you for honoring me with this award. I was especially excited because I covered the early days of the Midwest Office before there was an actual office.
"I covered the fight to have access for a gay contingent in the Bud Billiken Parade, from the press conference outside of the Chicago Defender, where my mother had worked decades before, to marching at the head of the contingent taking photos and feeling the love of the people on the sidelines. It was a great risk for those who marched, but 98% of the people were actually very supportive.
"It has been an honor to document this community, and the work of Lambda Legal, from my days at GayLife, to Windy City Times, Outlines, Blacklines and En La Vida, Windy City Radio and again when I got Windy City Times out of foster care."
Baim spoke about her beginnings as an editorial assistant at GayLife in June 1984, where she immediately covered the AIDS (then known as Gay Related Immune Deficiency) crisis, serial killers who were targeting the gay community, hate crimes, trans rights and lesbian culture; she said, "Everything old is new again."
She added that "as an openly gay journalist, my options were pretty limited. There were very few openly gay reporters in the country. Randy Shilts is the only one I could name [back then]. But I did find a home, and that was at GayLife. The mainstream did not matter to me, even though my parents were [working] in [the mainstream press]. It wasn't for me. What mattered was covering this community. The good and bad, the culture and sports, the murders and looming pandemic … It was all worth it. There was never a dull day, and I knew early on how important these stories were to get down. Because almost no one else was covering our community the way the gay press was."
Baim said the next chapter of her professional life will be focused on her archives, which she will be turning into books and other forms of media. She added that this is now her "life's work, to collect it all for the next generation who is being censored in other places.
"Being a journalist gives me such an incredible cat-bird seat to this community. It's really the best seat in the house … And that's why I can say with complete confidence that this award means something special to anyone who has received it, including me. Because without Lambda Legal, and Lambda Legal Midwest's office … our family feuds would have probably been worse."
Baim ended her speech with a request for the audience to sing to the lyrics of The Rainbow Connection which they did and then gave her another standing ovation.
Following Baim's remarks, Lambda Legal Director of Constitutional Litigation Camilla Taylor spoke about the organization's past, present and future, including fighting in court against the current onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ laws being passed in GOP-controlled states. Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings said that it is more important than ever to support the work the organization does in the courts, because there are over 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have been introduced in 46 states this calendar year.
Additionally, Lambda Legal's Board Chair Lauren Mutti, Illinois Department of Human Rights Director and former Lambda Legal Midwest Regional Director Jim Bennett and former Lambda Legal Midwest Regional Director and attorney Christopher Clark also spoke.
To close out the festivities, DJ Rae Chardonnay spun tunes, and Lilith Towers regaled the guests with a Drag Queen Story Hour, where she read from the original work, The Tale of Lambda Legal.
See lambdalegal.org/ .