One of Chicago's pioneering lesbian activists, Marie J. Kuda, has died at age 76 after complications from multiples illnesses, including heart disease.
Kuda, born Dec. 8, 1939, was inducted into the first class of Chicago's LGBT Hall of Fame in 1991. She began her activism on gay rights in the mid-1960s and continued to work on LGBT rights in the areas of politics, literature and history for the rest of her life.
Kuda's accomplishments were many, and she was one of only a few Chicagoans who were active in the pre-Stonewall gay-rights movement who used her own name. She and William B. Kelley, who died in 2015, joined forces on many projects. They were critical pillars in the movement's fight against police harassment, institutional discrimination, media bias and cultural erasure.
In an era when academics ignored or consciously edited out LGBTs from their work, Kuda was one of a handful of people across the country who would tour with "slide shows" documenting the contribution of LGBTs, especially lesbians, to world history. During the 1970s and 1980s, as literature and film barely scratched the surface of the work of LGBTs, these touring shows provided a critical lifeline for people trying to find out about their past. She presented to hundreds of groups over the years.
"In the years before we had our own published histories, a bunch of us, like Greg Sprague, Tee Corinne, JEB [Joan E. Biren] and Allan Berube, were itinerant storytellers going around with our slide projectors, sharing our history whenever queers were gathered," Kuda had said when asked about those shows.
Kuda was a Renaissance woman, mostly self-taught, so she often felt left behind once the academic world caught up, and people landed well-paid jobs doing the work she had mostly volunteered to do for decades. This was a similar plight faced by many LGBTs who put their hearts and souls into the movement, setting aside traditional career tracks, sacrificing both financially and physically for the movement. She struggled in her later years, and relied on the kindness of friends and strangers for support.
"Marie Kuda was not sweet, but she was kind and loyal," said longtime activist and writer Kathleen Thompson. "She was not an academic, but she was a scholar. She was not a romantic, but she had a gruff sentimentality that softened the edges of her life and those of others. I reconnected with her only recently and I was so looking forward to seeing her again. If I were sitting at a bar with a whiskey in my hand, I'd say, 'They don't make them like Kuda anymore.' And I'd be speaking the truth."
On a personal note, I worked with Kuda since 1984, when I first started as a reporter at GayLife newspaper in Chuck Renslow's office complex in Andersonville. Kuda was a force to be reckoned with, and we often butted heads on stories and her push for perfection in an era of speed. She wrote extensively on a period of gay history from which little original source material existed, and was frustrated by the lack of acknowledgment for her work and her perception that the community did not even care about this history.
Kuda was a key contributor to several of my books on LGBT history, especially Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community and Gay Press, Gay Power. She was also the reason my Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer book ever happened, since she introduced me to Gittings' widow, Kay Lahusen, and recommended me for the project.
When the Chicago History Museum was curating their major LGBT exhibit, they turned to the M. Kuda Archives for photos and other materials. As did WTTW for their Out & Proud in Chicago documentary, among many others who used her research and archive.
While Kuda always felt more comfortable being part of the "gay" community, as she had friends among both men and women, she was also a fierce and feisty lesbian, through and through, and organized major writers conference specifically for lesbians. She had lasting friendships with icons of the lesbian movement, and she made sure her extensive archives, including correspondence with key lesbian movement figures ( Barbara Gittings, Renee Hanover, Pearl Hart, Valerie Taylor, etc. ), were carefully collected and donated to the Kinsey Institute. Much of her lesbian poetry collection and materials from the early Lesbian Writers Conferences were donated to the University of Arizona Poetry Center
The five Lesbian Writers Conferences she organized in 1974 to 1978 provided a link to both writers and readers from across the U.S. They were the first-ever gatherings of lesbian writers in this country. She was proud of that accomplishment, a difficult task in that era, and the posters from those events still hang in the homes of women who proudly attended.
Kuda founded Womanpress on 1974, part of the burgeoning Women In Print movement nationally. She also wrote about LGBT history in chapters and columns for books and newspapers. She wrote for almost every Chicago LGBT media outlet over the years, especially those published from the 1960s-1990s. These included Chicago Gay Pride in 1971, The Paper in 1972, the Chicago Gay Crusader during its entire run from 1973 to 1976, Lavender Woman ( 1971-1976 ), Women in Print Newsletter starting in 1976, the paper knowen as women's news…For a Change in 1977, GayLife ( 1975-1985 ), and then later Gay Chicago, Windy City Times and Outlines newspapers.
She edited and published works that have been essential reading in lesbian literature and scholarship, including Two Women: The Poetry of Jeannette Howard Foster and Valerie Taylor, and Women Loving Women: A Select and Annotated Bibliography of Women Loving Women in Literature, the first annotated lesbian bibliography.
"I am remembering her lesbian history slideshows at Mountain Moving Coffeehouse," said lesbian activist Kathy Munzer. "I also remember her teaching lesbian lit classes at Jane Addams, her pride in producing the first lesbian writers conferences here in Chicagoan extraordinary LGBT historian, archivist and activistsmart, funny, sweet, curmudgeonly, roguish, generousa brilliant butch and legendary storyteller."
"Marie Kuda was the personification of lesbian activism," said Chicago lesbian pioneer Pat McCombs. "She worked tirelessly for the LGBT community and made numerous contributions. Her strong commitment was exhibited by the work she did and the great sacrifices she made for our community. She will be greatly missed and I will always remember her witty personality and straight forwardness. Always keeping it REAL. RIP Marie."
Kuda was an early member of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Library Association, and worked alongside such national activists as Gittings to educate and inform librarians to get 'the lies out of libraries' and to make available bibliographies, reviews and programs which enable the acquisition of books accurately reflecting the spectrum of the gay and lesbian lifestyle, according to her Hall of Fame biography. She served for 16 years on that task force, and she was the first open lesbian to write book reviews for the ALA's Booklist, contributing more than 200 reviews from 1990 to 1994.
Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia cites Kuda as "a leading chronicler of lesbian and gay life, particularly as it unfolded in the Midwest."
"Although it's been years since I've seen her, I was very fond of Marie," said Philadelphia-based gay pioneer John Cunningham. "I met her through Barbara Gittings. Marie always stood ready to help when the American Library Association convention was in Chicago. When I was co-chair of the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia in the early '80s, Tommi Avicolli Mecca and I worked to bring Marie to Philadelphia to present her slide lectures on lesbian history and literature to a packed house. She knew so much and took great joy in sharing her knowledge with others. I loved her sense of humor and her deep caring for our community."
While literature was her primary continuous interest, and she was reading and commenting ( and recommending books to others ) up until her last days, she was also a mover and shaker in Chicago politics.
Her political activism started in the mid-1960s with the Mattachine Midwest group in Chicago. She edited and wrote articles for the group's newsletter, including about police harassment. That newsletter, a precursor to later gay media, was a lifeline for so many people experiencing discrimination at the hands of institutions, and family, in the Chicago area.
A few years ago, Kuda told her Mattachine Midwest ( MM ) story to Sukie de la Croix for his Chicago Whispers column in Windy City Times: "The monthly meetings to put the paper together were held in Valerie Taylor's basement apartment on Surf Street. Various people would come and go dropping off copy and cruising. Bill would type the entire paper and I would help 'set' paper-type for headlines or display and set clip-art for ads received without camera-ready copy. Those were pre-PC days. The Advocate was our first national ad. Most of the local advertising was from bars and bookstores ( porn ) with an occasional birthday or anniversary greeting. The first ads comparable to what is now de rigueur in the back section of any gay paper was Man-to-Man Computer Dating Service. At some point in the afternoon Val would whip up a one-pan meal of some kind usually accompanied by garlic bread. …
"I also volunteered for MM's hot-line. In those paranoid days, callers would get MM's hired answering service who would take their number and then contact whoever was working the hotline that day; and they in turn would return the initial call. Many callers were too frightened to give their numbers and weren't heard from again. Most needing legal or medical referrals persisted. … As I recall the male membership at the time was about 250 [and a few women]. An average of 40 showed up at membership meetings and upwards of 100 at MM-sponsored social events like the opening of the play The Boys in the Band at the then-Studebaker Theatre in the Fine Arts BuildingI never saw so many floor-length furs!"
She served on the City of Chicago's Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues, and on the organizing teams of Gerber/Hart Library, the Tavern Guild of Chicago, Chicago Gay Alliance, the Windy City Athletic Association, Chicago Lesbian Liberation, the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the 47th Ward Gay and Lesbian Association, Chicago's Lesbian Agenda and Moby Dykes. She also helped create a lesbian blood drive during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
As she told de la Croix: "In the early 1970s Bill Kelley and I often found ourselves in the same venue whether questioning then-Governor Walker on his promise of a gay-rights amendment at a downstate accountability session, testifying in St. Louis at Democratic Platform Committee hearings, calling attention to discrimination in the industry before the Illinois Insurance Board, or he in front of the camera, and I planted in the audience as a questioner ( I looked so matronly in my testifying suit ) on such early Chicago talk-TV as the Lee Phillip Show. Mattachine was just one of the hats I wore. As I became more involved with lesbian liberation issues and political action I drifted away from MM, but never from the talented and dedicated people I met there.
"In 1979 after five intense months in San Francisco ( including the murders of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk ), I returned to Chicago and received the fourth Pearl Hart Memorial Plaque from then Mattachine President John PowerMs. Hart had died in1975it was my first and most treasured recognition from the Chicago gay community.
"Someone has to be first, and MM was the first gay-rights organization to effect REAL change in the status of gays in the Chicago community. Henry Gerber's short-lived Society for Human Rights incorporated in Illinois in 1924 gets the title as first, but MM was the fiery nest that incubated the next 25 years of activism in Chicago."
Israel Wright of the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame stated: "We continue to see our gay-rights pioneers reach the end of their lives. In many ways that is the completion of our life cycles which create spaces for new generations to carry on the work of bringing equality to all of us. Today I say goodbye to a strong warrior princess who leaves an indelible mark for the space she occupied during her years with us. Marie Kuda was a person who was quick to share her vast history of experiences growing up in a changing world from oppression to acceptance. I last saw Marie at a Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame induction ceremony with an audience surrounding her to catch any words of wisdom she shared.
"When I think of those who we depended upon to review the content of our manuscripts and other style of writing, two giants always came to mind, William Kelley and Marie Kuda. RIP and hope the two of you are keeping things correct."
Kuda's various paid jobs over the years included working for Commerce Clearing House and Harcourt Brace, in bookstores and as a bookkeeper, and as a short-order cook, a house painter, and a graphic artist. She once worked for DePaul University Library and Northeastern Illinois University and Ravenswood Hospital's Mental Health Clinic.
"She was a little kid in many ways," said Shirley Rissmann, who was partnered with Kuda for 24 of the 26 years they were friends. "She amazed everybody and pissed everybody off and they loved her. She was a force."
Jorjet Harper and Judith Markowitz, writing about Kuda in the book Out and Proud in Chicago, stated: "The part that Kuda has played in the gay movement cannot be calculated solely according to her awards and achievements; her work conveying positive images of our culture has inspired many others, especially lesbians.
"Over the years her listeners have extended her contributions and her conviction that LGBT history was as important to document as to create. She gave many women the courage to come out. She gave gays and lesbians crucial information they didn't even know they needed about the lives of gays and lesbians of the past and, for some, the tools they sought to make sense of their own lives.
"Kuda talked about the links between historical figures in a way that showed not only that gays and lesbians in the past fully understood who they were, but that many of them were well aware of each other.
"Her inspirational slide shows and lectures covering a wide range of topics on lesbian and gay history, in particular, provedsometimes to the astonishment of her audiences that 'we are everywhere' was not just a catchphrase but an actual reality. For the first time, we heard that many of our lesbian foremothers were women of amazing courage, generous heart and breathtaking accomplishment."
Longtime gay businessman and activist Chuck Renslow called Kuda "a pioneer, one of the truly great women of the LGBT movement. I was proud to call her a friend and often called upon her knowledge and talent. I was proud to be inducted into the Hall of Fame with her in 1991, and honored to call her my friend. I really, really liked her."
Kuda graduated from DePaul University.
Survivors include her cousin Harry Nimmo, her companion and dearest friend Marilyn Blackman, her longtime friend Shirley Rissmann, and other friends throughout Chicago and the U.S.
A memorial service is being planned for Saturday, Oct. 29, 2 p.m. at Touche bar, 6412 N Clark St., Chicago. Email email@example.com for more information.