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  WINDY CITY TIMES

The Passing Parade: Cultural Reporting in an Age of Heroes
by Jorjet Harper
2020-09-30

This article shared 2142 times since Wed Sep 30, 2020
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There are several large plastic storage bins in my office filled with stacks of clippings of articles I wrote for the Chicago gay and lesbian newspapers GayLife, Windy City Times and Outlines during the 1980s and early 1990s, and for other LGBTQI publications, including New York's OutWeek magazine, the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco, Frontiers in Los Angeles, Bay Windows in Boston, the Washington Blade, the Dallas Voice, TWN in Miami, Southern Voice in Atlanta and the Lambda Book Report.

Looking through these articles and photos from decades ago is a weird experience for me. The stories themselves are from a bygone era—with names and faces, events and controversies that seem so distant now, in light of where we are today—and yet I can relive the emotional environment of that time as if I'd been there just yesterday.

It's difficult to convey how exciting—sometimes even thrilling—it was to work in Chicago's gay and lesbian media at that time in U.S. history. To be in the midst of the gay and lesbian cultural renaissance ( or more accurately, naissance, since nothing like it had ever happened before ) that took place in the latter half of the 1980s, to think about it and to report on it, was nothing short of exhilarating. All those passionate discussions we had about the burning issues of the day, and marches, and demonstrations, and kiss-ins! At the same time, the appalling horror of AIDS—the plague that came out of nowhere and snuffed out so many gay lives—cast its shadow over everything and everyone I knew. The highs and lows we experienced were steep, to put it mildly, and sometimes followed so closely on one another that there was hardly room to take a breath in between.

Feminism First

The first newspaper I contributed to in Chicago, after moving here from New York in 1979, was a little feminist periodical called Blazing Star. Blazing Star—named, for some symbolic reason I no longer remember, after the liatris flower—was the project of a group of socialist-leaning lesbian feminists I met sometime in 1980 who were members of a Chicago chapter of a national socialist-feminist organization called the New American Movement ( NAM ). Judy MacLean, Hannah Frisch, Chris Riddiough and Elaine Wessel were the core members of the Blazing Star group. There were quite a few other, more occasional participants whose names I no longer recall, some of whom had nothing to do with NAM and simply wanted to work on a lesbian-feminist newspaper.

We met weekly at each others' apartments, discussed ideas for articles we thought would be good to have in the next issue, and parsed out who among us would write them or who we could tap in the women's community to write on a particular topic. During production time, at a storefront office location, we met with a lesbian ( unfortunately, I don't recall her name, either ) who never offered input on content but donated her time typesetting and laying out the pages for us.

The paper was all-women-written and all-women-produced, and it was one of a number of feisty little lesbian-feminist, we-are-women-hear-us-roar newspapers that appeared and disappeared in the feminist adrenalin surges of the 1970s and early 1980s. In general, these papers communicated news, ideas and literature of various political and social congruences, sometimes not overtly lesbian but usually with a core of lesbian-feminists to spur them on, and were part of the larger Women in Print movement that was politically robust at that time.

Times have definitely changed, but it should be said that when women got together without any participation by men, without being observed by men, it was often profoundly freeing and powerfully creative. Events that took place in "women-only space," produced by women, were, in my opinion, a vital component of the women's liberation movement. In those days, meetings of lesbians interested in print media could be by turns inspiring, enlightening, touching, heart-wrenching, stirring, amusing and goofy—and occasionally lunatic ( not in the good sense of the word ) when they became dominated by strident separatist ideologues.

As one example of many, I remember a Women in Print conference I attended in Madison, Wisconsin, where discussion went on in all seriousness for about an hour on the merits of including in the group's statement the "demand" that public libraries keep all lesbian books and periodicals under lock and key and allow only lesbians to view or borrow them. Questions of how this was to work in practice were fielded: How can librarians determine who is a lesbian? Should there be a separate card catalog as well for these women-only books? If the librarian is a man, can he look at the books? And even: But aren't we "allowing librarians too much power" if they are the gatekeepers of "our" books, unless the librarians are also lesbians? Etc., etc.

The first time I sat through a meeting where this kind of radical posturing was going on, I was astonished, looking around to see if the speakers were tripping; later on at these types of discussions I just gave up expecting any conversation to emerge that had practical consequences, and amused myself doodling in my notebook.

There were also discussions about the best way to spell "women" so as to eliminate the "men" from the latter half of the word—"wimmin," "womyn," "womon" and even something like "wombmoon" were proposed and used in various radical separatist contexts. It was silly, yes, but also an indication of how, in those heady days of second-wave feminism, everything, even orthography, was scrutinized for signs of sexism.

In contrast, the Blazing Star group was very sharp, witty and sincere about effecting social change, and I gravitated towards them. We distributed each issue of Blazing Star ourselves, of course, delivering bundles of papers to designated lesbian locations. I remember that once, in Hannah Frisch's car, we got a flat tire in the rain and had to pull up right outside a gay bar on Clark Street a few blocks north of Fullerton Parkway.

The car was so loaded down with newspapers that we had to take the heavy bundles out of the trunk in order to jack up the tire. Though Blazing Star was an all-women ( code: lesbian ) newspaper, some gay men in Chicago certainly knew of it. Rather than pile all the bundles on the street and ruin papers in the rain, we went into the gay bar to ask if we could stack them there for a bit. Initially, all the men inside ( and it was only men ) were very unfriendly and treated us like intruders—one loudly shouted "Fuck off!" at us—until they saw what newspaper we were delivering. Then they instantly became very nice to us, helping us lug the paper bundles inside, and in minutes three of them had even fixed the tire for us.

I mention this story to illustrate that while there was certainly a cultural energy barrier between many gay men and lesbians in the early 1980s, there was still a very real sense of community that was protective, and a recognition that we were all in it together.

During our weekly Blazing Star meetings, much time was spent discussing the intersections among lesbian liberation, feminism and socialist politics; the latest ideological crisis ( there always was at least one ) inside the lesbian community; and the gossip about which couples had broken up or gotten together. As a newcomer in Chicago, I often had no idea who was being gossiped about, but as a newcomer to the community, I found both the ideological discussions and the trash talk highly educational.

I was a feminist former hippie acid head, not really a revolutionary leftist politico, so I was much more interested in our discussions of gyn/ecology, compulsory heterosexuality and archeological evidence of ancient goddess worship than I was in talking about cultural hegemony, dialectical materialism or the differences between the Leninists and the Trotskyists—but I was willing to hear about Gramsci as long as we also got around to talking about Adrienne Rich.

Even with our enthusiasm, feminist zeal and the latest gossip, it was a shitload of work to put out each new issue all on a volunteer basis, and those who had been at it quite a bit longer than I had were in various stages of burnout or looking to do something different with their politics. Also, as I recall, NAM was becoming reluctant to foot the paper's printing costs. After not too many months, and many discussions that were both heartfelt and heated, the core group of women of Blazing Star decided to stop printing as an independent newspaper and become a section in the city's main gay newspaper, GayLife.

GayLife

Embedding Blazing Star in GayLife worked out pretty well for a time, but the Blazing Star group as a whole disintegrated. Judy MacLean moved to San Francisco ( and went on to write for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Advocate, among other publications ), and Chris Riddiough moved away ( to Washington, D.C., and continued her feminist and socialist activism there ). Attempts to recruit new group members failed. Several of the less-active volunteers, who didn't like the idea of working in any way with "the boys" and were therefore not happy with the "merger" decision, splintered off to create more new and, unfortunately, short-lived women's newspapers.

Soon after Blazing Star "merged" with GayLife, GayLife changed management from Grant Ford—the publisher who had invited Blazing Star into GayLife and who, the group felt, was sincere in his desire to boost lesbian readership of the paper—to Chuck Renslow, the colorful, notorious Chicago leatherman who didn't seem to care one way or another about whether lesbians read Chicago's gay newspaper.

As the Blazing Star section of GayLife imploded, I began to write articles directly for the editor of the paper, Steve Kulieke. He seemed content to let me write about whatever topics interested me—usually some aspect of the growing women's-music movement or the lesbian-feminist movement. For example, I reviewed the groundbreaking book Lesbian Nuns and did a feature article on Mary Daly, music reviews of Ferron and Margie Adam, and an interview with Holly Near ( you can Google these people if you've never heard of them, of course ). I covered women's-music festivals and interviewed local musicians in the Chicago gay and lesbian entertainment scene. I even drew several cartoon strips for the paper.

The first time I wrote an article about a gay man rather than a lesbian, the editor ( by then Steve Kulieke had left for San Francisco, too, and it was Bill Williams ) decided that I was enough of an asset to be paid for my pieces. He offered me $15 an article. Which I took.

I had been writing reviews and interviews for GayLife on and off for three or four years when Tracy Baim, right out of journalism school, became editorial assistant in 1984. When she was promoted to managing editor in the summer of 1985, that shook things up a bit. I started doing more and more writing, and since I could type well, she showed me how to use the typesetter so I could also begin to help out with the typesetting and make more money. She also instituted a new women's section in the paper, Sister Spirit.

Let me explain a bit about production procedures back then. Imagine a newspaper office without a single computer. ( I know—it's hard for me to imagine, too, and I was there. ) Think Mad Men, except everybody is queer and in bluejeans, in a setting that was darkly Dickensian rather than brightly lit Madison Avenue.

As a freelancer, I typed on my electric typewriter at home. When I was satisfied with my often copious rewrites and had a clean typed copy of my story, I took the bus to the GayLife office to drop it off with the editor. The office was located at 222 West Huron Street, behind the Merchandise Mart in the Blazing Star "merger" days, then it moved to the Andersonville neighborhood, just two doors north of Renslow's well-known bathhouse ( lesbian separatist "fundamentalists" thought of it more as a spunk-encrusted patriarchal den of iniquity ) Man's Country on Clark Street.

The editor read the pieces of paper, maybe made some pencil marks on the sheets, and then put them in a bin with other stories. The typesetter retyped by hand every sheet of paper in the bin, on the keyboard of a typesetting machine. This machine was massive—perhaps the size of two refrigerators put together—and it arranged the words in neat columns with justified margins on photographic paper, developed the paper internally in a self-contained "darkroom," and dropped it out of a chute on the side of the machine, still wet with chemicals.

After the photo paper dried, the art director would take these sheets, cut them close-cropped around the text with scissors or a paper cutter, roll a special sticky wax onto the back, and position each one on a large layout sheet. The wax made each little piece of paper sticky but removable, so the arrangement could be changed like puzzle pieces until the designer or art director was happy with it. When ready, each of these layout pasteup sheets would have many such pieces of paper stuck to it, and this would become the original for that printed page when it was taken to the printer. Everything in the newspaper—columns, ads, page numbers, lines that separated the space visually—was laid out by hand.

The GayLife office was long and thin, dusty and funky, with this big old typesetting machine about halfway to the back. I remember that one afternoon, while I was typesetting, a group of employees, all men, were gathered around the small office television to watch a report about AIDS; the report claimed 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 incomprehensible.

I had attended my first AIDS funeral that May—Chicago entertainer Christopher Street, someone I had known from my open-mic guitar-playing days at His n' Hers bar. He had come down with a cold that turned into pneumonia, and he died three weeks later. That was typical then; almost as quickly as you heard someone had been diagnosed, he ( or, much more rarely, 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 general public was just beginning to realize the scope of the epidemic. Reports about AIDS at that time were confusing and often conflicting. Nobody really knew how contagious it was—only how lethal. Everyone was spooked. The mainstream media began reporting widely about AIDS only after actor Rock Hudson died in October 1985. Many straight people were doubly shocked, because they'd had no idea he was gay.

In early 1985, Bob Bearden's lover Jeff McCourt, whose nom de plume was Mimi O'Shea, became GayLife's entertainment editor. We met one evening at the old Parkway diner at Clark and Fullerton to discuss future articles I might write.

Jeff had a closeted day job in downtown Chicago as an options trader; 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. At our meeting, 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 paper 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 now and then about my concerns as a writer, and I 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 by Andrew Hodges. Jeff had never heard of Turing, but was quite interested when I began telling him about Turing's vital importance to British intelligence in World War II and in the history of computer science, and how as a gay man he was later sentenced in court to a "rehabilitation therapy" of estrogen injections that probably led to his suicide. Jeff said by all means I should go ahead with the review. 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 it "saved" the entertainment section of the Pride Week issue.

After that, Jeff was receptive to all my ideas for biographical and cultural features. And as managing editor, Tracy was a little human dynamo, filled with seemingly boundless enthusiasm for the gay and lesbian movement and how she could contribute to it as a journalist. But GayLife was in bad shape financially. Paychecks began bouncing—more and more frequently—and there's nothing that erodes employee loyalty like having to hastily cash a paycheck for fear it will bounce. Sometime in the late summer, Jeff and Bob were in negotiations with Renslow to purchase GayLife. Then Jeff told me that after reviewing all the finances, he and Bob were thinking of simply starting an entirely new paper.

Bob, who was bringing money into the paper as sales manager 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 I trusted and admired Tracy, so if she was going to leave GayLife to help start a new paper, I was onboard with that. The art director, Drew Badanish, came in as the third investor ( with Bob and Jeff ) to start the new paper.

This was the first staff "mutiny" in the so-called Chicago Gay and Lesbian Press Wars. But it wouldn't be the last.

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. But I was just a freelancer and part-time typesetter, after all—and after a while I warmed to the name.

Windy City Times

I no longer have a copy of the first issue of Windy City Times, from September 26, 1985, but I recall the herculean efforts, the long hours, and cycles of excitement and exhaustion during those initial months, as the paper started to get off the ground.

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 on this expanded writing horizon, and gay men's literature was, at the time, just at the beginning of an astonishing burst of creativity, one that was fascinating to follow.

At first, the office was in Jeff and Bob's big condo apartment on Melrose Street just off Lake Michigan. We had use of typesetting equipment in a Loop office building at Lake and Wabash right next to where the el tracks curved, but we could only use it on nights and weekends. This typesetting machine was 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 the office rug. The huge empty office building was creepy enough, but braving the Loop streets to get to a 24-hour hamburger joint for your "lunch" at 4 in the morning meant you had to navigate your way through a seriously scary obstacle course, dodging hookers, pimps, drug addicts, bellicose drunks and gang kids on the prowl, with the frequent loud sounds of smashing glass in the alleyways to keep you frosty. ( In the '80s, the Chicago Loop had not yet been transformed into the evening entertainment hub it is today, with its many office-to-residential building conversions, late-night dining establishments and high-end hotels. )

By that November, Jeff and Bob somehow managed to install a typesetting machine into the empty basement of their condo building. 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 be in the Loop at midnight anymore, but if anything, it was colder than in the creepy office building, 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. The bulky typesetting machine surrounded you like the flat faces of giant ice cubes, freezing to the touch, and a penetrating cold kept leaching into the room. I brought a small space heater from home, and that helped a bit, but it couldn't really compete with the cold. Were we dedicated or just crazy?

Bob reinforced the windows with plastic and tried to arrange 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 typesetting machine. In short, working conditions were less than ideal ( probably, now that I think back on it, a fire hazard, too ). But we were activists on a mission, so we pressed on. Everyone worked really hard, determined that the new paper should succeed.

By November, just about everybody got sick from spending extended periods of time in that unhealthful basement atmosphere. Bob, however, never got better. He became noticeably thinner and continued to be sick into December. I saw him now and then in his bathrobe upstairs in the office part of the condo, where at least it was warm. By late January, he was hospitalized, near death from AIDS, on a respirator. He got better, and worse, and better again. Bob managed to fight off the pneumocystis but then developed some other immunodeficiency-related problems, including a blood infection.

Understandably, Jeff was a basket case, and Tracy, who was a lot closer to Bob than I was, was devastated. But Jeff had to double up and do Bob's job as well as his own. For a while, Jeff alternated between stoically going out with his attache case to sell ads, and lying in what appeared to be a semi-catatonic state on the living-room sofa of their condo, staring at the ceiling. We struggled on, very demoralized and sad, but gathering new recruits and supporters and advertisers.

We published issues that I thought were far better, more comprehensive, more wide-ranging and readable, more balanced in reporting, than GayLife had been. After a while, Jill Burgin assumed the sales rep responsibilities. Drew Badanish continued as art director for a few more months. 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's but that of our travel writer, Richard Cash, who was a longtime friend of Bob and Jon-Henri. 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 4-month-old newspaper.

That spring ( rather miraculously, under the circumstances, and largely because of Tracy's efforts, in my opinion ), Windy City Times was still going ( GayLife had by then gone out of business ) and the "office" finally moved into an actual office space—in the building behind the Rodde Center on Sheffield just north of Belmont. A new mood, more businesslike, set in. There was far more space, on two floors ( having no basement with falling debris or broken windows was also a big plus ), and the paper was finally functioning like an actual business, with more freelancers and staff coming on. I kept on writing and typesetting, but also became the books editor.

At this stage, I remember a lot of arguing and shouting. A lot. At the condo, I think people refrained from shouting since Bob was sick in the next room. There were no such restrictions now, and tempers were just as frazzled.

Every LGBTQI newspaper back then had to figure out how to balance the tension between business practices and advocacy. Windy City Times wasn't "just" another newspaper, but a political voice for gay and lesbian rights and for the community. Different people, both on the staff and in the community, had different ideas about what that political voice 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.

But Jeff became more and more rigid, possessive and dictatorial, though he often clearly didn't know what he was talking about and had little patience for learning about the dynamics of community organizations. I remember one big staff meeting where we were all sitting with our chairs in a circle. Jeff, in a major freakout over some little photographic arrangement he didn't like, leaped into the middle of the circle, threw down several copies of the paper and vigorously stomped up and down on them, screaming all the while, like a child having a tantrum. Everyone, myself included, froze. But I thought to myself, OK, he's under a lot of pressure, but I can't put up with this abusive crap much longer.

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 home. After a final, terrible bout of seizures, Bob died in January 1987; it was just a year and a half after that AIDS television report we watched at the GayLife office.

In the year of Windy City Times' founding, 12,000 people in the U.S., 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 panel was sewn. Today, while thousands of people worldwide still become infected with AIDS every day, it's no longer the science-fiction-made-fact, apocalyptic crisis it was within the LGBTQI community when every week young, otherwise healthy gay men, whom you knew and liked, vanished off the face of the earth from a rampaging disease caused by an as-yet unknown organism.

After Bob's death, Jeff's behavior spun further out of control. He became even more erratic and irrational—insufferable, really. There were murmurs that he had become addicted to cocaine. I don't know if that was true but, judging by the way he was acting, it was certainly plausible.

By the summer of 1987, many of the staff of Windy City Times, including Tracy, myself, Jill Burgin and others, were poised to start a new paper yet again. There was a certain inevitability to this, since Jeff was no longer someone any of us wanted to work for, but we still wanted to do gay and lesbian journalism—and there was an attitude that, hey, we'd done it once, so we could do it again.

Outlines

Outlines, the newspaper that was founded by refugees from Jeff McCourt's Windy City Times, began publishing in June 1987. ( In 2000, Tracy Baim and her company bought the name Windy City Times from McCourt, and the Outlines name was transformed back into WCT. ) Tracy initially tried to buy the paper ( with investors ) through an anonymous offer but, when Jeff found out she was behind it, he was outraged—even though he had considered selling it after Bob died. After driving his staff away with his crazy behavior, Jeff's animosity toward his new competition was sometimes cloak-and-dagger, sometimes Laurel & Hardy. I recall one organizational meeting of Outlines in which a columnist who had previously written for WCT, sitting on a sofa, bent over and a tiny tape recorder fell out of his pocket and bounced onto the rug—he was recording our meeting to take back to Jeff! I never found out if Jeff had sent him on this burlesque attempt at espionage, or if it was his own idea, but this same fellow was spotted more than once lurking in the street, looking up at the Outlines office windows late at night. Weird stuff like that went on during Outlines' beginning year or two.

The owners who invested in Outlines included Tracy, Nan Schaffer and Scott McCausland. Schaffer and McCausland were, luckily, very hands-off, allowing the paper to grow and giving Tracy the latitude she needed to make well-considered, independent editorial decisions.

I joined Outlines as its arts and entertainment editor. It was my first full-time job on a gay and lesbian paper—full-time meaning hovering around 80 hours a week. Some nights I'd have just enough time to go home and take a shower, nap for two hours with my girlfriend, and go back into the office. I was never so exhausted in my life. Yet I remember those intense years at Outlines now with great fondness.

Tracy had a vision of a truly balanced gay and lesbian newspaper—in the sense of providing equal coverage of men's and women's news. Previously, gay and lesbian papers were generally aimed at one group or the other: papers run by gay men that were exclusively gay or overwhelmingly gay with a smattering of lesbian news thrown in, like GayLife, and small all-volunteer newspapers like Blazing Star that were strictly for lesbians, or for feminists and produced by lesbians. The fact that our paper consciously strove for parity between men and women was something quite innovative. Outlines also featured stories by and about bisexuals and transgender people—though it would be years before the community "officially" recognized itself as LGBT, and much later still as LGBTQ. It has been fascinating to have witnessed that evolution.

When I think back to all the LGBTQI newspaper offices I spent any time in, the first Outlines office is the space I remember best, probably because it was filled with light. It was essentially one large open space, on the third floor of a loft building on Belmont Avenue at Lakewood, about six blocks west of the Belmont el stop and eight blocks west of what was then fast becoming "Boys Town" on North Halsted Street. A few people found it annoying that the space was so open, because almost everything in the office could be overheard by everyone else. But this stimulated really interesting off-the-cuff office conversations that sometimes led to new ideas, articles and opportunities.

The building housed a number of little corporations, arts groups and some light manufacturing. Right next door to our offices was, I remember, a business that manufactured action figures and other small toys. Its staff often kept their door open and, walking by, I could see people inside making little figurines from molds; the smell of hot resin and plastic often wafted into the corridor. For a while the Chicago-based progressive monthly newspaper In These Times ( which coincidentally had some ties to NAM and former Blazing Star members ) had offices on the floor below us, and the building was owned by that paper's publisher.

The loft building was run-down but exuded a bohemian charm I found very appealing—real exposed brick walls in places, big, tall windows that let in thick columns of sunlight during the day, and beautiful high ceilings. This charm could fade quickly when the heat didn't work or the bathroom pipes clogged, but it was a great space for a newspaper. Our office furniture was, well, let's say eclectic; each of us had gone to the used furniture warehouse on Western Avenue and picked out the desk and chair and lamp we preferred, so nothing matched and some pieces were quite scuffed, but we were all comfortable, having chosen to our own liking. The look of the place was unified visually by the original solid wood flooring and the equally old ornate ceiling tiles.

We had a lively pigeon hangout on the roof and, more often than not, during our frequent, animated office conversations about the current state of homos and homo sapiens, the wind outside would shift and we could hear a chorus of cooing and mating noises from the birds upstairs.

Rather than the standard behemoth typesetting machine, Tracy invested in multiple early Apple computers—which themselves would be considered antiques now, of course—that were a great advancement in sizing and arranging articles on a page. We learned to use Quark as the layout program, and now writers could "typeset" their words onscreen or, if they had a home computer, bring them in on a floppy disk so they could flow right into the layouts without the need to be retyped. This was a huge time saver. But every story that came into the office on paper from a freelancer still had to be hand-typed into the computer, because there was no such thing as email.

Plus, every phone call still came through a single land line that had an extension at each desk. How was that even possible? How did reporters ever find out about anything in a timely fashion, all of us clicking extension buttons and shuffling through paper Rolodexes to find phone numbers? And anyone who was out of the office and not at home was simply unreachable. I can't fathom how we managed anymore. Stone Age. Pre-Gutenbergian.

Of course, there were no digital cameras, either. Ages ago, I had taught adult-education courses in film-developing. I took up photography again while at Windy City Times and, by the time Outlines started, I'd built a darkroom in my apartment. I spent a portion of my working time painstakingly ( compared to today ) developing my film and that of other staff photographers who had no darkroom facilities, then making prints for the paper. ( Once made, those prints would still have to be professionally transformed into halftones by an outside firm. )

Outlines staff members I recall most clearly ( 35 years later! ) are Scott Galiher, Jill Burgin, Stephanie Bacon, Richard Small, Janet Provo, Bill Burks, Rex Wockner, Johanna Stoyva, Pat Bechdolt, Rhonda Craven, MJ Murphy and Rachel Pepper. Tracy Baim, freelancer Michèle Bonnarens, Toni Armstrong Jr., and Angie Schmidt are still among my close friends today. There were many others—freelancers, activists from various organizations—who were in and out of the office frequently, and even more writers who sent in stories from California, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

You never knew when a well-known gay author or a nationally known activist might stop by, as they often did. It was fantastic to be able to call up Larry Kramer for information and to interview Audre Lorde or Lily Tomlin. It was a time of further discovery for me, too—freelancers would send in eye-opening interviews with Hollywood celebrities, stories on new filmmakers such as Gregg Araki, reviews of a groundbreaking new book by Vito Russo.

And every week, I found out more about authors and artists and historical figures who were gay or lesbian, as new books about them came out, and I'd turn what I'd learned into an article on Joe Orton, or Constantine Cavafy, or Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. I did a lengthy series of articles on Sappho—the original Lesbian—and what was known about her, in articles that formed the basis for my later "Tenth Muse" columns in HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women's Music and Culture.

In my capacity as a writer, I continued to concentrate on cultural events but also did some news reporting. For instance, I did Outlines' ongoing updates of Karen Thompson's efforts on behalf of her lover, Sharon Kowalski, who had been severely disabled in a car crash in 1983. The legal battle went on for years, as Kowalski's homophobic father, who was her legal guardian, kept Kowalski isolated from Thompson in a nursing home with no rehabilitation and refused to accept that his daughter was a lesbian. The case inspired books, plays and a documentary film, and it brought attention to the need for durable powers of attorney for gay and lesbian couples. It was finally resolved in Thompson's favor in 1991 and became a landmark in establishing gays and lesbians as legal guardians of their partners.

I did movie reviews, interviews, opinion pieces, puff pieces, pieces about housewares and real estate and jewelry and wines, all sorts of things, basically whatever we needed written that I couldn't or didn't have time to assign to anyone else. To make the paper appear to have more writers than we did ( A la Jeff McCourt at GayLife ), I came up with several pseudonyms. I wrote Lyric Opera reviews under the regal name Johanna Buckingham ( a composite of my two grandmothers' names ); I did theater reviews under another name—Lisa something; and home lifestyle reviews as Randy Levertov.

A lot of us who worked at Outlines lived and breathed community current events, and the sense of community-building was palpable. When we weren't actually working on specific newspaper tasks, we'd sit around the office and discuss the waves and waves of controversies that were always swirling around and, in one way or another, making news. Some of these discussions resulted in opinion pieces.

I recall especially a "debate" in the form of two opinion pieces side by side, that began as an office conversation when Rex Wockner complained that he wasn't being allowed entry to cover a debate about racism in the women's community that was held at Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, a local all-women's venue. Rex argued he should have been admitted; I argued for the coffeehouse's right to keep men, including reporters, out if they wanted to.

I also did a lengthy interview with the newly selected International Ms Leather at the time S&M was just beginning to be discussed widely. I knew little about it, but that turned out to be an advantage since I asked basic questions, and the few leatherdykes I knew ( and I didn't even know I knew any till they came out to me after the interview ) were quite happy to see the topic featured in the newspaper. I also did long interviews with Mary Daly and Sonia Johnson. I could go on and on. I found almost all of this intellectually engaging, even when I didn't agree with others' opinions about some aspect of culture or politics or sexual psychology.

There was always more to do and a feeling of urgency about the time I had to do it in. On the nights when I wasn't working late at the office, I'd be going to gay and lesbian plays, readings, musical performances, dances—or going to a funeral. The reality of AIDS intensified my commitment to gay and lesbian rights, and I think this was true for many LGBTQI people at that time.

The Wikipedia article on LGBTQI history dismisses the 1980s as "a dismal period for homosexuals." "Dismal" is not how I'd describe it at all. Frightening, yes, and calamitous, with AIDS hanging over the heads of so many talented, earnest young men I knew, and with the obituary section of the paper ever-growing, week after week. But the '80s were also a time of enormous expansion in activism ( most prominently, the rise of ACT UP ), advances in gay rights, and the birth of cultural institutions.

Not dismal. Energizing. Often even amazing. The gay and lesbian movement was coalescing into some new primordial landmass, rising from the sea right in front of my eyes. I had the freedom to let my mind roam wherever my curiosity about new gay and lesbian cultural territory would take me, and to write about it, and enlist other writers who wanted to write about it, too. Though the pay was meager, the hours were endless, and the deadlines were often stressful, I felt that those of us working at Outlines were involved in important, meaningful work that was effecting real social change.

Local gay cultural organizations—choruses, art groups, bands, drama and dance troupes—and professional organizations that had begun in the late '70s and early '80s had, by the mid-to-late '80s, sprung up in so many places that they were starting to have annual regional and national gatherings that we covered. And there were the many annual women's-music festivals back then. Out gays and lesbians were still nowhere to be seen on television ( the first ongoing gay TV character I ever saw was played by Martin Mull on Roseanne, in the early 1990s, though there were apparently a few such roles on earlier shows ). But there were enough independent films made about us by then to spark the growing number of gay and lesbian film festivals. As arts and entertainment editor, part of my job was to make sure these events were given ample coverage, and the films, presentations and concerts were reviewed with thoughtfulness and care—especially since we knew that some of these LGBTQI-themed offerings, no matter how excellent they might be, would not be covered anywhere in the mainstream media.

In the early years of my involvement in gay and lesbian journalism, I had assumed that most mainstream stories simply had no gay or lesbian "angle." By the late 1980s, as an editor at Outlines, I realized that there were very few stories that didn't have one—though you might have to look a little more closely to find it.

The mainstream press was still loath to report anything at all about gays and lesbians except AIDS-related news. This became glaringly obvious after the "Great March"—the October 11, 1987, National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, in Washington, D.C. Those of us who worked in the gay and lesbian press scurried from event to event there, taking notes for articles, snapping photos, doing interviews and viewing the AIDS Quilt at its unveiling. Almost everyone from Outlines had made the trip to D.C., and the emotional impact of that trip served to further cement us together as a newspaper team. The number of marchers was estimated by activists during the day as half a million, and by the police at close to that number, but it was reported in The New York Times as 200,000. This blatant minimization of the crowd numbers underscored the ongoing vital need for our own media, since the mainstream was still bent on ignoring our issues and our impact.

The same muting of our visibility by the mainstream news was apparent at the Olivia Records 15th-anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1988, with a gala reception afterward in the Waldorf-Astoria's Grand Ballroom. I was part of a large Chicago contingent at the event, and it was quite spectacular, with hordes of dykes in tuxedos strolling up Park Avenue from the concert hall to the Waldorf. Today, mainstream newspapers and magazines would be all over a story like that. But back then, according to Wikipedia, "the two [Olivia] concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York were the largest-grossing concerts at that venue in its history. Yet The New York Times barely mentioned the show." We did a full-page spread on it, of course, with lots of photos.

I have an especially vivid memory of one night at the office in early December 1987. James Baldwin, the most eminent Black gay author of the 1950s and 1960s, had just died—only three days, in fact, after the sudden death of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. It was snowing outside, beautiful fluffy flakes, and I was alone in the office all night writing my full-page tribute to Baldwin, which was due the next morning, and would be the opening feature of the arts and entertainment section in the next issue.

It was more than a bit eerie, alone in the cold winter quiet of this big space, with a desk phone ringing once in a while in the empty office ( and the occasional unnerving sound of pigeons mating outside the window ). But I remember what a deep sense of satisfaction I had, putting into words what Baldwin had meant to me growing up, and explaining the extent of Baldwin's importance as an out gay Black intellectual to people who might not know, or be too young to remember, how groundbreaking his books had been during the 1960s.

I began freelancing for out-of-town publications, too, in the late 1980s. I wrote a number of stories for Outweek, the brash, no-apologies weekly LGBT magazine that started up in New York in 1989. I did a cover story for them that, I'm pleased to say, was the first story written by anyone in the history of the planet, apparently, on the subject of lesbians in the Girl Scouts. A picture of Patsy Lynch, one of Outweek's own photographers, graced the cover of that issue—she had her hand up in the gesture of a pledge, and looked very somber in her actual old Girl Scout uniform. ( That image was conceived to avoid potential lawsuits, as editor Andrew Miller had been advised by Outweek's lawyers—since Patsy had been a real scout and was dressed in her own personal merit-badge sash, the publication couldn't be sued for "impersonating a Girl Scout"! ) For that story, I spoke with dozens of former and current scout leaders and camp counselors; the ones still involved in scouting all requested anonymity. I also interviewed some very nervous spokespeople at Girl Scout headquarters in New York. The piece was later reprinted in Nancy Manahan's anthology about lesbian Girl Scouts, On My Honor.

Outweek was a fun mag to read as well as write for, with Mike Signorile's cogent rants about outing and Susie Day's clever, often-sly humor pieces. Outweek brought the issue of outing to the forefront of community debate and, in fact, did a very controversial, even notorious piece on outing that was simply a list of celebrity names, with the headline "Shhhh … ."

I started writing a humor column myself in 1991, called "Lesbomania," in a little weekly offshoot of Outlines called Nightlines ( that later became Nightspots ). Most of my humor writing was designed to show the irrationality and illogic of homophobia—an easy target, really, but it gave me great satisfaction to ridicule anti-gay bigots and pundits. I did gay spoofs and parodies of television shows and movies, too, and I also poked fun at some of the crazy things that went on inside the lesbian community. My guiding light was the principle, still valid today, that gays and lesbians have put up with enough homophobic shit, and now we deserve to have a good laugh. Among my shenanigans, I examined the "scientific evidence" that lesbonauts from outer space visited the Earth in prehistoric times. I "reported" on the "War Between the Butches and the Femmes." I revealed the secret lesbian codes embedded in great Renaissance art works. I outed ( quite convincingly, I think ) Santa Claus, Godzilla, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster as lesbians, and wrote gay and lesbian versions of The X-Files, West Side Story, Star Trek, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and more. The column was syndicated in a number of LGBTQI papers around the country, and in 1994 and 1996 many of the pieces were gathered into two book collections, Lesbomania and Tales From the Dyke Side. I did theatrical readings from the books—with visual enhancement in the form of cartoons—at the Bailiwick theater in Chicago during Pride Week, at the Center in New York, and in a number of bookstores and other venues in the U.S. and Europe. I had a blast—and a good laugh, I hope, was had by all.

The Antithesis of Secrecy

As late as the mid-1980s, I could still encounter well-meaning straight people who, when I told them that I wrote for the gay and lesbian press, would react with perplexity and respond by asking me some variation of the question, "But what do gay people need a newspaper for?"

Despite the valiant activism of previous decades, and the Stonewall riots, and the Pride parades, the phrase "gay community" was an oxymoron to these people. The idea of a serious movement for gay rights that would combat our status as an oppressed—and still at that time often reviled—minority, one that would benefit by sharing resources and information, had not yet occurred to them. I don't think they were being disingenuous in asking such a question, or homophobic in the modern sense; they just had never even thought about gay anything before, or perhaps thought all talk of sexuality was embarrassing.

But I think their question was based on a then still-lingering general assumption that gay sexuality was intrinsically clandestine. That the only thing gay men or lesbians would find of interest in their own publications was a classified section to find sexual partners, with perhaps a smattering of information about which bars in town catered to homosexuals—but then why would anyone want to print that, when it would only make it easier for the cops to find these places and raid them?

The idea that gay people would naturally and rightly prefer to be closeted, and moreover that the whole infrastructure of their social lives would be best kept secret, still had a certain currency among a few older gay men I knew, as well as among clueless straight people. In 1985, you could still smell that whiff of shame—and secrecy, so long providing a layer of protective invisibility for the gay "demimonde," can also generate a seductive sense of power.

LGBTQI newspapers, by documenting our lives and announcing our concerns—especially once the AIDS epidemic hit—forever obliterated the notion that secrecy is a preferred, sensible or even prudent strategy for gay people in this country, and at the same time, the visibility of gay media kayoed straight people who just didn't want to ever have to hear about or deal with the subject.

The emergence of matter-of-fact, widely circulated gay newspapers was in itself a form of coming out. ( The first time someone got up the nerve to read a gay paper on a bus or train was a common, memorable, coming-out toe-in-the-water experience for a lot of people. The first time the person's face at a social event appeared in the gay newspaper was another—after all, not everyone in the photo was necessarily gay … . ) And by supporting and encouraging individuals to come out, gay newspapers created the momentum for the paradigm shift that we see everywhere today.

Working for the LGBTQI press in Chicago was a rare opportunity to combine activism and culture, and to feel that I was contributing something tangible to the movement for LGBT rights. Plus, I was constantly learning new things and meeting fantastic, admirable people. I look back almost in awe on the hope and the triumphs of those times amid the poignancy of our tragic losses.

Decades ago, a friend of mine told me that her fundamentalist Christian sister had remonstrated with her about being a lesbian, saying, "Why can't you at least have the sense to lie about it?" Her immediate answer was, "Because that would make me a liar." Ironically, homophobes who persist in vilifying our sexuality as something "indecent" will never understand or acknowledge the basic sense of decency that has propelled much of the LGBTQI movement. I saw many instances of actual heroism in those days, of otherwise ordinary people who realized that coming out, however difficult for them, was an act of dignity, of personal integrity, of openness, of risking personal safety for the sake of honesty. And I saw many instances of bravery in the face of bureaucratic nonsense, ignorance, violence and hatred—and the struggle continues in many places today. The LGBTQI media solidified and amplified our collective courage.

I feel lucky to have been among the people who documented those exciting, historic times of struggle as they unfolded. And I feel very privileged indeed—as the era of Windy City Times as a print newspaper comes to a close—to have worked there in "The Old Days" with the dedicated colleagues who shared my abiding commitment to our gay and lesbian movement for equality.

This article is a slightly revised version of the chapter "The Passing Parade: Cultural Reporting in an Age of Heroes," by Jorjet Harper, published in Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Community Newspapers in America, edited by Tracy Baim ( 2012 ).


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