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  WINDY CITY TIMES

VIEWPOINT For the history books
by Tracy Baim
2008-06-11

This article shared 5015 times since Wed Jun 11, 2008
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Chicago has fallen behind most major cities when it comes to documenting our own gay history. While we at Windy City Times have run many articles about Chicago gay history, a newspaper is not the main place for a more permanent documentation. There are several reasons Chicago may be behind the national trend, and often overlooked in the national gay history movement: First, because we are in the Midwest, the 'coasts' often overlook what happens in the heartland. Second, some of our top historians of the 1970s were lost to AIDS in the 1980s, including Greg Sprague. Third, I think Chicagoans who are the most active contributors to our movement have often been so busy making history that they have not stopped to document it. And finally, similar to other cities, many of our leaders have been burned out by the infighting in this community, so much so that they opt out, wishing to forget those difficult times of their life rather than record all the painful details. I can relate to that.

Fortunately, in recent years, more efforts have been started to archive our history and to reflect back upon our movement. Films, books, Web sites and more are trying to capture stories before more generations of GLBTs die.

One of those projects was the year-long effort by WTTW to produce the first public TV documentary about Chicago's GLBT community, Out and Proud in Chicago. Alex Silets and Dan Andries sought to produce a compelling film that told the story through the eyes of leaders and everyday members of the community. Any 90-minute documentary, even a 90-part series, would be limited in its ability to cover all parts of the community. The film, which debuted last week, has been very well received in most circles. But a few critics have pointed to its weaknesses, and I must say part of the attack has been personal to my role in the project. In an effort to clarify the record for history's sake, please allow me to explain the behind-the-scenes development of several parallel history projects.

First, let me say that I warned WTTW that if I were to help them in any way with the documentary, the same people who have attacked me in the past would very likely do so again with this project, and in fact this has happened. I don't mean to sound paranoid, but for more than 20 years the same few people have been saying the same negative and untrue things about me. Every so often, a woman likes to defend herself.

What did my assistance in the project consist of? The donation of more than 400 images, including photos and newspaper archives. These images came from my 24 years of personal photos of the community, from the Windy City Times/Outlines archives, and from the archives of Marie J. Kuda, who had been allowing me to scan her archives for another project. What was this other project? Well, it so happened that in May of 2007, the same month WTTW started filming for their gay project, I started interviewing Chicagoans for a Web site and potential book. I did not have a film in mind, because of the costs involved. But over that summer and fall, I interviewed more than 250 people on high-definition video ( thanks to Wendy Jo Carlton who was the main videographer, and my dad Hal Baim who took portraits ) . I also sent surveys to hundreds of other current and former Chicagoans, from all parts of the movement ( culture, sports, politics, health, etc. ) .

Over the winter, when I first sat down with WTTW, they were interested in seeing how their project and mine could work together. They also met with other people to get advice, not just me. I showed them the names of the 250 people I had interviewed, explained who those people were, and said there were certainly even more people that I was not able to get to. They reviewed some of the tapes, and decided for themselves who to interview. About two dozen people were interviewed by WTTW, some of them people I interviewed separately for my project, and some whom I did not. I had absolutely no control over WTTW's selection of people, and I never saw their script. After they had decided on their direction and subjects, they began to ask me for old images. Their requests were for things such as AIDS activism, the gay-rights bill, Anita Bryant protests, pride parades, individuals they interviewed such as Jim Darby and Art Johnston, etc. Because I have been taking pictures of gays in Chicago since 1984, I obviously was a decent source of materials. And unlike some places WTTW asked for images, I was not charging them for each photo. In the end I gave them more than 400 images … something that would have cost them tens of thousands of dollars elsewhere.

WTTW also wanted to interview me for the project, based on my 24 years in the media here as well as my work on the Gay Games. I hesitated, because I did not want critics of me personally to taint the WTTW project. But in the end I decided it was OK, that I would not let those same few critics harass me yet again. There were hundreds of people who could have been in the video; this was WTTW's choice, and it was a difficult one. I could name 1,000 more people and groups, off the top of my head, who could have also been mentioned. I don't even want to list all who should and could have been in it, but if you want an example of hundreds of names, see www.chicagogayhistory.org, and even that will expand into the future. Even the more than 250 people I interviewed for my project are the tip of the gay iceberg. This was a first effort, not a final one. And certainly not the only one.

I congratulate WTTW on this first step. I hope they do not take the critics to heart and shy away from future gay projects, because there are many more compelling stories that still should be told. To top it off, the station received a bomb threat for their efforts in producing this historic program. Let's see, who is the real enemy here? WTTW, which made tough decisions on this first film, or those who would bomb us?

Telling stories

I'd like to tell you a little about the Chicago Gay History Project I founded last year. I decided not to form a non-profit for this project, at least not yet, because I have seen how many non-profits become political battlegrounds for our community. I've seen how leaders are shoved out, and ideas exploited. I see our community's history so far has been in the hands of a very few people. I decided that a non-profit was not a good direction for now, because sometimes bureaucracy holds back the work. I am digitizing these archives online so that millions of people have free access, not just a few researchers who get permission to see an archive a few times a year. By putting materials online and making them available for free, no one 'owns' and controls our history.

I am also partnering with non-profits like the Chicago History Museum ( CHM ) and Center on Halsted. I plan to donate all of the original interviews and materials to CHM, as they have demonstrated that they are committed to our community for the long haul. I hope many other people start working on our history, because it will take multiple efforts to do this massive work justice.

In January of 2007 I started with a list. I was finally winding down from my years of Gay Games volunteer work, and wanted to interview maybe a dozen people for a book. But the list soon expanded to hundreds of names, and I realized that video was a more accessible way to document oral histories. Twelve people on that original list died before I was able to interview them. Three others have died since the time they were interviewed. Those tragedies further solidified my reasons for interviewing people while I still could, and while their memories were intact. One person, Renee Hanover, now lives in Los Angeles and could not be interviewed, because while she recognized me, she remembered very little of her past. She was among my heroes and mentors, and part of the reason I am doing this project is so we don't lose touch with her story and many others.

Over the past winter, a team of editors and Web designers started pulling the videos into shape, editing my questions out, fixing glitches, etc. The Web site ( thanks to Materville Studios ) is now online at www.ChicagoGayHistory.org, with about 50 more videos still to be uploaded. I hope to continue to do more videos, but already have donated a tremendous amount of money and time to the project without doing any fundraising. Thanks in part to Michael Leppen, the site went live on schedule, and the official launch date is September, 2008. By then we will have thousands of photos and other archives, articles and videos online.

In February of this year, Agate Publishing and WTTW were discussing a companion book to their film, to use as a pledge drive incentive. WTTW knew that a book was not something it could do quickly, and told Agate about my project. Because I had so much raw material, and connections to writers and photographers, they suggested I was someone who could pull it off in the short time remaining. Well, we had only six weeks, but with two dozen writers and two amazing editors in Jorjet Harper and William B. Kelley, we got the book to print on time. It will be available later this summer. The writers who have contributed pieces to the book include historians such as Marie J. Kuda, John D'Emilio and Jonathan Ned Katz, and Chicago journalists Owen Keehnen, Ron Dorfman and many others. Almost everyone who was asked to stepped forward to help; some institutions did not, but others, like CHM, really were amazing in their generosity.

The book, Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, is a 224-page, 4-color, hardcover book, the first overview of gay history in Chicago. I am sure it will not be the last such book, as I have heard others are working on more. And I am sure that some people who read it will be upset that they are not in it. But in some cases tough choices had to be made about what to feature. While one book-length volume can, of course, include much more information than a 90-minute film, the story of our community is still too big to be comprehensively told in its pages. Nevertheless, it is a broad and colorful 'overview' of the topic, as the title states.

The great thing about history is that anyone can really participate in its documentation. If you have a story to tell, you can start a blog, or write a book, or even make a film. All those technologies are so much more accessible now. Even a book can be done as print-on-demand by anyone, at no cost. Do you feel that you, personally, have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Chicago gay community? Then with today's technology, if you take the time and effort, you can do an encyclopedia.

I know that not everyone in our community agrees about even the most basic things, let alone something as vast and intricate as our history. There is sexism, racism, classism, ageism, you name it. Our differences often keep us apart, and are often used to try to keep others down. I sometimes feel upset by how personal the attacks can be on me, and how those attacks could create collateral damage to others ( in this case WTTW ) . If you don't agree with the choices of those who are now engaged in documenting our history, the solution is to stop putting them down for their efforts and do your own documentation. Hundreds of books have been written about one subject, such as the Vietnam War or the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. None of them could tell the complete story—one book, one Web site, or one film, all have their limitations. So the more, the merrier—we will all have a different 'take' on history anyway. It's within each person's power to stand on the sidelines, finding fault, or to actually produce some lasting work for future generations. No one is perfect, but I believe that even more imperfect are those who never 'do' except to criticize those who try to make a positive contribution.

Tracy Baim is publisher and co-founder of Windy City Times. She started full-time in the gay press as a reporter with GayLife newspaper in 1984. If you want to complete a gay history survey, e-mail her at editor@windycitymediagroup.com .


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