This week marks my 20th anniversary in the gay and lesbian press of Chicago. All I can think is 'yikes.'
I was 21 when I started as a part-time editorial assistant at GayLife, just out of Drake University in Des Moines. I returned to my home town thinking that a job as an out lesbian in journalism was an impossibility. My step-dad worked at the Chicago Tribune, giving 29 years to 'the company.' My mom was a Trib survivor (she left in the 1960s) with years also put in as managing editor of the Chicago Defender. She covered Martin Luther King's marches, the Democratic Convention riots in Chicago (along with my step-dad), and frequently visited foreign countries (Cuba, Haiti, China, Cambodia, Russia, South Africa) to monitor elections and civil-rights abuses—and to write a story or two. She wrote about the Cuban AIDS crisis for me in the late 1980s. And my birth dad was a lifelong photographer, carving his own niche.
I think I kind of chose a little bit from each of their careers to cobble together something that would fit my own vision of what it means to be a journalist. My mom actually told me about the opening at GayLife newspaper. Given the long hours and bad pay in gay press journalism (then and now!), I was able to quickly move up to full-time reporter and then managing editor in a year. A few months later, in 1985, a group left to start Windy City Times. Eighteen months later I lead a group to start Outlines. Thirteen years later we purchased Windy City Times from the guy I co-founded it with. And throw in Nightspots, BLACKlines, En La Vida, Out, Identity, Windy City Radio—how's that for a brief history of gay media in town in the past 20 years?
Looking back, I remember so many wonderful people I had the opportunity to cover and work with, many who have since died. The pioneering activists of the 1980s, fighting for their lives, and losing their battles. When I started at GayLife, there were fewer than 100 AIDS cases in Chicago. Now, tens of thousands. I walked into a war zone and didn't even know it. At age 21, I just thought it was the norm to be writing obituaries for young men every week. Journalists create a hard-edged facade in order to cover the brutal reality of disease, of war, of death. At 21, I didn't even know what hit me. I was editorializing about safer-sex, condoms, and men's bathhouses—a lesbian just out of college trying to understand this new 'community.'
Certainly I have seen both the good and bad sides of that community. The sexism, the racism, the ageism, the classism, you name it, we reflect it back from the mainstream society. But if I only focused on those negatives, I think I would have burned out long ago. Instead, I have tried to fight across those boundaries, reaching past our differences to try and find a common ground.
Even after writing a few million words, and taking tens of thousands of pics—attending way too many black-tie galas, all-day conferences, and protests in the freezing rain—you have to prove yourself again and again to people. You can't rest on what you did 'back in the day,' because this community will constantly challenge you to get to the next level. I think that's a good thing. It allows for leadership change, it allows people to pass the torch to the next generation.
When I started in 1984, Stonewall was just 15 years in the past. It felt like centuries, since I was just six when the riots were on in NYC. To people now turning 21, Stonewall is decades past, and its reality is even further removed. Youth want to have their own Stonewall, and they are right in the middle of it. Whether it is the thousands of gay student groups in schools, or the first legal same-sex weddings EVER on U.S. soil, or the destruction of sodomy laws, or other major victories, we are in the middle of a new Stonewall.
Sometimes it is hard to see the impact of the current day on history. History is always in the past, in the textbooks. But in the 20 years I have had the privilege of covering this community, I don't think I have ever lost that sense of history. Whether it was because I felt so respected by older generations of gays and lesbians, or because every week, every month, it has seemed like major changes were happening, I don't know.
I do know that, 20 years later, it continues to be an exciting and amazing community to cover. I thank my former partner Angie who made the first 10 years possible, and I thank my partner of the past 10 years, Jean, for making these last 10 years great. I also thank all my family members, friends, co-owners (Nan!), colleagues, advertisers and readers for making this life I live possible.
I have made a lot of mistakes over the years, and I appreciate the chance you have given me to continue to learn, to create, and to dream. I hope I have at least 20 more years in me.