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WCT 25: Back in the day by Jorjet Harper
Windy City Times 25th Anniversary Issue
2010-09-29

This article shared 4290 times since Wed Sep 29, 2010
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I've been browsing through a large plastic storage bin in my back room that's filled with stacks of clippings of articles I wrote for Windy City Times, Outlines, OutWeek and GayLife during the 1980s and early 1990s. Looking through these many articles and photos from 20 to 25 years ago is a weird experience, because the stories themselves are from a bygone era—with names and faces and events 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.

Still, it's difficult to convey how exciting—sometimes even thrilling—it was to work in gay and lesbian journalism a quarter of a century ago. To be in the midst of the gay and lesbian cultural renaissance ( or more accurately, a naissance, since nothing like it had ever happened before ) that was taking place in the latter half of the 1980s, to think about it and to report on it was nothing short of exhilarating. At the same time, the appalling horror show of AIDS cast its long 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 as to seem simultaneous.

To me, the history of Windy City Times includes the history of Outlines, the newspaper that was born from WCT in 1987 and merged back with it in 2000. I was the first books editor at WCT, and went on two years later to be the first arts & entertainment editor at Outlines. A major metropolitan gay and lesbian newspaper run by a lesbian, Tracy Baim, with a balanced and diverse gay and lesbian staff, was something new under the sun. Before then, 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 ( GayLife, here in Chicago, which I also wrote for, was of the latter type ) , and small newsletterish papers 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. Of course, we also included stories by and about bisexuals and transgender people—though it would be years before the community "officially" recognized itself as LGBT.

The Outlines newspaper office was essentially one large open space, on the third floor of a loft building on Belmont Avenue. 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; they 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.

The building was run-down, but had a certain bohemian charm—real exposed brick walls in places, big tall windows that let in a lot of light during the day, and high ceilings. This charm could fade quickly when the heat didn't work or the bathroom pipes clogged, but it was a good space for a newspaper. We had a lively pigeon hangout on the roof and, more often than not, during our frequent inter-office conversations about homosexuality, the wind outside would shift and we could hear a chorus of cooing and mating from the birds upstairs.

Rather than the clunky typesetting machine that was standard at the time, we had just gotten multiple Apple computers—which themselves would be considered antiques now, of course—that were a great advancement in sizing and arranging articles on a page. But every story that came into the office from a freelancer had to be hand-typed into the computer, because there was no such thing as email. And there were no cell phones—anyone who was out of the office and not at home was unreachable. And no digital cameras; I had a darkroom in my apartment, and spent a portion of my time painstakingly ( compared to today ) developing film and making prints for the paper, of my own photos and others'.

You never knew when a well-known gay author or a nationally known activist might stop by the office, 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 discovery for me, too—every week I found out more about authors and artists and historical figures who were gay and lesbian, as new books about them came out, and I'd turn what I'd learned into an article. Joe Orton, Sappho, Cavafy, Margaret Anderson ... I researched and read about them and then enthusiastically reported what I'd learned.

Though I concentrated on cultural events, I still did some news reporting. For instance, I did ongoing coverage of Karen Thompson's efforts on behalf of her lover, Sharon Kowalski, who had been severely disabled in a car crash in 1983. The lengthy legal battle went on for years, as Kowalski's homophobic father, who was her legal guardian, had 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 brought attention to the need for durable power 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.

Most of us who worked at WCT and Outlines lived and breathed gay and lesbian community; gay activism; and gay and lesbian culture. 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 in the community and, in one way or another, making news. There was always more to do and a feeling of urgency about the time we had to do it in. On the nights when I wasn't working late, 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 may have been the case for many LGBT people at that time. Truly, it was the best of times and the worst of times.

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

Local gay cultural organizations—choruses, art groups, bands—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 national gatherings that we covered. And there were the many annual women's music festivals back then. Out gays and lesbians still weren't being portrayed on television ( the first ongoing gay TV character I can recall was played by Martin Mull on Roseanne, in the early 1990s ) but there were enough movies being made about us to spark the growing number of gay and lesbian film festivals, and we reviewed as many of these films as we could.

But the mainstream press was still loathe to report anything about gays and lesbians except AIDS-related news. This became glaringly obvious after the "Great March"—the Oct. 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 ran from event to event taking notes for articles, snapping photos, doing interviews and viewing the AIDS Quilt at its unveiling. Most 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 a half million, and by the police at close to a half million, but it was reported in The New York Times as 200,000. The 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 afterwards at the Waldorf Astoria's Grand Ballroom. I was part of a large Chicago contingent to the event, and it was quite spectacular, with upwards of a thousand dykes in tuxedos strolling up Park Avenue. Today, mainstream newspapers and magazines would snap up 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 fat flakes, and I was alone in the office all night writing my full-page tribute, 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 building, with a desk phone ringing once in awhile 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, that I was able to explain 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 in the 1960s.

I also have a vivid memory of a night in early autumn, probably in 1988, taking a late-night break during another particularly grueling deadline, and going down to the office parking lot, to make out with my girlfriend in her Cadillac convertible.

I look back almost in awe on the hope and exquisite moments of those times amid the poignancy of our great losses. It was a rare opportunity to combine activism and culture, and feel like I was contributing something tangible to the movement for LGBT rights. We felt, and we knew, that we were fighting for something that really mattered, and that we were going to win, because we had to. I feel privileged to have been not only a part of that, but one of the people to document those times as they unfolded.

Happy 25th anniversary, Tracy Baim and Windy City Times.


This article shared 4290 times since Wed Sep 29, 2010
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