Wow. Windy City Times is 25 years old. I can hardly believe it, and I was there at its birth in September 1985, as founding managing editor. Time is funny: Some days it feels like just yesterday when a group of staffers from Chuck Renslow's GayLife newspaper left to start Windy City Times. Sometimes it feels like 50 years.
Five years ago, when Windy City Times marked its 20th anniversary, both Jorjet Harper and I reflected back on those early years of the newspaper, from the freezing typesetting conditions to the staff mutinies ( GayLife to Windy City Times to Outlines and back to Windy City Times ) . At the end of this essay are links to those original columns, so we don't have to revisit too much of that early pain.
I wanted to focus this piece on both summarizing where we have come from, but also on the highlights of the past 25 years. I am a little bit emotional about this 25-year anniversary, in part because of the long road, but also because this summer I went through some horrid medical procedures. On May 6 I went to the emergency room and found out I had to have multiple surgeries to remove some benign tumors. One surgery failed, and I nearly died. I spent five weeks in the hospital and was helped greatly by my partner Jean Albright, my family and dozens of friends who helped in my recovery.
A near-death experience, which I have had a few times in my life, forces you to look back on what you have accomplished, and what more you'd like to do. I had just started a book about Obama and the gay community before my hospital stay, so when I began getting better, in August, I pushed through to finish that book, which is now available ( Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage ) . But I also realized I am the luckiest person for being able to still do what I love, journalism, for a community I care so much about. Yes, this community can be very difficult and at times infuriating and de-motivating. But there are also tremendous people who make the work worth the sacrifices.
Way Back Machine: 1985
Back in 1985, I was 22 years old with one year of experience as a reporter and then managing editor for GayLife newspaper. I had been writing since I was 10, and majored in journalism at Drake University, but this was my first "real job." I respected owner Chuck Renslow and liked him very much. But because the community was changing and the paper itself was having difficulties, I made the emotional and tough decision to go with Bob Bearden, the sales manager, and his partner Jeff McCourt, a part-time writer, and Drew Badanish, the art director, to found Windy City Times that September.
We had many freelancers, typesetters and delivery people who sacrificed their time and health for the founding months of the paper, including Jorjet Harper and Toni Armstrong Jr. Working under difficult circumstances, we had just an amazing group of people who made the launch of Windy City Times something the community could be proud of.
But Bob Bearden soon got ill from AIDS-related causes. While he survived many more months, the spirit of the paper was gone. The fights became legendary, and our faith in the leadership soon collapsed. Bob died in early 1987, which set the stage for my decision to seek out investors to either purchase Windy City Times from Jeff, or start a new paper.
A new paper it was. Outlines started in June 1987 with about 90 percent of the staff from WCT, and went head to head with Windy City Times for 13 years. Outlines soon went monthly, and then we started Nightlines ( now Nightspots ) , Blacklines, En La Vida and other print media. Outlines added an online website around 1995, and basically tried to serve the community as best we could, despite the strong competition from WCT. Outlines went weekly again in the late 1990s.
Jeff suffered another staff mutiny in 1999, and those defecting staffers started Chicago Free Press ( which closed earlier this year ) . Those two papers fought it out in the courts and the streets for a year, and WCT was so weakened that Jeff folded it late summer of 2000. I called Jeff and offered to buy the name ( and only the name ) and a few weeks later I merged Outlines into Windy City Times, and Jeff retired to deal with his health issues. ( Jeff died in 2007, the same year I nominated him to be in the city's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. )
Highlights and lowlights
There are several stories and events that are highlights for me in being a part ofand coveringthe community for more than 26 years ( adding in GayLife ) :
I came of age as a gay media reporter when the city had just a few dozen diagnosed cases of AIDS. This was like coming into a war zone, as people on our own staff, and all over the gay community, began to die very quickly, with no end in sight. It was a privilege to interview, photograph, and document the lives of key movement leaders and everyday people with AIDS during those early years. From angry activists and gay politicians, to healthcare advocates and founders of critical AIDS service groups, it was an important time to document our community. It has been my honor to write hundreds of obituaries for the many movement leaders and activists, those who have died from AIDS or many other causes, to make sure their stories are not lost.
Meeting and interviewing Mayor Harold Washington was a highlight for me as a young journalist. He was a big teddy bear of a man, warm and fierce at the same time. Covering his re-election was exciting and rewarding.
The push for the city's human-rights ordinance was at a fever-pitch in the mid-1980s. The forced ( and failed ) vote under Washington lead to heightened community activism, and eventual passage under Mayor Eugene Sawyer in 1988. The work of the Gang of Four and hundreds of other activists and politicians was incredible to watch and cover.
In 1985, I drove to northern Minnesota to interview Karen Thompson in one of the more tragic stories of the 1980s gay movement. Her partner Sharon Kowalski was severely injured in a November 1983 car accident, and Sharon's family won court victories to keep Karen out of her life. This badly impacted Sharon's recovery and future health. Interviewing Karen less than two years after the accident, and after Sharon had been moved to a nursing home, was very difficult, but her story served as an example to gay couples across the country to get their legal paperwork in order. Sadly, these types of cases still happen.
I witnessed the courage of Black LGBT activists in pushing for inclusion in the Bud Billiken Parade. Janice Layne recommended applying to be in the parade, and when activists won ( with the help of Lambda Legal ) and subsequently marched in the event, I was happy to walk the route taking photos. This was a wonderful event to cover, and the acceptance from the onlookers brought tears to my eyes. I had watched the parade as a child, because my mom covered the parade for the Chicago Defender.
Being a part of the Gay Games was a once-in-a-lifetime experience as an organizer, showcasing Chicago to the worldand breaking even financially. I think we did our city proud, despite the odds against us.
Receiving the Community Media Workshop's Studs Terkel Award, presented by Terkel himself, was a career highlight.
Founding the Chicago Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce was also an important accomplishment for me, back in 1995. I believe it was the first gay and lesbian business group to use the word "chamber" in its title, and now that has been replicated all over the country. Around that time I also received the Crain's Chicago Business 40 Under 40 Award, which made me feel accepted beyond the gay community.
Attending the 1987 and 1993 Marches on Washington were wonderful experiences, as was the 1994 Stonewall 25 March combined with the Gay Games in New York. Priceless.
Starting BLACKlines and En La Vida newspapers were emotional highlights for me, especially the first anniversary party for BLACKlines, at the DuSable Museum. The economics couldn't support those papers after 10 years of publishing, but I was very happy to have been publisher of those important monthly newspapers.
The ChicagoGayHistory.org website has been a labor of love for me, interviewing hundreds of current and former Chicagoans on gay issues. I want to do many moreonly time and funding restricts all it can be. The companion book, Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Movement ( Agate, 2008 ) was an incredible whirlwind experience, as editor and co-writer.
Producing the film Hannah Free, starring Sharon Gless, well, that is an experience I can't even compare to anything else!
Interviewing Barack Obama in 2004 for his U.S. Senate run, and now doing an in-depth book on him, is certainly a highlight of my journalism career.
There are many more highlights. But there are also lowlights. The most difficult times have been covering the bad parts of our communityfrom serial killers and other violence, to the theft and mismanagement at gay organizations, to the racism and sexism and other "isms" that poison our movement. There are many ugly sides to our community, and having experienced some of that first-hand, I can only say that perseverance pays off. You just have to keep plugging along when you are criticized or personally attacked, do what you think is right at the time, and move on, keep moving forward with your own dreams. The community is much larger than it was in 1985, which makes it easier to find those of like minds. But that also means we are also more divided, it seems, along many lines ( gender, race, class, age, etc. ) . Work hard at your own dreams, and help others achieve their dreamsthat will sustain you.
While there are difficulties in the community, and sometimes scandals, I am also so proud of how far our community has come. And Windy City Times and Outlines have been very proud to sponsor and cover thousands of community non-profit events over the years.
While I have been publisher of Windy City Times since 2000, and was a co-founder in 1985, my heart really is in writing and taking photos, in documenting the community for future generations. I admit I am not the best business person or boss, but I am very thankful for the hundreds of people who have helped create gay media in Chicago these past 25 years. From investors ( Nan, Pete and Scott, especially ) to reporters, photographers to delivery people, sales reps to business people, all have played important roles in helping us survive.
We have a great team of people who continue this tradition in 2010. And the average number of years our employees have been with us is more than 10. Some of our writers have been with us for 25 years, and in gay media even longer. That experience and loyalty is what we most value. And the same is true for our readers and advertisers who remain committed to the written word, whether that is in print form, on the Internet, on an iPhone or iPad. Or now if it is transformed for audio or video on our website.
Thank you. Thank you to all of the people who made Windy City Times, Outlines, Nightlines, Nightspots, Blacklines, En La Vida, Identity, Out! Guide, Windy City Queercast and all the rest possible.
We hope to continue to serve you for many more years to come.
LINKS to stories in the Sept. 21, 2005 20th-anniversary issue of Windy City Times:
Tracy Baim's Sept. 21, 2005 look back at Windy City Times' founding:
Jorjet Harper's Sept. 21, 2005 look back at the founding of WCT:
LINKS to 25th anniversary retrospective articles in this expanded issue of Windy City Times: essays by Tracy Baim, Rex Wockner and Jorjet Harper; feature articles by Richard Knight, Jr., Ross Forman and David Byrne; as well as intriguing photos of Chicago's LGBT past and actual covers from the first two years of Windy City Times.
www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php Windy City Times at 25 by Rex Wockner
www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php Covering the Past: Front pages
www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php Back in the day by Jorjet Harper
www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php Sports and the LGBT community back in the '80s by Ross Forman
www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php Windy City Times 25th Year Anniversary: photo coverage of the news
www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php WCT 25: Music in '85, by David Byrne with Tony Peregrin
www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php Movies and 1985 by Richard Knight
www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php Lesbian classics by Tracy Baim
Photos from top left: The founding meeting of Lesbian Community Cancer Project ( photo by Tracy Baim ) . Next, Jon Simmons, Mayor Daley and Nancy Reiff in the Pride Parade ( photo by Mike Carter ) . Art Johnston giving an IMPACT donation to Ron Sable, 44th Ward aldermanic candidate ( photo by Lisa Howe-Ebright ) . And the Metropolitan Business Association in the 1979 March on WashingtonChuck Renslow is in the center ( photo by Steven Kulieke ) . Group photo circa 1986 of Windy City Times staffers and freelancers at the Belmont El stop, front row from left: Tracy Baim, Jeff McCourt, Larry Shell, Benjamin Dreyer, William Burks. Back row: M.J. Murphy, Chris Stryker, Hugh Johnson, Steve Alter, Shani, Jorjet Harper ( hidden behind Shanti ) , Lawrence Bommer, Yvonne Zipter, Bill Williams ( partially hidden ) , Chris Cothran, Jill Burgin, Jon-Henri Damski and Mel Wilson. Photo by M.J. Murphy. Tracy Baim interviews Mayor Harold Washington in late 1986. Photo by William Burks. Bob Bearden, one of WCT's co-founders. He died in early 1987.