Elmhurst College: Editor Recounts Struggles for Gay Equality

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Editor Recounts Struggles for Gay Equality

Publisher and editor Tracy Baim is making sure that stories about the struggles of Chicago’s gay rights activists from the 1920s to the present are not lost.

Baim, editor of a new book, Out and Proud In Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community, and publisher and managing editor of Windy City Media Group, spoke with the Elmhurst College community about gay rights advocates’ long, tough fight.

“Generations of Chicago gays and lesbians have grown up deprived of their evidence in history, denied role models and reinforcement for a positive self-image,” Baim, a 25-year media veteran, said.

“Unfortunately, much of our early history has been buried in the police reports, the medical logs or the more sensational newspaper accounts of previous generations.” 

With her new book and website, chicagogayhistory.com, Baim ensures that the past voices of Chicago’s gay and lesbian community will be heard and preserved.

G.L.B.T. guest speaker
As the guest speaker for the third annual G.L.B.T. (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) lecture sponsored by S.A.F.E. (Staff and Faculty for Equality), on October 12, Baim spent the day touring the campus, speaking to classes and dining with S.A.F.E. and S.A.G.E. (Straights and Gays for Equality) members before her presentation at the Schaible Science Center.

The day-long stay allowed the campus to benefit from the presenter’s rich knowledge of Chicago history, said Dr. Tamar Levinson, Elmhurst College’s co-chaplain, staff psychologist and faculty/staff S.A.F.E. advisor.

Baim told the audience she was warned early in her career that she would never succeed in journalism if she came out as a lesbian.

She has proven that person wrong. The newspaper she co-founded in 1985 has grown into the city’s largest gay and lesbian media group.  She also manages four publications, a radio show and an online video channel.  And while doing all that, she served as co-vice-chair of the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago, an event with 12,000 participants. 

Baim’s newest project, the chicagogayhistory.com web site, wasn’t a planned effort. 

“I was exhausted from the Games and was inspired by the people older than me,” Baim said. “I knew many of them were dying and their memories were fading, I thought I would get re-inspired by interviewing them and it ballooned from there.”

Oral histories of gay activists
The website features unedited oral histories—though she joked sometimes people wanted to alter what they said—from those who lived through the events that define gay Chicago. The online history project grew into a book—which was designed as a companion to the WTTW film, Out and Proud in Chicago. 

Many writers focus on the coasts when talking about G.L.B.T. history, Baim said, but there’s a lot to say about Chicago and Illinois. She said Illinois has been responsible for a number of firsts when it comes to gay rights:

The city was home to the Society for Human Rights, the earliest documented homosexual emancipation organization in the United States; Illinois was the first state to repeal sodomy laws in 1961; and Chicago was the first city in which a gay group of African Americans marched in an African-American parade.

But Baim was quick to point out that Chicago isn’t solely responsible for the progress. “We talk about Chicago’s gay movement but it was never just Chicago that was moving. There was significant suburban participation,” she said.

Baim’s lecture covered a wide range of issues, including the growing popularity of gay bars—and subsequent raids—that lasted from the 1950s to the 1970s; the protests that united the community when anti-gay activist Anita Bryant came to town in 1977; the devastation of AIDS and rise of activism in the 1980s; and the outpouring of support for Rev. Greg Dell, who was relieved of his duties from the Broadway United Methodist Church in 1998 when he performed a union ceremony for two gay men.

Talking about the present, Baim is hopeful about President Obama’s commitment to the gay community, but noted he has a tough road ahead. “We are a difficult community to serve,” she said, “we are divided internally and so many issues are important.”

Gay marriages
One important issue making headlines is marriage.

“I find the marriage issue fascinating because it’s one that pulls all of the other issues behind it. It used to be military or hate crimes or equal employment, but once marriage entered the equation . . . mainstream politicians were suddenly okay with civil unions. We are much closer to getting hate crimes and military issues resolved because of marriage,” she said.

Baim closed her discussion addressing a question central to her latest project: What will happen to journalism?

Looking back at her career, she said people will have to adapt to survive. Her website and book show the connections that can be made between traditional and online media—and illustrate why it is important to share stories, no matter what the medium.

By Libby Lowe

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