Queer history through the eyes of the Reader

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“Y

oung Hyde Park male seeks other young males to get it on with.” A phone number followed, along with the young man’s availability: days, as well as Friday and Saturday. 

The Chicago Reader’s first explicitly gay content came not in a blistering exposé, music feature, or show review, but in the classifieds, the backpages before there was a Backpage.com. And while a classified ad might not be remarkable now, for a gay man to place a personals ad in a newspaper seeking a lover just two years after the historic Stonewall Riots, it was radical. 

The Reader has built a reputation among the Chicago media landscape as the cultural heartbeat of the city, the place to go to find what you’re doing that weekend, and for writing unlike any other publication. In the five decades since its founding, the paper has given space to ideas, people, and institutions overlooked by mainstream media, including Chicago’s queer community. But that wasn’t always the case.

In its earliest issues, queer coverage was admittedly scant, usually relegated to arts and theater coverage. In 1972, there was a blistering critique of a theater production with the headline “Nay Love for Gay Love,” featuring the word homophilia as an early descriptor for queerness. And in 1973, a surprisingly thorough and positive review of a gay pornographic film, Left Handed, lauded as more art than porn. Or at least a little more. 

Theater remained queer writings’ most common domain until LGBTQ+ issues became actual news, and not just fodder for the arts. 

Even when LGBTQ+ issues reached the feature pages—or even more rare, the front page—queerness itself was the focus of the investigations or critique, not how the state and city came to bear on these populations. One such cover story ran under the simple headline: “Transsexuality’’ in 1977 and served to interrogate the trans experience. And like coverage that persists across media to this day, the queer community was treated as a monolith of singular ideas, desires, and struggles. 

“I would say most of it was a typical kind of parachute in and benign neglect,” says Reader publisher Tracy Baim, who also has led the city’s LGBTQ+ press for decades as the founder of Windy City Times. “They did have some gay writers, and they did have certainly some gay freelancers. You know, critics, things like that. It was kind of like a lot of alternative media, where they were hip and cool about things, so they weren’t [against].”

Baim is also quick to mention that in the early days of the Reader, namely the 70s and 80s, the paper was “ahead of the curve,” as far as nonqueer press went. 

And it’s important to note that most of the subjects of the Reader’s earliest queer coverage were affluent gay men who had power in the city. Danny Sotomayor, Rick Garcia, and Chuck Renslow all earned themselves space in the paper. That’s not to say that these men weren’t incredibly important to the local queer community: Sotomayor led the city’s ACT UP chapter, Garcia was instrumental in early legislative victories for LGBTQ+ Chicagoans, including the city’s human rights ordinance, and Renslow was the entrepreneur and activist who founded the Man’s Country bathhouse, Leather Archives & Museum, and International Mr. Leather contest held here in the city. But that same editorial space was rarely given to those in the community who weren’t cisgender, white, male, and affluent. 

And even when more marginalized people earned a spot among the features, the writing was often dismissive or disrespectful. An article from 1973 discussing anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in City Hall features a paper doll-esque illustration of a burly, bearded man, with outfits for you to choose from including a sundress, wide-brim hat, or, strangely, a literal ball and chain. As a mustachioed person who favors a sundress, I’m the last one to comment on folk’s preferred style of dress. But it’s impossible to ignore the misogynistic stereotypes and outright confusion with which the earliest Reader covered the local queer community. 

But exceptions do exist, as they often do. And starting in the 80s, more nuanced writing appeared in the Reader. That year, the Reader ran a cover celebrating the life (and death) of local drag legend Mother Carol. The next years, they published a feature on the city’s former queer beach destination—the now-shuttered Belmont Rocks—and the plight of gay Cuban refugees, as well as searches for an HIV/AIDS vaccine and potential civil rights struggles related to the virus. 

Albert Williams, the onetime editor of Windy City Times, was the Reader’s go-to queer voice as well as a theater writer when he signed on with the paper in 1985. He spoke of being the gut-check for early editors and writers about queer issues, and of stepping in when necessary. 

“You can fault the Reader’s early years for shortsighted coverage of gay issues,” Williams says. “They were you know, not always very good, because for one thing their editors didn’t think in terms of, ‘we need a writer for the gay beat.’”

“I don’t think the gay community really saw it as being you know, reflective of the gay canon. And that’s probably the best way to say it.”

But as the advent of the modern queer liberation movement marched on, coverage diversified, expounded, and multiplied. Achy Obejas, Justin Hayford, and current Reader staffer Ben Joravsky also aided in chronicling the city’s queer community. And as time went on and coverage evolved, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Beginning in the early 90s, letters to the editor began to call out less-than-stellar coverage of the city’s queer community. In 1990, one such letter chastised the paper for the headline on its profile of Danny Sotomayor, “The Angriest Queer.” At the time, the word was still widely seen as a slur.

The paper also attracted queer thinkers, in its early days and now. The late Larry Kramer, who many would say gave Sotomayor a run for his money as the “angriest queer,” wrote a harsh critique of Philadelphia, the Academy Award-nominated film starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, which is often lauded as one of the first Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS. The film follows Hanks’s character as he sues his former employer for discrimination due to his HIV/AIDS diagnosis and ends with him succumbing to the virus. Hanks took home an Oscar for his role in the film.

While the mainstream press showered the movie in accolades, Kramer felt differently.

Philadelphia is a heartbreakingly mediocre movie,” Kramer wrote in the criqitue’s opening lines. “It’s dishonest, it’s often legally, medically, and politically inaccurate, and it breaks my heart that I must say it’s simply not good enough and I’d rather people not see it at all.” He went on to pick the movie apart summarily, not least of which for sanitizing the plight of the gay characters and of AIDS patients—from family abandonment, to the breadth of government neglect under which they suffered. 

Mark Schoofs, the current editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News and a former editor of Windy City Times, wrote briefly for the Reader, covering the Chicago Housing Authority’s Midnight Basketball League, tensions between the city’s gay population and then newly elected mayor Richard M. Daley, and the way artistic institutions in the city acknowledged World AIDS Day. Alongside his famous Savage Love column, Dan Savage wrote occasionally for the Reader, one of the earliest pieces being a humorous look at a makeover for the Ken doll that many said sported a cockring as a necklace. Mattel vehemently denied the allegations, apparently.

As the 90s became the 2000s, coverage of the queer community again grew, though still focused on mostly white, cishet queers. This was, after all, the era of Queer as Folk, the height of Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show, when HIV/AIDS were still prevalent but not as deadly. Queer coverage didn’t reach its current fever pitch until the late aughts, as the sun set on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and rose on the fight for marriage equality. In more recent years, the Reader has published important writing by queer journalists including Devlyn Camp, a queer historian and podcaster, and Nico Lang, a mainstay in modern queer journalism and currently at Conde Nast’s them, not to mention a strong group of freelancers covering queer issues of all stripes. 

But even among this progress, the transgender community faced particular scorn and mischaracterizations from the paper’s previous writers. Dating back to the earliest queer reporting, discussion of trans issues focused almost exclusively on transgender women, often called transvestites or cross-dressers. While it may have been revolutionary for a paper to devote so much space to discussing transgender identity, the writing was muddled, mocking, and full of pronoun switches, outdated and offensive terminology, as well as quips that subjects were “really men” under their dresses, hair, and makeup. 

In a cover story from 1993, “Cross-Dressers Make Good Husbands,” a writer profiled subjects who today would likely be identified as trans women or gender fluid. The subjects, according to the article, were male-presenting people who either occasionally or exclusively wore women’s clothes. Some spoke of it being an incidental happening, and others spoke of wanting to transition. But the article treats them with the same harsh brush, and alludes to the beliefs that transness is just the end of the gay spectrum, that men become so queer that they become women. 

Another article from 1997 unpacking what was then called “c” was clinical, overly medical, and frankly, horrifyingly offensive. In the first sentences, the writer describes feelings of uneasiness and discomfort at the idea of gender transition. In detailing a trans woman’s medical transition, the writer waxes poetically about the shame of losing a man to the trans community—alongside tasteless descriptions of an operation where, as the writer puts it, “they cut it off.” 

And while coverage of the trans community has improved significantly in the Reader, with current staffers frequently highlighting both the highs and lows faced by the community, the media industry at large still largely fails at respectful, nuanced coverage of trans people. 

The current Reader could not be a further cry from its founding, at least in terms of ownership. LGBTQ+ icon and journalist Tracy Baim took over the Reader in 2018, becoming its first openly gay publisher. Karen Hawkins, founder of feminist magazine Rebellious, joined the Reader alongside Baim as a digital managing editor—the first Black person to hold the position. Now, with Hawkins as the copublisher, the two most powerful people at the Reader are openly gay, a first for most publications. 

In the years since Baim and Hawkins took over the Reader, the paper has published features detailing the queer history of Chicago’s punk scene, the history of activist group Queer to the Left, and the city’s Drag March for Change. I myself have covered LGBTQ-focused police reform, racist violence in Northalsted (the gayborhood formerly known as Boystown), and the state’s now-repealed HIV criminalization statute. Chicago’s LGBTQ+ community is in an important moment of flux, and I’m honored to be here chronicling it, particularly as a nonbinary Latinx person. As the Reader enters its 50th year, the writing and reporting is for queer people, often by queer people. As a team we attempt to pull fewer punches than traditional media, are unafraid of pissing off local queer leaders, and tell stories with the nuance required. And looking back with a critical eye will help the Reader’s queer coverage improve for the next 50 years, and beyond.

The post Queer history through the eyes of the Reader appeared first on Chicago Reader.

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October 14, 2021 at 01:23PM

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