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Gay Life: The Hall of Fame Flap

The mayor is about to honor 11 Chicagoans for their contributions to gay and lesbian causes. Is this good news or bad?



In June 1970, when about 100 men and women marched in downtown Chicago to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the closest they got to City Hall was across the street. There, in the Civic Center plaza, they shouted gay pride slogans, defiantly hugged and kissed (same-sex displays of affection were routinely cause for arrest), and joined hands for a joyous dance around the Picasso statue. They were, for the most part, homosexuals, protesting police harassment of gay bars under Mayor Richard J. Daley and celebrating the "gay liberation" born the year before in a weekend of street resistance to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a New York gay bar. But liberated or not, there was no question they were still outsiders.

Twenty-one years later, at least some of them seem to have come inside. As part of this year's Gay and Lesbian Pride Week, another Mayor Daley will preside over the induction of 11 individuals into an official, city-sponsored Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. Members were chosen by the Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues, a 20-member group appointed by the mayor that operates under the auspices of the city's Commission on Human Relations.

But something's wrong. Of the 11 Hall of Fame members, four are women, only two are black, and only one is Hispanic (and he's dead). There are no Asians. This in a city whose population of 2,783,726 is 38.6 percent black, 37.9 percent white, 10.6 percent Latino, and 3.5 percent Asian--and in which city officials estimate 10 percent of the population to be homosexual. Critics point to the skewed racial and gender balance as evidence of a flawed selection process, and charge that the group is politically unbalanced as well. Some even question why the city is establishing a Hall of Fame at all.

Windy City Times lead political columnist Achy Obejas called the Hall of Fame "silly and divisive." Rick Garcia, a Catholic gay activist who was honored by the Human Relations Commission for his role in helping to spearhead the 1988 passage of Chicago's Human Rights Ordinance, says, "It's inappropriate for a select group of handpicked political appointees to choose who's "important' in our community. And having only four women makes you ask what kind of outreach they've had to lesbians. Their process obviously doesn't reflect the diversity of our community.

"We don't need symbolic gestures from this administration. We have more of that than we need. What we need is action on our issues."

Thom Dombkowski, a member of the advisory council, agrees that the Hall of Fame is a symbolic gesture. That's why he suggested it.

Dombkowski is a long-established figure in the gay male leather community well-known for his AIDS fund-raising and support work. His hope was that a Hall of Fame ceremony at, say, the Chicago Historical Society would attract the media. "It would have been a nice thing to put on the evening news instead of the usual stuff they run," he says--for example, flamboyant images of drag queens and bikers in coverage of the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade.

When advisory council member Linda Rodgers, owner of the lesbian bar Paris Dance, heard Dombkowski's idea, it struck a chord. "There's an old saying that the way to rob a community of its future is to deprive it of its past. Historically, gays and lesbians don't have any access to their history. The military refuses to admit it has homosexuals so we have no military heroes. The politicians are afraid they won't be elected so we don't have any great political leaders. We don't have any great educators. We've been deprived of our leaders. It doesn't take very long after you die for you to go away. Unless we begin to recognize people who have been involved, we wouldn't have a history to pass down to the next generation."

Rodgers, Dombkowski, and four other people (four whites, one black, and one Latino) served on the ad hoc committee that the Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues established to select the first batch of inductees. The six were not allowed to nominate or be nominated, though that restriction didn't apply to the rest of ACGLI.

ACGLI is the Daley administration's revamped version of the Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues, which was established in 1985 by the late Mayor Harold Washington and his liaison to the lesbian and gay community, Kit Duffy.

Critics of ACGLI (including some inside it) fault the group for insufficiently promoting the Gay and Lesbian Agenda proposed by its forerunner--in particular an agenda item calling for the implementation of an effective AIDS strategic plan. Attorney Larry Rolla, an ACGLI member whose other activities include organizing Gays and Lesbians for Daley in the 1983 mayoral campaign, sees the Hall of Fame as a sign that ACGLI is willing to settle for surface over substance: "When the idea came up, I said, 'Wouldn't it be a lot easier just to have [the inductees] ride in the pride parade as hood ornaments?'"

Some activists question the allocation of city funds for a Hall of Fame when there are more pressing problems--like AIDS. "The city health department wants to do more, but the money isn't there," says Tim Miller of ACT UP/Chicago. "That means pumping up the budget. Gay visibility is not important if none of us is alive to enjoy it."

ACGLI's original proposal called for the Commission on Human Relations to fund a Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Chicago Historical Society. "Our intention was to do a really bang-up affair," says Dombkowski. Commission chairman Clarence Wood approved the idea, but only on a onetime basis; after that, he said, the event should move into private-sector hands. An initial announcement went out for a special reception at the Chicago Historical Society, but eventually the induction was merged with an already planned cocktail reception to be hosted by Mayor Daley at City Hall on June 26 from 5:30 to 7 PM. (The party is by invitation only, but an exhibit featuring photos and biographies of the inductees will be on display June 24 through 28 in the City Hall lobby.) Wood says that the two events were combined to reduce cost; the reception at the Historical Society would have cost $10,000.

The problem with that, Dombkowski feels, is that a City Hall event de-emphasizes the intended historical thrust. "There was a political taint," he says, "because Daley was giving his party for political reasons, obviously. . . . We were disappointed it could not be a separate affair. We would have liked autonomy over the guest list; I submitted a 350-person list that included staff and board members of gay and lesbian organizations--I wanted it to be more than the same usually visible group. . . . Ten thousand dollars to me is not a lot of money as far as what the city spends on things. If they can't find that kind of money for a major celebration, that does say something about their priorities--versus the amount of money they're going to spend on their Bulls celebration, for example." But the joint reception was the only way to get city funding. "We were adamant on getting city sponsorship because of the air of legitimacy it would bring."

Legitimacy is particularly significant considering the varied histories of the inductees, some of whom have had their share of problems over the years. Ortez Alderson, a member of the socialist Chicago Gay Liberation Front who brought gay issues into the Black Panther Party's Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention, spent almost a year in prison in the early 1970s because he broke into a draft office and destroyed files. (Alderson died of AIDS last December at age 39.) Chuck Renslow, the 61-year-old owner of Man's Country bathhouse, has also had run-ins with the law; his now-closed Gold Coast Leather Bar was raided by vice cops on not a few occasions.

Joining Renslow and Alderson in the first batch of Hall of Famers are Renee Hanover, a retired attorney well-known for contributing her legal expertise, often for free, to gay and lesbian and leftist activist efforts as well as private clients; Jim Flint, owner of the Baton Show Lounge and founder of the national Miss Gay Continental Pageant for female impersonators, who sometimes entertains under the drag name Felicia and whose activities range from regular Democratic fund-raising to gay community sports; ACGLI member William B. Kelley, whose record includes working with the pre-Stonewall "homophile" group Mattachine Midwest and cofounding the Gay Crusader newspaper; another ACGLI member, Carol Johnson, a black woman lauded by Hall of Fame organizers for her work on AIDS education and with black homosexual groups; Maxsonn Smith, a black man whose efforts have been concentrated on fighting homophobia and AIDS ignorance in the mainstream African American political and religious arenas; Jon-Henri Damski, a longtime gay newspaper columnist and one of the "Gang of Four" who spearheaded the 1988 passage of the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance; Marie Kuda, a librarian who has specialized in documenting and lecturing on lesbian and gay history; psychologist Adrienne Smith, noted for her role in the American Psychological Association's landmark decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder; and Richard Turner, director of communications at the Chicago Community Trust, who has worked as an openly gay man in a variety of corporate, philanthropic, and arts positions.

I believe you're born gay or lesbian, just like I was born Polish," says Dombkowski. "There's no reason to make a big thing out of that. Being gay is not what we're honoring here. It's what they've accomplished that's important."

Still, whether or not a nominee was openly homosexual was a prime consideration--which is why the list doesn't include some of the most prominent men and women in the city's corporate, philanthropic, religious, political, media, and arts arenas. "I had this great dream of outing half a dozen people who've made wonderful contributions to society who are in the closet," Dombkowski says. The openness factor also may have discouraged posthumous nominations, which required extraordinary public documentation. "Renee Hanover and I agreed that we ourselves would have liked to nominate several [dead] people," says Bill Kelley, "but we recognized the impossibility of assembling the biographical data in the time available--which wasn't much." (One notable omission is Henry Gerber, the Chicago postal worker who in 1924 started the Society for Individual Rights, the first gay organization in the U.S.)

The 11 honorees didn't have much competition; the seven men were chosen from 16 nominees, and the four women inductees were the only four female nominees. The inductees also include "friend of the community" Judith Johns, a heterosexual who is executive director of Howard Brown Memorial Clinic (where Dombkowski works as a staff grant writer), and the clinic itself and Gay Chicago magazine in the organizations category (though the magazine is a for-profit business); again, these were the only nominees in their categories, Dombkowski says.

Dombkowski attributes the low response to several factors--including the two-week turnaround time between when nominations were distributed and when they were due. Even so, 23 nominations is remarkably low considering that nomination forms went to a list of some 270 political, religious, health, and social service organizations, as well as gay and lesbian bars and businesses and a broad network of individuals.

"I think some people didn't think it was actually going to happen," says Dombkowski. "And I think a lot of people assumed others would make certain nominations, so they didn't."

As for the low representation of racial minorities, ACGLI staff director Jon Simmons says, "When you're asking for nominations from the community you can't guarantee you're going to get a statistical representation you'd like. The committee made a point of asking ACGLI members to put the word out in communities of color. But the politically organized gay and lesbian community tends to be north-side based, and because of that predominantly white. In communities of color you often don't have an institutional structure you can access."

It's impossible not to consider another possible explanation for the low turnout: lack of trust in ACGLI and its process. Paul Adams, a former winner of the Mr. Windy City male beauty contest who's been active with the radical AIDS organization ACT UP, says he trashed the two forms he got in the mail. "The whole idea is a joke, that these people would settle for that," he says. "It's like [the mayor saying], 'I'll ride in your parade and give you an award--now don't bother me.' Why isn't the city doing something about AIDS, health care, anti-gay and -lesbian violence? . . . There are probably hundreds of people in the community who deserve recognition. . . . The thing is, substantial stuff should come first--and it's not."

Adams cites the Valentine's Day police raid on the Bijou, a gay adult movie theater in Old Town. Police seized an X-rated video and charged the theater manager with exhibiting obscene material. A month later the Cook County state's attorney dropped the charges. "It's pure harassment," says Adams, echoing a generally held community sentiment. Ironically, the Bijou raid was brought up at the same monthly ACGLI meeting as the Hall of Fame idea.

In response, ACGLI members met with police superintendent LeRoy Martin. "[We] took a very strong stand," says ACGLI chairperson John Balester, a college administrator whose activist record includes chairing the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force and helping to lead the 1983 Gays and Lesbians for Daley. "[We argued] whether there wasn't a better use of our police force [than] harassing people who in my mind are minding their own business." In May, Martin proposed a new gay citizens' committee to advise police on gay issues. The application form for that committee includes the question, "Is there any incident in your background, professional or personal, that could be an embarrassment to the administration?" Jon Simmons says the question was an effort to assess applicants' criminal records while being sensitive to the fact that they may have been arrested for political activity; to critics, the question looks like more evidence that the Daley administration's progay initiatives are just shallow publicity efforts.

"The people who have contributed to this community over the years should be honored by their community, not used as a public relations tool for this administration," says Rick Garcia. "A community-based organization should sponsor something like this. The city should address issues of importance."

Ironically, Garcia's sentiments are echoed by Commission on Human Relations chairman Wood, with whom Garcia has tangled frequently. "I think it's important to celebrate the accomplishments of this community," says Wood. "But at the same time, if we have separate celebrations for every racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, and sexual-orientation group, do we not do a disservice to the greater community? . . . We can't move forward to a more open, interactive, and pluralistic society if we continue to have events that tribalize and balkanize the community." In 1992, he hopes to have "one major celebration by which we may know each other better. . . . In the separate communities, businesses or community organizations that wish to set up some celebration should do that."

That's exactly what Thom Dombkowski and Linda Rodgers have in mind. "It is my intention to continue to be involved in this legacy effort" after the city drops its backing, says Rodgers, who envisions an independent Hall of Fame committee. As for criticisms, she says, "I look at that as a very healthy sign. I don't think there's any way we could have presented this without controversy. I would love there to be people saying, why didn't you do this and why didn't you honor that person? If these people come from the community and get involved with the committee that comes out of this, then they're welcome, and we can revise and meet the needs of the community. That way we would have an impetus for the nominations of people or organizations for next year's awards."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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