Neil Steinberg chosen for latest Jon-Henri Damski Award | Bleader

Neil Steinberg chosen for latest Jon-Henri Damski Award

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Jon-Henri Damski
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When time passes and committees take over from founders, awards have been known to drift away from their original purposes. That has not happened to the award Lori Cannon established in 1998 to honor her late friend Jon-Henri Damski, a gay activist, writer, and singular personality. Damski's last column, published a few days before he died on November 1 the year before, was a paean to sex.

As Cannon recalls, Damski's slow death from melanoma involved many trips to the hospital. Cannon went with him. She recalls a social worker asking him routine questions. Do you have a wife? And Damski bellowed—there was an element of ritual in the bellowing—Gay people aren't allowed to marry! Military service? Gay people aren't allowed to serve in the military!

"At the end," Cannon remembers, "he said, 'Thanks for being my hospital wife.' I said. 'It was my complete pleasure.'"

Who chooses who wins the Jon-Henry Damski Award? I asked her. "Me, myself, and I," she said. "I seem to be a committee of one."

Over the years Cannon's made obvious and not-so-obvious choices. Gay activist Rick Garcia won the award one year, gay journalist Albert Williams (also an award-winning Reader drama critic) another. Former alderman Helen Schiller won in 2011, the last time Cannon awarded a Damski.

Until now.

She's just announced that the 2013 Damski will be given to Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg in a ceremony Tuesday evening, June 18, at Sidetrack, a bar at 3349 N. Halsted owned by Arthur Johnston, a former Damski winner himself.

"Neil Steinberg’s prominent and powerful voice has often been raised in support of LGBT equality, and against hate and bias," Cannon said in a statement. "He 'gets it." She pointed me to a column Steinberg published last March.

"As the nation strides toward eliminating a particularly cruel and long held prejudice, we should pause and realize what made it possible," Steinberg wote: "All that coming out of the closet worked. . . . Coming out was never easy—it’s not easy now, as growing acceptance is one thing, facing your own dad something very different. It takes courage. And most gay men and lesbians no doubt think of coming out in private terms. But they should also realize that it had enormous political implications, which pollsters like Pew are now seeing. . . .

"The history of modern life can be expressed in one phrase: Individuals freeing themselves from the irrational dictates of institutions. You can in fact pray however you like. You can do the work you choose. You can marry whomever you wish. It’s so clear now, in retrospect, but we should never forget that realization took an enormous battle, fought by countless brave individuals, each looking in the bedroom mirror, then somehow calling up the courage to go tell their father something he didn’t necessarily want to know."

The company Steinberg is joining includes one particularly unusual Damski laureate. This is "Naked Man." Cannon spotted him a few years ago doing cartwheels on Broadway in front of Unabridged Bookstore.

"I noticed his tattoos, his magnificent athletic body, his long hair. I thought, 'What a free spirit! I've found myself a winner of the next Jon-Henri Damski Award.' This display of being such a proud, free spirit would have resonated with Jon-Henri. I found it not just somewhat intoxicating—I found it liberating."

Cannon rushed forward to find out who he was. But just then the police threw him into a paddy wagon and it roared off. She tried calling the Town Hall police station, but she couldn't track him down.

But no matter. In absentia, she gave him the Jon-Henri Damski Award anyway. That's what you can do when it's your award. But she says Damski's other friends agreed the naked nan doing cartwheels was a perfect choice.

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