By Jeffrey Felshman
On Monday, May 20, Rick Garcia put on his best blue suit and a pink button-down shirt with a starched collar and went to mass. He then walked to his office at the Illinois Federation for Human Rights, the state's principal gay and lesbian political organization, where his title is executive director.
Once in his office in a graystone on Halsted near Roscoe, he scanned the wire services on his computer to see if the Supreme Court had announced its anxiously awaited decision on Romer v. Evans. The case challenged Colorado's Amendment Two, which gave the state the power to override antidiscrimination laws already passed in three of its cities. States' rights were at issue, but so were the civil rights of gays and lesbians, the target of the amendment.
Several weeks earlier, Garcia had prepared two press releases for the occasion--one praising the justices for striking down the law, the other damning the court for upholding it. Finally this week the decision was handed down. "At like 9:15 the phone rings, and it's 'MAQ," Garcia recalls.
All around the country journalists were calling gay rights organizations for possible quotes, and WMAQ Radio had Garcia--the go-to guy on gay issues in Illinois--waiting on the line. The court had voted six-three to overturn the Colorado law, and now it was Garcia's turn to issue an opinion. His first sound bite aired at 9:25 that morning, and the last that day came on the ten o'clock news.
The Supreme Court's decision produced a rare moment of concord across the spectrum of the gay rights movement, which has often been plagued by ideological and territorial bickering. Many felt it was the first positive news at the federal level since 1986, when the court affirmed a state's interest in restricting sexual behavior by upholding Georgia's antisodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick. Ten years ago, Garcia was arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court in a protest over that ruling. During the next decade the Chicago-based activist would become one of the most controversial figures in the gay rights movement, making enemies on both the left and the right, at home and nationally. In the process he also turned some longtime opponents of the gay community into allies and transformed himself into a major player in Illinois politics.
Unlike such well-known activists as San Francisco's Harvey Milk, Garcia isn't looking for a job in city hall. Though he ran as a Jesse Jackson delegate in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary and went to the party's convention in 1992 as a delegate for Paul Tsongas, he harbors no plans to run for office. He's only had an office, of any kind, for a little over a year. Before that he operated out of a room in his apartment. Garcia settled in Chicago in 1986 and within five years had helped to lead successful campaigns for gay rights laws in Chicago and Cook County, focusing diffuse, long-failing efforts into a tough, winning strategy.
Yet many people contacted for this article declined to be interviewed. Those who spoke off the record made one point clear: it can be unpleasant to be on the wrong side of Rick Garcia, and it's often just as tough to be on his right side. Garcia's immersed in politics, but he's no politician. He never holds his tongue for the sake of the movement, and he's more than willing to bring internal disputes out of the closet. Because of his long association with a community of liberal Catholic nuns and lay people, activists sometimes call Garcia "Brother Rick," but the term is meant derisively, as if the brother being referred to is Cain. He's been called "divisive" and "a media whore." Elizabeth Birch, head of the national Human Rights Campaign, has called Garcia "toxic waste." He's a lifelong Democrat, but he's fought bitterly with other Democrats, sometimes accusing nonpartisan groups of being shills for the party. He's a devout Catholic who goes to mass and lights a candle every day, yet some of his harshest missives have been directed at the church.
Art Johnston, who owns the Halsted Street bar Sidetrack, is board president of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights. A veteran gay rights advocate, Johnston had seen the failures and was with Garcia for the turnaround. "I began as one of those people who said, "Why can't we all just sit down together and work things out?"' he says. Garcia, on the other hand, was always ready to stand alone and slug things out. "He didn't like me very much, and I didn't like him very much."
But Johnston says he soon came around to Garcia's way of thinking. "Politics is a complicated game," he says. "You have to play hardball. You can't sit in a corner and wait for people to hand you your rights.
"Rick is the most visionary, brilliant, politically savvy gay activist that I have ever met, and I have met a lot," Johnston says. He admits that Garcia's style has made life difficult at times, but he's found that the results have been worth the trouble. "Yeah, Rick may be rude, but who the fuck cares? The gay rights movement in this state, in this city, in this county would be much further behind if Rick Garcia was not here. We would be years and years behind if Rick wasn't here."
Even those who call Garcia a media whore concede that he's a good one. Every time a gay issue hits the news, he has a sound bite on the radio, he's wearing his suit on television, or he's quoted in the paper. "I'm the director of an Illinois statewide gay rights group," he says, "and if I'm not in the newspaper a lot, I'm not doing my job." Garcia says he learned the importance of crafting a good statement early on--in Catholic school. "The sisters always told us that we have a responsibility to have a vigorous and public witness, and that means you have to stand up, you have to speak out. You have to speak forcefully, and so that means you send out a lot of news releases. I believe media can make or break you, or make or break your issues."
He never lies to reporters, Garcia claims--spins yes, lies never. For all his exposure, though, most people, straight and gay, still don't know who he is. When he's on TV or the radio or quoted in the newspapers, Garcia's not really a person, he's a position. Bonnie Buck, news director at WMAQ Radio, says he articulates those positions better than anyone else locally, and she trusts him implicitly. "That's why I called him first," she says. "I know he's on top of the issue, and if he isn't he'll tell me. He knows all the rules of journalism, and he's not gonna burn me. He's not gonna manipulate the facts. I know he's gonna have a point of view, but I never worry about putting him on live, because even in emotional debates, he always keeps a clear head."
Terry Wilson, who covers gay issues for the Chicago Tribune, says Garcia's always reliable. "He's a straight shooter, and I like that. He knows the history of the community, and if he doesn't like somebody he'll tell you. Not many people will do that."
Garcia admits his confrontational style is open to interpretation. "I always view myself as a pit bull. But somebody told me the other day, "People, behind your back, they don't call you the pit bull, they call you the Chihuahua. A little yappy at the heels.' And it's true!"
Behind his back, Garcia's called many things. Even his friends call him a loose cannon, but one that usually hits its target. Few call him unsuccessful.
When Garcia arrived here a decade ago, Chicago was one of the only major American cities where a person could legally lose a job or a place to live because of sexual orientation (more than 50 cities already had laws protecting gays from discrimination). And you didn't have to be glad to be gay to get screwed. In fact, you didn't have to be gay at all--if you were seen in a gay bar or if your boss or landlord thought you acted a little queer, that was enough. There was no recourse. Local activists had been pushing to make that sort of discrimination illegal since 1973. Thirteen years later they were still coming up short.
It was in this climate that Garcia, though still a newcomer, teamed up with Johnston, activist Laurie Dittman, and journalist Jon-Henri Damski to form the so-called Gang of Four, the ad hoc group that would lead the renewed effort to get the City Council to pass the Human Rights Ordinance, a gay-inclusive antidiscrimination bill that also protected the disabled, elderly, veterans, and single or divorced parents, among others. It was finally passed in 1988.
Garcia, working with Johnston, Dittman, and Damski, then lobbied the City Council to pass a hate-crimes bill. That bill became law on New Year's Day 1991. When the "gang" broke up, Garcia and Johnston moved on to the county and state levels, where activists had been working for years to get legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. On March 16, 1993, the Cook County human rights bill passed; a month later a similar bill passed the Illinois House. It stalled in the state senate, and has withered since Republicans took control of the legislature in 1994.
Still, getting the bill passed by the Illinois House was a major victory for gay rights, and the Illinois Federation for Human Rights, founded by Garcia and Johnston in 1992, justifiably took the credit. The group has become one of the most influential political organizations in Illinois. In this year's primaries for the Illinois legislature, the federation endorsed a total of 19 candidates--18 of whom won. In the race between Nancy Kaszak and Rod Blagojevich, contenders for the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat now held by Michael Flanagan, Garcia personally endorsed Blagojevich, while Impact, the longer-established local gay political action committee, backed Kaszak. Blagojevich won. The federation jump-started the campaign of gay state senate candidate Larry McKeon with an early contribution, and McKeon is now expected to become the first openly gay senator in the history of the Illinois legislature.
But the federation is especially notable for its work with Republicans. It was the first gay group in the country to retain a Republican lobbyist, hiring a straight Springfield attorney, Michael Killion, in 1993, more than a year before the Republican sweep in 1994. (The move was considered so unusual that it got a mention in Newsweek.)
Though gay organizations have traditionally written off efforts to influence Republican politics, the federation this year conducted what Garcia called a "stealth campaign" to unseat 24th District Republican state senator Robert Raica, one of Illinois' most vehement opponents of gay rights legislation. In the months before the primaries, it quietly funneled money and strategic advice to his opponent, Christine Rodogno, a moderate Republican. Raica won't be on the ballot in November.
The Illinois Federation for Human Rights was also one of the few groups to recognize that Michael Flanagan could beat Dan Rostenkowski. Though the federation doesn't make endorsements in congressional races, it met with Flanagan several times, both during his campaign and after he won. Flanagan has been one of the few Republicans in Congress to support a national gay rights bill.
Governor Jim Edgar isn't recognized as a great champion of gay rights, but he and his wife Brenda were honorary cochairs of the federation's annual fund-raiser at Navy Pier last year. "The governor has done two gay-related events in his life," Garcia says, "one as cochair of our fund-raising thing, and we had a cocktail party in Springfield for central Illinois legislators and the governor came."
You can't argue with success. Or can you? Many activists who praise Garcia's zeal complain that he breaks the unwritten rule against gay organizations criticizing each other publicly. They say that Garcia has made a specialty of creating and exploiting schisms in the gay rights movement. They accuse him of working to undermine support for other gay groups, both undercover and in the public spotlight. They say he takes credit where credit is not due. He's labeled as a fly in the ointment, a wedge in the movement, not above turning an occasional dirty trick.
One activist who will speak on the record, Tom Swift, was the executive director of Impact from August 1994 through the end of 1995. Frequently frustrated by Garcia's open disdain for Impact, Swift acknowledges Garcia's contributions but says, "I have never, in the ten years I've been doing work with organizing the community, ever met anyone like him, and never met anybody that is so angry, so misguided, and so wrong in so many ways. And ultimately I believe that that community will never achieve any cohesiveness or freedom as long as he is there, because his tactics are so horrifying. He spends more time fighting members of the community than he does fighting the enemy."
Garcia makes no apologies. "I'll tell you what drives wedges between people in the movement--incompetence and people who are in it for personal gain and who do this as therapy rather than for its goal. That's what drives wedges between people--incompetence.
"There's another little argument they always love to say: "Let's look at the real enemy, the real enemy isn't in the community. Let's direct all of this negativity to Jesse Helms, where the real enemy is.' And you know who always says that? People who are fuckin' up. People who are fuckin' up bad and can't say either, one, we made a mistake and we're gonna clean it up or, two, you are wrong 'cause this is the right way to do it. And I'll tell ya something else: if I am so wrong and so vicious and so nasty, who of my critics has the record that I do in protecting gay and lesbian civil rights? Now I ain't askin' who's raised more money--they can have that. I ain't askin' who's got the biggest dinner. I'm not asking who's got the biggest organization or the plushest office. I'm askin' who has protected our sisters and brothers, and I will put my record up against anybody's."
In Chicago Garcia has tangled with other gay rights activists, ranging from Ron Sable, a doctor affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America, to bar owner Jim Flint, a conservative Democrat who supported Republican Bernie "Before It's Too Late" Epton for mayor in 1983. On the national front, the Human Rights Campaign's Elizabeth Birch has expressed a willingness to sit down and hash out issues with Ralph Reed of the antigay Christian Coalition--but she refuses to meet with Garcia.
"Absolutely the channels of communication are, and should be, open between the federation and the Human Rights Campaign," Birch says. "What I have not allowed and will not allow in the foreseeable future is for my staff to meet with Rick Garcia. And that is because I will not put them into situations that are unprofessional, and my view is that he operates in a very unprofessional fashion and he's abusive. There is no place in our movement for abuse, meanness, and a kind of overall style that doesn't result in long-term coalition building, team building. There's no place in our movement for that."
The dislike is mutual. "We're just like oil and water," Garcia says of the Human Rights Campaign. "I won't deal with them, will not support them in any way, shape, or form. I think they view us as rude and crude and loud and not polite. We're not polite. They had a fit because I called one of their major fund-raisers here a bitch. She is a bitch, OK? You would have thought that I had picked her up and thrown her down an elevator shaft. I mean, they were talking about how abusive and how awful I am. Well you know what? I'll tell you what. They can kiss my ass. Their executive director is a marketing representative; she's not an activist, she's not a political person, a political thinker. She's there to market, to raise money, to put out public relations puffery, and to dupe the lesbian and gay community into thinking we have a strong presence in Washington, D.C. That's my analysis."
Do you have to be a prick to succeed in politics? Garcia thinks so. But others will tell you that movements are about solidarity. They're supposed to be composed of different groups linked arm in arm, working together, making common cause with oppressed people. A movement is supposed to be a crusade against entrenched power, a war of armies galvanized around the ideals of truth and justice. It claims the moral high ground when it holds little else. Of course, any democratically inspired grouping is bound to be fractious, but this is the standard by which most movements measure themselves. It's a standard that Garcia hasn't abandoned, but he says that the audience he plays to--politicians and legislators--needs professional handling. They respond to numbers translating into votes and money. Swift may call Garcia's approach "morally vacant," but Damski says Garcia "comes from a position that is morally perfect." In response to those who say that his work is destructive to the movement, Garcia can point to years of service in the trenches. He says that when he fights with other activists it's not personal--it's business.
"I've had run-ins because I will speak freely and criticize people within my own community who I think are not doing the work that needs to be done or who misrepresent themselves," Garcia says. "Good, solid, strong activists I don't have any problems with. . . . Yeah, there've been a couple of people that we've offended, that I've personally offended, but guess what? I don't care. I don't care because most of the people that I've offended, it makes no difference whether they're offended or not.
"This is what it boils down to--we have serious work before us. We have a community of people whose basic civil rights are not protected, and we don't have the luxury of being half-assed in this movement. And this community for too long has put up and supported and sustained and encouraged mediocrity and failure. If I hear one more gay activist say, at a legislative defeat or at some major defeat for the community, "This ultimately is a moral victory . . . ' Fuck the moral victory. Did you win or did you not win? And if you didn't win, why didn't you win? Did you have a carefully crafted strategy? Were you willing to play hardball? Were you willing to play the game the way the game should be played? Or were you trying to be nice and have everybody love you? Well, guess what? Whether they love me or not, I don't care, because I love myself. They don't even have to like me."
Born in 1956, Garcia grew up in an enclave of south Saint Louis called the Spanish Colony--an ethnic minority within a minority, a small cluster of Spaniards identified by outsiders as part of a larger minority of Latinos. Their community was surrounded by German neighborhoods, so they developed a bunker mentality. "We always identified ourselves as Spanish before American, Spanish before anything," Garcia says. He's one of the only people in his family who pronounces the family name Gar-see-ya. The rest call themselves Gar-sha. "I used to hear it from not only my family but from all of the Garcias in the little colony. Somebody'd ask, "What's your name?' You'd say Gar-sha. "How do you spell it?' G-a-r-c-i-a. "Oh, Gar-see-ya.' No, we're not Mexican."
Garcia's family was well respected. His grandfather was the president of the Spanish Society, his father the vice president. His grandmother was one of the officers of Las Colaboradoras, the ladies' auxiliary, and his mother and all of his aunts were members of the Spanish-American Girls Society. Garcia muses, "So I'm growing up in this little minority group in working-class south Saint Louis, and we were elitist." He hoots. "I mean, unbelievably elitist! And at first I was embarrassed by what I perceived as racism and classism or ethnic insensitivity, that we were somehow better. Now, as I look back on it, I recognize it was a coping mechanism."
Garcia developed his own coping mechanisms. He was smaller than most boys his age, so he was picked on. Bullies pushed him around, until he learned how to fight. "Once you punch them in the face, they leave you alone. I learned that the hard way after too long." But he's reluctant to attribute his problems solely to the fact that he was gay. "I think that's just the way kids are. I mean, I was probably a big sissy. I always had to have impeccable clothes. You know, that dry wit," he laughs, "all those stereotypical things you'd expect. I didn't play any of the sports in school. Just being one of the smallest kids around, you want to protect yourself. What, me? A field with a ball, and they're gonna run after me with that ball? I don't think so. I'd rather stay home and gossip with the old women in the backyard."
His sexual orientation remained a secret through high school and his first year in college. He was 18 and wasn't sure about what he wanted. He'd always been a good Catholic boy, serious, devout. While attending Saint Louis University, he contemplated a future teaching schoolchildren about the Blessed Virgin or doing some kind of missionary work. He'd already done some organizing for the United Farm Workers in Missouri. Then one day in 1976, he attended a speech by theology professor Father Louis Hanlon at the Saint Louis city hall. When the professor began to speak about the "sin" of homosexuality, Garcia lost it.
"My right finger went up like it does when I get mad, and I said, "Father Hanlon, you have misrepresented our church today. You need a refresher course in theology. Gay people are entitled to friendship, love, and justice, according to the American Catholic bishops. What you said was neither friendly, loving, or just."' Garcia harangued the priest for a couple of minutes before he remembered where he was and noticed who was watching.
"I looked up and there were television cameras, and they had it all on tape, and I kind of freaked out. I called my attorney, and I said, "I don't want it to go on TV because I don't think my family knows I'm gay.' And then also in my mind I'm going, "Oh my God. All of my friends and all of my associates, people that I hang with, a good portion of them are nuns, how is this gonna . . . ?' I mean, I freaked out. I literally freaked out."
The lawyer couldn't do anything about it, and Garcia still marvels that he even called him. "I was, what, 18, 20 years old, and I had an attorney? But I worked for Cesar Chavez and the farm workers, and we'd get arrested all the time, so I needed an attorney."
Gay Activist Attacks Jesuit Priest aired on the local news. "Everybody saw it," Garcia recalls. Reactions varied. "My great-uncle Louie calls my grandfather and grandmother and says, "Hey, I just saw Ricky on TV. Boy, he really spoke good. He gave that priest hell!"
"My grandmother took it very well. My brother told me this later: she sat in her recliner in the living room with my great-aunt, my father, and my grandfather all carrying on and going, "Oh my God, ay, ay, ay.' And they were embarrassed, and they were crazed, and they don't know what to do, and how are they going to face those Spaniards again. What are the Spaniards going to say? "What will the Spaniards say? What's Maria Lapita gonna say?' And my grandmother sat there, and she said, "You know, I don't know what they're so upset about. That's as old as the hills."'
Garcia let his mother handle his father, but he avoided his grandmother for a couple of days. He usually called every day, but he didn't know how she'd reacted yet. Finally she called him. "She said, "Listen, we're coming by to get you.' "For what?' "We're gonna go shopping. You need some new clothes.' "Oh, OK."'
Though he was reassured by his family's reaction, Garcia was still afraid of the nuns, who had always been his role models. "They instilled in me, at a very young age, the importance of working for justice. And one has to, if one sees an injustice in life, one has a responsibility to address it," he says. But Garcia wasn't sure if that responsibility extended to homosexuality.
"I was just beginning to work with some of the sisters in establishing a Catholic Worker house in Saint Louis and stuff. And I completely dropped out of that, I just backed away. And I ran into two of them, and one of the sisters, she was a sister of Saint Francis, I remember very distinctly, put her arm around me." Thinking about it now, his voice drops to a whisper, and tears form in his eyes. "I'm getting emotional about this," he laughs nervously, his voice quavering. "She said, "We're proud of what you did. We saw you on TV,' and hugged me. God, I haven't remembered that in 20--it's 20 years!"
"I adored these women. I adored the work that they did in Saint Louis with the poor and being right there on the lines of social justice. And a part of me really felt badly that I had misjudged them. You know . . . since the time I'm born . . . you're given these messages that gay and lesbian folks aren't that great. . . . There's all kinds of negative attitudes. Of course, one would assume that they would have it.
"But here I was dancing around them, and being very cautious about it, and they were unbelievably supportive. And so I could just jump back in. Then I really knew that this was the work I wanted to do, and that I should really do more of it. And I became a gay activist."
Soon after coming out in public, Garcia joined the local chapter of Dignity, the gay Catholic group. "There weren't a lot of folks out at that time, and I know that in Saint Louis in the late 70s, if the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch or the television stations wanted to do interviews on gay and lesbian issues there were probably less than five of us in town who would use our names and have our picture taken. But I'd jumped right out, literally. I mean, I didn't have this coming-out process, I had this coming-out event."
In 1980 he left Saint Louis for Washington, D.C., where he went to work for New Ways Ministry, a liberal gay Catholic group. When gay rights groups were invited to the White House by the Carter administration, Garcia was there. When the founders of New Ways, Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, were removed from the Archdiocese of Washington, Garcia participated in the response. He met with archbishops and cardinals up and down the east coast, gave talks to Catholic groups, and answered mail. By 1986 he was ready for a rest. He flew to Chicago, where he had friends, for a summer vacation.
"I didn't want to do gay activism anymore," he says. "I was going to take a little break. I was having a midlife crisis at 30--you know, like "What am I gonna do with my life?' And I decided to spend the summer in Chicago. So I came from the east coast to Chicago, and it was then that the gay-rights bill had come up for a vote in the city, the city gay rights ordinance."
A gay rights amendment had been stuck in a City Council committee since 1973. Harold Washington's election as mayor in 1983 had raised hopes that it would finally come up for a vote, and a new amendment adding sexual orientation to the city's existing antidiscrimination law was brought before the council in 1986. But it faced nearly certain defeat after Joseph Cardinal Bernardin declared his opposition.
In July 1986 Garcia was attending a north-side memorial service for Sister Marjorie Tuite, a Dominican nun who had died earlier that year in New York. Tuite was internationally renowned for her work in the civil rights movement and her public stands on social issues, which sometimes conflicted with official church policies. "The week that the cardinal had come out against the city's gay rights ordinance was the week of the memorial service. So I went to Margie's memorial service, and when I walked in Sister Donna Quinn was there."
Quinn is the executive director of Chicago Catholic Women, an organization that is prochoice and advocates the ordination of women to the priesthood. Founded in 1974, Chicago Catholic Women had clashed often with the Vatican, and Quinn, a Dominican nun, had come close to being cut off from the church in 1984. She recalls seeing "an eagerness in Rick, a purity and simplicity, and an easygoing manner that would work on civil rights issues. We were seeking people like that."
Quinn assumed Garcia had been sent to Chicago by New Ways to work for the gay rights ordinance. He tried to set her straight. "She said, "We have to do something. We have to fight back.' And I said, "No, Donna, I'm just here for the summer. I'm not getting involved in gay activism. You know, that's awful what the cardinal did, but I don't want to do anything about it."' Quinn wouldn't listen. "She said, "Oh, that's nonsense. You come to my office on Monday. "'
Garcia went. "She said, "Alright, here's the desk, there's the typewriter, there's the phone. Let me show you where the Xerox machine is."' She went to the office next door and introduced him to Sister Margaret Traxler, executive director of the National Coalition of American Nuns. "She was one of my idols from way back, marched with Dr. King and all that kind of good stuff," Garcia says. "And we went into Margaret's, and she said, "Now, you do what you need to do, and if you need anything from us you let us know.' And in a sense they said, fight the cardinal on the gay rights bill. Organize Catholics to support the gay rights bill."
From the summer of 1986, when Garcia joined the effort to pass the city's Human Rights Ordinance, until 1992, when the Illinois Federation for Human Rights was chartered, Garcia was a maverick, accountable to no one. He started "organizations" that were often little more than a phone, a post office box, and a letterhead listing nonexistent support staff to make the group look like a group. Cash was often a problem. He didn't draw a salary. At least once his phone was turned off for lack of payment. He suffered. "Silence really does equal death," he told friends.
But Garcia had some resources. Art Johnston would occasionally throw a few dollars his way. And then he received regular small donations--$25 here, $50 there--from some 65 orders of nuns around the country. It was this sporadic funding that kept Garcia fed, clothed, and on the phone.
In 1986 civil rights for gays and lesbians was a volatile issue. A July 14 Tribune editorial came out against the gay rights amendment. Four days earlier a Tribune story even alluded to an unspecified "whispering rumor campaign aimed more at [Harold] Washington personally," which was believed to be a reference to rumors that the mayor, who supported the amendment, was himself gay.
In 1984 Washington had appointed Kit Duffy as his official liaison to the gay and lesbian community. A Washington ally since his days in Congress, she'd been involved in civil rights work for many years, but her first contact with gay and lesbian issues came after being named to the unpaid liaison post.
"I was very naive then about the prejudice against gays and lesbians," says Duffy, who now works for an insurance company. "I had no idea of how much nastiness and hatred there was." Soon after she took the job, Duffy began to get cards and letters from people she didn't even know. But more alarming were the phone calls. "I started getting all kinds of harassment. I received at least one death threat a week. Men would call up and threaten to rape me."
She says that some religious groups encouraged their members to contact her directly. "Channel 38 used to flash my phone number and urge their viewers to call me. But most of the people who did were basically good-hearted people who'd been propagandized. One woman, I'll never forget her, wanted to outlaw AIDS in Chicago."
Duffy says she sought to open the door at City Hall to gays and lesbians. "My job was to let as many people within the community get direct access to City Hall as I could," she says. The time seemed right to let the activists in.
"In 1984 I was walking down Halsted, and my photo had been in the paper, and a man came up to me and said, "Thanks for being nice to gay people.' They were thrilled with any acknowledgment. In a few years we went from that to "We're here, we're queer, get used to it.' It was marvelous."
Duffy saw her job as partly to encourage independent politics in the gay movement and to nurture a new wave of activists. She saw Garcia as an exceptional talent. But in 1986, one week after the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick, the gay rights amendment was defeated in the Chicago City Council, and Garcia wasn't going to stick around. Duffy recalls, "I told him, "You ain't goin' nowhere.' He was too valuable to let go. A lot of other organizers get involved with side issues. Rick is one of the few people who keeps his eyes on the prize. He has a nose for where the power is, and the ability to point that out to people."
Garcia's understanding of Catholic theology and church politics, and his connections among nuns, were also valuable. It was well-known that church and city were not quite separate in Chicago. The archdiocese held plenty of sway in the City Council--more than half of the aldermen were Roman Catholic. Local gay activist Jim Bussen, who was the national president of Dignity from 1985 to 1989, lays full blame for the amendment's initial defeat on the archdiocese. And he says its opposition came as a surprise.
"We had a meeting with Cardinal Bernardin in 1985 where we felt he'd promised to stay neutral. He said he couldn't endorse the ordinance but he wouldn't oppose it. He said all this stuff about how the ordinance was about civil rights and the church was in favor of civil rights, so at minimum he wouldn't oppose it."
When the cardinal eventually came out against the amendment, Bussen went public, relating the details of their meeting. "They said, well, we don't like the way it's worded. So we came back with five or six choices of another way to word it, and a bunch of us had a meeting." But the cardinal, Bussen says, wouldn't listen to the proposals. "He just talked for ten, fifteen minutes, saying, "We're not in the business of writing legislation' and "We react to issues, we don't act on them."'
Garcia and others believed Bernardin was being pressured by conservative Catholics, but Bussen thinks it was part of a calculated strategy.
"Oh, the cardinal was very soft-spoken and very nice," Bussen says, "but you don't get to wear the red hat without being a master politician. And he had very carefully inserted the knife, and we were walking around with a knife in our back, and we didn't know it."
Bernardin's opposition paved the way for the amendment's defeat on July 29, 1986, by a vote of 30-18.
After the vote, Bussen steered Dignity away from the issue. "I said at a meeting that the ordinance was not the province of gay Catholics, that this is not a religious issue, it's a civil rights issue, and that as long as you have Dignity out there it's not going to go anywhere."
Garcia agreed. "We had to develop a strategy that would minimize church opposition," he says. "It was a couple of things. One, people who had been involved in the effort up until that time would talk to the church, would dialogue with the church. "Let's go have meetings at the chancery office.' And from my perspective that was a major mistake. I said, "When His Eminence sits in the council and has a vote as the 51st alderman, then we meet with him and talk about the bill. But until that time, we talk to the legislators.
"Within weeks we had a news conference of sisters who supported the gay rights bill. And then I got very involved with the local organization that was working on passing the gay rights ordinance in the city of Chicago."
That organization, Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting, was formed shortly after the 1986 defeat and wound up drafting an entirely new Human Rights Ordinance to replace the old one. Loosely organized at first, with no officers or bylaws, Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting was an ad hoc collection of activists spanning all sorts of backgrounds. It soon became the most visible and most active of the organizations engaged in trying to draft and pass a new Human Rights Ordinance. Garcia became one of its leaders.
"When we did the effort," Garcia recalls, "it was under the guise of Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting. We did not go to the chancery and ask for meetings and talk to the church about the language of the bill. We came up with a strong, solid, good ordinance. We knew we'd have to give a religious exemption, and we had that prepared so that it was an OK religious exemption. And then we started gaining religious support."
The exemption, which would free religious groups from strict adherence to the ordinance, was a contentious issue. Some activists opposed it as a demeaning compromise. Garcia described the newly drafted exemption as "one of the most limited in the country." Yet in 1987 he told the gay newspaper Windy City Times that he opposed the religious exemption. "Those who say "Let's throw the exemption in there' have bought into most of the oppressive attitudes and really and truly in their hearts do not believe they are equal with everyone else," he said. "I find that very, very sad. If the bill contains a religious exemption, not only will I not work for it, I will work against it."
The heated rhetoric masked a more coolheaded strategy. Garcia acknowledges that religious institutions enjoy many special privileges, and while he never supported the exemption in the Human Rights Ordinance, he says, "It was not as strong or offensive as it could have been.
"I think that it's outrageous that any religious institution would ask to be exempt from civil rights legislation. Morally and ethically, I think that that's outrageous, that institutions which should stand for and which should be the bulwark of decency and equality, would ask to be exempt from legislation that promotes decency and equality.
"We always knew that we would have to give something up. But you have to go in with the strongest piece, ask for more than what you want, so that through the negotiation process you may get. If you go in and give everything away, then what are they gonna take out next?" Today and for all time, Garcia asserts, "I will never publicly offer a religious exemption . . . but I know that it may have to be in there."
Garcia, Bussen, Duffy, and others garnered support for a new ordinance from the United Church of Christ, from Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal bishops, from Presbyterians, Unitarians, and Quakers. Garcia also stirred up support from other groups within the Catholic church. The National Coalition of American Nuns came out in favor of the ordinance, as did the Association of Chicago Priests. "Then we had the National Assembly of Religious Women, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, the Little Company of Mary Sisters and the Franciscan Sisters and the Mercy Sisters and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and the list goes on," Garcia says. "And these are all communities that support gay and lesbian rights legislation. And the cardinal has to go, "Hmmm.'
"So every time we had a news conference, we had Catholic religious there and mainstream Protestant. And what it did is it isolated the archdiocese, it isolated Cardinal Bernardin in his initial opposition.
"I have only the highest regard for Cardinal Bernardin, and respect for him. And even though initially in '86 he came out against the gay and lesbian rights ordinance, his statement that surrounded his opposition is really an excellent statement. I mean, it affirms that gay and lesbian people are victims of discrimination, and his opposition, he was concerned that the ordinance would impact negatively on the church."
But Garcia's efforts had effectively wrapped Bernardin in a box with bigots, tying them together with a big pink bow. "There he was, the Catholic archbishop, with fundamentalists, goofy fundamentalists who opposed this bill, and I think that the cardinal was embarrassed." Garcia truly sounds upset. "And he's been silent ever since." The archdiocese did issue a statement in 1988 that stated it supports civil rights for all persons, but "did not support this particular ordinance." Bernardin did not personally comment, effectively minimizing the archdiocese's influence while not compromising its position.
"That's the politics of it all when you come down to it," Garcia says. "Maximize the support, minimize the opposition."
It's a simple maxim, and a useful one if you know where your opposition is coming from. When it started out, Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting was a model of participatory democracy. Everyone who showed up had a vote; anyone who wanted could speak their piece. That became a problem. Meetings would get sidetracked by speakers who brought other issues with them. The small group of people who started the meetings began to have premeeting get-togethers in places where the town wasn't invited.
The faction mapping Town Meeting's strategy included Garcia, Duffy, Jon-Henri Damski, University of Chicago students Irwin Keller and Jonathan Katz, and Laurie Dittman, who was on staff at IVI-IPO, the liberal political group. The leaders of Town Meeting knew they could count on support from Mayor Washington and his liberal allies, but if the ordinance were to pass they would have to find a way to change the votes of at least some of the old-line machine aldermen banded together as the "29." Then led by aldermen Edward Vrdolyak and Edward Burke, the majority faction would, practically without fail, vote against any proposal that Mayor Washington supported.
Among the 29 aldermen was Bernie Hansen, who was pulled in two directions. He represented the heavily gay 44th Ward and had voted for the 1986 gay rights amendment. But in light of Hansen's opposition to Washington, many gays thought his support was token at best and hypocritical at worst. In the spring of 1987, Hansen had just barely won reelection over gay challenger Ron Sable, who made Hansen's allegedly weak support an issue in the race. Encouraged by his narrow loss, Sable was laying the groundwork for a rematch against Hansen in '91. Hansen knew it--and Town Meeting's leaders knew he knew it. They wagered they could convince him to get some of his allies to change their votes on the Human Rights Ordinance from no to yes--and this made Hansen potentially a more valuable ally than Sable.
Town Meeting targeted Hansen as a key player in its strategy to pass the ordinance. That strategy set the stage for a fight between Sable and Hansen, which came to a head when Town Meeting voted on bylaws and officers in July 1987. Town Meeting's unofficial leaders had by then agreed that Jonathan Katz--young, handsome, and a powerful, charismatic speaker--would be their spokesperson.
Katz had been a featured speaker at June's gay pride rally. "We have held dying lovers, dying friends in our arms, and we haven't become numb or callous," he cried. "Let the aldermen of this city know that we are sick and tired of being second-class citizens in a city we helped to build and helped make great." He finished by promising, "We will drag Chicago, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the 20th century." The speech, later published in Windy City Times, marked Katz as a public figure to be reckoned with.
On July 12, Town Meeting gathered in the beer garden of Different Strokes, a bar in Uptown, for a vote to establish bylaws and elect officers. Garcia and his friends backed Katz for the position of "male comoderator," but Sable's faction supported Tom Hartman, who was affiliated with the Lesbian and Gay Progressive Democratic Organization, which Sable had cofounded. Both factions stacked the meeting; Garcia's group stacked higher. Fifty-one people showed up, and when the voting was done Jonathan Katz and Gail Schiesser were elected comoderators. Norm Sloan, who would go on to personally register thousands of voters, was elected recorder. Garcia was elected treasurer.
Garcia was quoted in the July 16 Windy City Times saying that the vote showed Town Meeting to be "free from all those power struggles that trouble so many gay organizations." But others weren't buying it. In the same issue Brandon Neese, a member of the Lesbian and Gay Progressive Democratic Organization, called Town Meeting the "antithesis of a coalition" and an "organization of individuals."
The two organizations rarely challenged each other in public until the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights that October. Just one elected official from Chicago showed up in D.C.--Bernie Hansen. Learning that Hansen was going to attend, Garcia--in New York visiting friends--phoned Hansen's office and arranged for him to speak at the huge rally before the march. There, introduced by Jonathan Katz, Hansen promised that he'd sponsor a new ordinance. The promise landed him on the front page of the Windy City Times the following week.
Even as Garcia and his group were aligning themselves with Hansen as part of the ordinance strategy, Sable was developing a reputation for waffling. He promoted himself as a progressive, yet declined to endorse Washington in the 1987 mayoral primary because he wanted votes from Jane Byrne backers. Garcia came to feel Sable was an unreliable gay spokesman and even called him a "house slave" on one occasion.
A month after the Washington march, Sable announced plans to launch a new group called Impact--a political action committee formed to give money to gay candidates, presumably including Sable himself. Art Johnston was the new group's cofounder. But the announcement of its formation, which ran in the November 26 Windy City Times, was overshadowed by the sudden death, on Thanksgiving Day, of Harold Washington.
Along with many others, Garcia felt hope die with Washington, but there were plenty of people in town who reacted as if they'd gotten an early Christmas present. "When I heard the news, I went with a friend to Bulldog Road and drank," Garcia says. "And it was so awful because we were in this bar and there were actually people in it who were thrilled that Harold was dead. A gay bar. I was devastated." That evening he drove to the south side to Operation PUSH with a few friends, including Kit Duffy and Laurie Dittman, to attend a memorial service for Washington.
"My initial reaction was, we are at square one," Garcia says. "But Harold always told us, "I'm not going to do it for you. You have to do it,' which was the most wonderful thing. Unlike "I'm going to deliver,' it was, "I'm behind you, but you have to do the work.' And so, yeah, we are at square one, but we're energized and we can do it. So there was a death and resurrection kind of thing."
Washington's death resurrected political gamesmanship as well. The continuing conflict between Washington and the Vrdolyak-Burke 29 was news every day between 1984 and '86. The conflict had been effectively doused after Vrdolyak's resignation from City Council and Washington's re-election as mayor in early '87, but it roared back in the days after Washington's death. The whole world wasn't watching the late-night meeting of the City Council on December 1, 1987, to choose one of the aldermen as acting mayor, despite claims to the contrary. But much of Chicago watched the meeting, which was broadcast live in its entirety.
Crowds surrounded City Hall, which was packed with spectators who cheered and jeered. Aldermen yelled "sellout" and worse at each other as the vote focused on two black aldermen seeking to succeed Washington: Eugene Sawyer, the nominee backed by the regular Democrats, and Tim Evans, whose champions claimed he was the legitimate heir to Washington's progressive legacy. Alderman Dorothy Tillman compared Sawyer's supporters to freed slaves begging "massa" to put the chains back on. Earlier that evening, Sawyer had sneaked a peek at the turmoil waiting to greet him outside--and fainted.
Sawyer's victory that night left progressives bitter and angry. In their book, the aldermen who'd voted for Sawyer, including Hansen, were retrograde or outright evil. Sawyer was thought to be the puppet of the white aldermen who'd worked so divisively to block every reform proposed by Mayor Washington--including the gay and lesbian rights ordinance, which Sawyer had voted against in '86. Tim Evans, on the other hand, had voted for the ordinance then and would certainly do so again. But Sawyer had at one time been in favor of gay rights--he cosponsored the first bill introduced in 1973. The day after being named acting mayor, Sawyer said he would reconsider his position on gay rights once again. With Washington dead, Kit Duffy resigned her position as liaison. Having helped establish the Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues on Washington's behalf in 1985, and with COGLI now employing Peggy Baker, an openly lesbian staff director, Duffy said she "wasn't needed anymore." But she continued to advise Town Meeting.
Duffy's advice to the group was to pick a target and look for an issue, any issue, that would draw media attention and a quick victory. The group found one in a January 26, 1988, Wall Street Journal story in which an ad executive who created commercials for Stroh's beer was quoted as suggesting that liquor companies should distance themselves from the homosexual market.
In response, Garcia, Johnston, Dittman, Damski, and others put together a group called the Coalition Against Media/Marketing Prejudice. With the support of Windy City Times CAAMP announced a "public awareness campaign" against Stroh's. It didn't call for a boycott, which would take a long time and probably fail. When Stroh's apologized a week after the "campaign" began, CAMMP declared victory-- and took aim at its second target. It found this one on TV. In a commercial for Kellogg's Nut & Honey Crunch cereal, a group of cowboys sit around a campfire. One of them shouts, "Hey, what's for dinner?" The snaggle-toothed cook replies, "Nut 'n' Honey!" The cowboys look at each other, then go for their guns.
CAMMP sent several letters to Kellogg's calling the commercial homophobic and demanding that the company pull the spot or face an invasion of Kellogg's headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan. The commercial stayed on the air. So in April 1988 CAMMP took a road trip. When the group arrived at the gates of the cereal kingdom, they found that Kellogg's was ready for them. Security was out in force. But Garcia sneaked past the guards and strolled into a shareholders' meeting, where he lectured the board and CEO William E. LeMothe. After being ejected from the meeting, Garcia staged a press conference outside Kellogg's, where he promised, "This is just the beginning. We will escalate our actions." Actually it was the end of CAMMP, which some were calling the Coalition to Attract Much Media Publicity. By the time Kellogg's eventually pulled the commercial, Garcia and his team had already turned to bigger things.
Besides shouting some gay awareness into corporate America, CAMMP was the crucible in which the Gang of Four's group dynamic was forged in preparation for its upcoming battle with the City Council. Johnston was the businessman: he bankrolled the group, and he could persuade other successful businessmen that discrimination was bad for business. Dittman was the detail-minded organizer with connections to liberal groups like IVI-IPO and NOW. Damski, then a columnist with Windy City Times, was the chronicler and advocate. Garcia was the noisemaker.
By the spring of 1988 acting mayor Sawyer was looking for gay support in the special election scheduled for the following year. Hoping to undercut gay support for his principal rival Tim Evans, Sawyer announced that he would definitely back the Human Rights Ordinance. But gay and lesbian activists had split over whom they should work with and whom they should help elect. Two upcoming contests cast a shadow over every debate: Evans versus Sawyer, and Sable versus Hansen. Sable's Lesbian and Gay Progressive Democratic Organization backed Tim Evans. Garcia, a strong Washington ally, was willing to work with Sawyer, Hansen, and other politicians who were viewed as antiprogressive.
While working for the city ordinance, Garcia remembers, " we recognized that we had maybe 10 or 15 votes, and they were the independents in the City Council, and we needed more numbers. So we start looking at who's influential, who's the one to get, and Ed Burke comes to mind, Kathy Osterman, people who were tied in with the machine, regular Democrats, conservatives, those who were not viewed as being supportive of gay and lesbian issues. Jon-Henri Damski took it on as a project to go after Ed Burke, and everybody thought he was absolutely crazy to do that. And we got criticisms because we were working with the Kathy Ostermans and the Ed Burkes of the world, because those were regular Democrats, those weren't progressives."
Progressives argued that the regular Democrats, if they voted for civil rights at all, would do so merely to curry favor with a community they'd long ignored. The gay and lesbian population had been hidden for most of American history, but it was beginning to show signs of becoming a significant voting bloc. Some felt the old-line politicians would make promises in return for gay dollars and endorsements and then sell the community down the river. Regular Democrats were known for working against social justice. Passing gay rights under a Sawyer administration would be like crediting George Wallace for integration.
Garcia disagreed. "They said, "You can't pass gay rights under a nonprogressive administration.' Excuse me? You're gonna deprive people of their basic civil rights, some protection under the law, because you don't like the politics of the current administration? That they're not progressive enough for you? And somebody once said, "Those are dirty votes.' Well, lamb chop, there's no such thing as a dirty vote. And one very progressive individual got up at a meeting, with indignation, saying, "Well, it sounds like Garcia is suggesting we just go and buy the votes. Why don't we just go down there and buy the votes?' To which I responded, "How much would they cost?' Which didn't go over very well."
Damski and Johnston became regular visitors to Burke's office. Damski says the meetings "became a little like a PhD oral in gay history." And Damski, who'd once taught Latin, found Burke to be an especially eager student. "He took out his yellow sheets, and he interviewed us and asked all sorts of basic questions--"What are gay people? What are they about?' He wanted lots of information. He liked the intellectual challenge. We brought him some books too, the quilt book and different things."
But the most important point to Burke, says Damski, was personal. "He said, well, when he was a policeman he arrested people that were gay, and they wore dresses, and he didn't know what cell to put 'em in. But he realized, suddenly, that a whole bunch of other people are gay, such as on his staff, in City Hall, in families." They discussed the roles of gay bars and Irish bars, agreeing that both had served similar functions as social and political institutions. And they discussed votes.
Burke, who'd voted against the 1986 ordinance, was weighing a run for mayor in '89. He asked for estimates of gay voter strength, and Damski says he gave it to him straight. "He had very strong political questions: how many are there, where do they vote, things like that. We didn't overestimate our numbers to him. . . . I was doing the 70,000 to 110,000 registered voters, not 300,000, not the big, rolling numbers."
Burke credits Damski, Johnston, and Garcia with helping to change his position to back the ordinance. "Alderman Kathy Osterman was very supportive," he adds, "and also helped convince me." Then Burke, a good Irish Catholic, helped convince other Catholics in the council.
The new Human Rights Ordinance, drafted by Sawyer's corporation counsel with the input of Town Meeting, was scheduled to be reintroduced on July 13, 1988. The vote was delayed by the maneuvering of Town Meeting--they still didn't have the votes. Rescheduled for July 27, the vote was delayed again after more politicking by Garcia and company. When the ordinance finally did come before the council on September 14, it was defeated by a vote of 26-21, which was at least an improvement on 1986's 30-18. Some of Sawyer's allies had voted no, and nasty rhetoric dominated the speeches against the ordinance. Homosexuals were called "sissies" and "filthy animals." But the tide was turning--the powerful Ed Burke had now voted yes.
An hour after the vote, Garcia, Johnston, Dittman, and Damski were at Sidetrack. "We're standing around drinking and trying to figure out what the next step is," Garcia recalls, "and I looked up and Ed Burke walked in the door. With Kathy Osterman on his arm. And being the emotional Spanish boy that I am, I looked at Art Johnston and Laurie Dittman, and they were standing there, and Jon-Henri was there; the four of us are standing there, and we looked at each other, and I said, "We won.' We didn't know what day, but we knew we had passed the ordinance." In the days that followed, Garcia issued public attacks on the no votes. Privately, he met with them.
Garcia found that the opposition read the Sun-Times. "On September 14, in a Sneed column, it talked about the gay and lesbian voter registration drive, and how we had registered this enormous amount of votes. And people who'd never talked to us before all of a sudden said, "So, were any of those people in my ward?' And my answer was, "Well, of course."'
Newspaper stories led some politicians to believe that at least 100,000 voters might back the supporters of the ordinance, but religion was still a pivotal issue. While other cities passed gay and lesbian rights bills of their own, Damski believes Chicago was "the toughest one because we were midwest and Catholic." So Garcia continued to bring nuns to City Hall. "Then we'd bring the aldermen out to see them," Damski says, "and it really worked on some of these big old men." A few of the nuns didn't want to wear their habits, Damski says, but Garcia insisted: "He'd say, "I have one you can wear if you don't, sister."'
With the power jockeying around City Hall, differences between the gay organizations became more public, and more than philosophical, after the September defeat of the Human Rights Ordinance. Damski says that some activists actually wanted the ordinance to fail. "They wanted it to happen under a progressive, Harold Washington-type mayor," he says. "They wanted it to happen under Evans. They didn't trust Sawyer. But we developed what we called the LBJ strategy," so called because Lyndon Johnson, a master political manipulator, pushed civil rights legislation through Congress. The Gang of Four set out to broaden support in the City Council by enlisting the acting mayor as an ally.
The Lesbian and Gay Progressive Democratic Organization deferred to Town Meeting as the lead group working on the issue, but it still sought to retain a voice in Town Meeting's decisions. The Gang of Four wouldn't listen to them. Sable complained to Windy City Times, "We were iced out of the process." Garcia, recalling the July 1987 showdown at Different Strokes, charged that Sable's group had tried to take over Town Meeting. He was also offended by the willingness of some progressives to play down gay visibility. For example, Evans hadn't mentioned gays and lesbians as part of the progressive coalition during his eulogy at Washington's memorial service, and Garcia was still pissed. "I will do everything in my power to make sure that Tim Evans is not the next mayor of Chicago," he declared in the Tribune. Damski says the other three members of the Gang of Four were angry at Garcia for publicly slamming Evans, but he now reflects, "I think it tells a lot about Rick, because Rick is not a politician. If Rick wanted to be assistant to the next future mayor, he never would have said anything like that.
"We realized that he was coming from a moral point of view that was probably right, and we had to process it. But if he'd been alone, without Arthur and me and others to protect him, I think they would have chewed him up alone. . . . I know some people working with him today couldn't stand him eight years ago. They used to come to me and say, "Can't you get your friend Garcia to shut up?"'
On December 13, 1988, Peggy Baker resigned her job as director of the city's Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues. An Evans supporter, Baker realized her position in the Sawyer administration had become untenable. Eight days later the Human Rights Ordinance passed by a vote of 28-17. Seven aldermen had switched from no to yes. William Henry, who'd been absent in September, showed up and voted yes. Four aldermen who'd previously cast no votes either were absent or abstained. Patrick Huels and Mark Fary, two aldermen loyal to Richard M. Daley, switched from no to yes. Marlene Carter, who'd called gays "sissies" in September--and whom Garcia had assiduously courted since--voted in favor of the ordinance in December.
On February 16, 1989, Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting gathered for one last time at Sidetrack, where Dittman and Garcia burned the bylaws and whooped it up for the press. "Take that, Cardinal Bernardin," Kit Duffy told Windy City Times. "Sawyer delivered," Garcia proclaimed. But the gay support behind Sawyer wasn't enough to beat Daley in that month's special mayoral primary. The ordinance went into effect at the end of February, and, as promised, Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting dissolved. But the Gang of Four wasn't ready to break up just yet, so the Action Network for Lesbian and Gay Issues sprang up in its place.
"When the city ordinance passed, we decided, well, should we stay in existence or should we go out of existence?" Garcia says. "The reality is that there were other issues that needed to be addressed in the community, and the same players continued to address those issues in the same kind of way."
The group's subsequent efforts gained support in the City Council; every time a new initiative came up for a vote, more aldermen sided with the gay community. On December 6, 1990, Bernie Hansen introduced legislation that would define verbal and physical assaults on gay people as hate crimes. The bill's introduction was timed to be announced the same week Sable unveiled his plans to run for Hansen's City Council seat--a Garcia strategy. The hate crimes ordinance flew through committee, even winning a vote from Alderman Robert Shaw, one of the staunchest foes of the Human Rights Ordinance. It passed 43-0 on December 19. Of 24 states and cities in the U.S. with hate crimes laws, Chicago was the first place to pass one unanimously.
A week later the Gang of Four was presented with the city's Human Relations Award. Also receiving an award that year was Alderman George Hagopian, an unswerving foe of gay rights who'd called homosexuals "filthy animals." Garcia planned to protest, but for the first time in the 44-year history of the award, the recipients weren't allowed to speak. Damski convinced Garcia to accept the award because he'd earned it.
In February 1991 Sable was beaten again by Hansen (who had been endorsed by all four members of the Action Network for Lesbian and Gay Issues). This time Sable didn't even come close to winning; his gay support had been evaporating as Hansen's had grown. (Sable died of AIDS-related complications in 1993.)
With a string of city-level successes under its belt, Action Network began to work the halls of the County Building. Garcia forged an alliance with Maria Pappas shortly before she was elected to the Cook County Board. Pappas was strongly in favor of a gay and lesbian civil rights bill for Cook County, which newly elected board president Richard Phelan also publicly supported. Action Network expected Phelan to sign an executive order affirming gay rights, but early missteps undermined his authority. So Action Network had an ordinance introduced with Democrats Pappas and Ted Lechowitz as chief sponsors along with Republican Herb Schumann.
Garcia went to work for Pappas for a few months in 1991--one of the only times he's been on a pol's payroll. Action Network hoped it would extend their influence and help get the county ordinance passed. "She needed an assistant, and we thought, "Hey, this is a great place to put Rick because he'll be right there in the County Building, working for her,"' Garcia says. But they were wrong. He couldn't stand taking orders. He and Pappas had a friendly breakup and stayed in touch.
But his stint in the board's inner sanctum convinced Garcia that Phelan was not a reliable ally. Pappas, in particular, made no secret of her complete contempt for Phelan. "We went in and looked at the situation and saw that we could use the tension between Pappas and Phelan to move our bill," Garcia says, "and so we did. And he was not thrilled at all. That's how you play politics. You look at the landscape: "Phelan, Pappas, fighting? Hmmm, how can we use that to our advantage?' And we did. We did it successfully."
Besides playing on some commissioners' personal dislike of Phelan, Garcia tried his best to make the president's life miserable. He slammed him in the press at every opportunity. In March 1992, Garcia met up with Queer Nation activists to have a little sport with Phelan at a meeting of the Cook County Board. I tagged along.
The activists tried not to call attention to themselves at first. They entered the meeting a pair at a time and took seats scattered throughout the chamber. Garcia was one of the last to enter. He'd also be the last to stand up and yell at the president. "I live for this," he whispered, as we took our seats.
A few minutes into the meeting, Phelan started speaking. Two women then stood up, walked over to a podium in the audience, and broke in: "Live up to your commitments, Mr. President." Phelan fell silent. He peered at the women briefly, then looked at the floor as they were led out by sheriff's officers.
I don't recall exactly what point the meeting had reached when Phelan finally noticed Garcia in the audience, but I'll never forget the expression that crossed his face: he looked nauseated, as if he'd just swallowed a rotten egg. He quickly looked away. For the rest of the meeting, Phelan sat in profile, staring at a point somewhere beyond the back of the room. Occasionally he peeked back over to Garcia's side.
Pappas was sitting a couple of rows in front of us, and when she noticed Garcia's presence she turned around and gave him a big smile. Another pair of activists yelled at Phelan and were escorted from the room. Pappas turned around and smiled again. Garcia whispered to me, "I don't have time to go to jail today. I have a meeting at one." As the last pair from Queer Nation was being led out the door, Garcia called from his seat, "It's not a campaign issue, it's a justice issue. Shame on you, Dick Phelan!" Pappas turned around again and gave Garcia a thumbs-up. Phelan looked like he wanted a Tums.
In 1994 Phelan ran for the Democratic nomination for governor against Dawn Clark Netsch. Garcia worked wholeheartedly for Netsch--in part because he felt Phelan's waffling on the county gay rights bill was part of his posturing for the gubernatorial campaign. Impact gave recommendations to both Netsch and Phelan, which Garcia slammed as evidence of the group's political incompetence.
"Do none of you remember the fiasco surrounding the issuing of his executive order?" he exploded in a letter to Impact's board of directors dated February 11, 1994. "Do none of you remember that he was one of the very last Commissioners to support the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance?" Garcia complained that giving Netsch "the same rating as Phelan is nothing short of offensive and stupid. Once again, you have demonstrated that you are politically brain dead and that you are easily duped by those who lie and pander to you. How sad, pathetic, and shameful. When are you going to get a clue?" He signed off, "In disgust, Rick Garcia."
Eric Adelstein, who was Phelan's assistant from December 1990 to October '93, expresses no hard feelings about Garcia's attacks on Phelan. He says now that Phelan was always "a hundred percent for passing" a bill. "There was strong opposition to that bill," he notes, but "Art Johnston, Jon-Henri Damski, and Rick were really helpful in getting it passed.
"Rick is an extremely effective advocate," Adelstein says. "He's nontraditional. He's like Dennis Rodman: when he's not on your team you hate him, but he's a valuable addition."
The gay rights bill wasn't passed by the Cook County Board until March 16, 1993. By then Action Network had been dead for just over a year. In its place was the Illinois Federation for Human Rights. It wasn't much more than a business card at that point, but the card listed three addresses: a mail drop in Chicago and two post office boxes downstate, one in Dupo, the other in Springfield. There was an 800 number for each of the downstate boxes.
"In '92 we realized that we needed to have an organization that dealt with issues on a statewide level, on a broader level, but we couldn't do it in an ad hoc way anymore," Garcia says. "I mean, especially in dealing with Springfield, it's very difficult to do things in an ad hoc way. You have to have lobbyists, you have to have an office. I mean, there are just some things that you have to have if you're going to be effective and efficient. And so we thought, OK, it's time to formalize and become the Illinois Federation for Human Rights."
By this time the Gang of Four had disintegrated. Damski had pulled away from activism, preferring to concentrate on philosophy and his writing. The other three had hoped to make Impact a new base. To that end, Johnston had promoted Dittman for the executive director job at Impact. But things had started to sour.
Johnston had sat on Impact's board since its inception, but he resigned abruptly in February 1992. "It was over Joan Jett Blakk," he says, referring to the drag queen noted for street-theater activism. Blakk became the Queer Nation candidate for president with the campaign slogan "Lick Bush in '92." Johnston had invited Blakk to Impact's fund-raising dinner, then one of the major events in the political calendar. Held in a plush ballroom at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, it attracted players and contributors from all the diverse factions that support gay rights. Johnston, who'd cofounded Impact, was supposed to be at a table near the podium. Besides Blakk, his guests included Alderman Ed Burke and his wife Anne and former alderman Kathy Osterman, who was then head of the Mayor's Office of Special Events.
"When the dinner committee heard that I was going to have Joan Jett Blakk at my table, they held a special meeting to move my table," Johnston says now, still amazed. "They said, "We don't want to embarrass the important people." Johnston asked them to reconsider, but his entire party wound up sitting at a table in the back of the room near the kitchen.
"Kathy Osterman asked, "Well Art, who did you offend this year?"' Johnston recalls. Osterman asked Blakk if she could be chief of protocol when Blakk went to the White House. Blakk promised to rename it the Lavender House. They discussed the relative merits of ordering lavender or purple china to go with the new color scheme.
"Impact began to demean the direct action groups," Johnston says. "Danny Sotomayor, the previous year, had had to sneak into the dinner because they didn't want him to embarrass the mayor. . . . He unfurled one of his famous banners saying "Mayor Daley, Tell the Truth About AIDS.' And they had so mistreated him in previous years. And now he was dead, and they were gonna give him an award! The whole way Impact was dealing with street activism was the last straw, and I resigned based on that." Johnston handed in his resignation on the Monday following the dinner.
In 1992 Impact refused to endorse Herb Shuman, the Republican sponsor of the Cook County gay rights bill. "Because they didn't like his answers on choice, he was given their lowest rating, the "Jesse Helms' rating," Johnston says, convinced that the action helped defeat Shuman. "Our Republican efforts were set back substantially, and Herb was given a knee in the groin. In essence, by saying vote against him, they were telling people to vote for his opponent, who was Aurelia Pucinski, the Cook County legislator who refused to meet with our community." Impact, Johnston says, sent questionnaires to all candidates and based their ratings on the answers. Pucinski hadn't answered, so she was given no rating.
Johnston and Garcia were surprised that Dittman hadn't put Impact behind their legislative agenda. Talking about Dittman now, Garcia sounds like Michael Corleone talking about his brother Fredo. "She broke my heart," he says. "She got completely absorbed by her ego and her arrogance and did not rely on people who were her friends and who would've continued to protect her and help her. She went to folks who chewed her up and spit her out. And that's unfortunate. She had many gifts and talents, and she should be on the scene and she isn't, and that's unfortunate." (Now working as a deputy to city treasurer Miriam Santos, Dittman declined to be interviewed for this article.)
In early 1992 the Illinois Gay & Lesbian Task Force was the leading gay organization in Springfield. But by April of that year the Task Force's chief lobbyist, Lana Hostetler, had resigned, and the organization hadn't replaced her. The group was criticized in the pages of Windy City Times by Garcia, who'd always had nice things to say about them before, and (somewhat less harshly) by Dittman. Both pointed out that the gay rights bill would stand little chance of passing without a lobbyist.
By 1993 the federation had hired Hostetler. She'd been working to pass a statewide gay civil rights bill for more than a decade.
"In the late 80s and early 90s these bills would only get 30 votes," she recalls. When the 1993 bill was passed by the Illinois House that number had doubled, which Hostetler says demonstrated the effectiveness of the federation's bipartisan approach. Because the bill later stalled in the Senate, it will have to be reintroduced this January.
"The chances are excellent that it will pass," Hostetler says. "The momentum is there; the community is more organized than it's ever been.
"I'm a little biased," she admits, "but the federation has been instrumental in organizing around the state and has been very clear about the importance of civil rights." She also points out that the federation is no longer just the Rick and Art Show--it's grown into an institution driven by its members and overseen by a board of directors. "It really is a federation, a federation of many, many different people with different goals all around the state," she says.
But while the federation has grown, Impact has stumbled. Laurie Dittman resigned in June 1993, and after a protracted search Impact finally hired Tom Swift as its executive director in July 1994.
Swift had worked for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., where he ran a national membership drive. Others had been approached for the job at Impact, but there had been no takers. Swift soon discovered at least one reason why.
"The moment I was announced as the executive director, I started receiving anonymous faxes," he says. "Articles, letters to the editor, it was a steady stream of stuff. They were all highly detrimental to Impact. It was only later that I began to realize that was probably coming from Rick."
When asked if he sent these anonymous faxes and letters, Garcia smiles and replies, "Would I do that?"
After Swift arrived in Chicago, he met with Laurie Dittman, who told him to watch out for Garcia: "She said I had no idea of what I was getting into, and told me don't trust him, don't trust Art, and watch your back." Swift says he never had a chance--Garcia would attack Impact on practically anything, in the press or in private.
In late November Swift wrote a letter to Art Johnston requesting a meeting. On December 3, he got a phone call from Garcia, who, Swift says, was "upset because I had started speaking out about Republican dirty tricks in the '94 election, and he told me to stop. He told me to stay out of Springfield, to not talk about Republicans, and he said if you meet with Republicans you'll have trouble. I said, "Is that a threat?' He said, "You know what I mean.'
"I then asked for him to meet [with me]. He said there's no need to meet. He called us incompetent jerks and fools. I said, "I believe that your characterization and you, the way you're handling this situation, is destructive and dysfunctional.' He said, "I guess that's the way I operate."'
Swift claims that Garcia went on to tell him, "You are not invited to any meeting I organize or attend, and you never will be.' I then said, "You know, give me a break. I'm new here, I don't mean to . . . "' But Garcia was having none of it. "He said, "I don't care if you're new."' When Garcia said that Springfield was his territory, Swift says he asked, "Well, why were you quoted on the Mel Reynolds fiasco?" Reynolds, the Congressman who'd been charged with having sex with a minor, had characterized his accuser as a "crazy lesbian," and both Impact and Garcia had jumped on it. Swift says he told Garcia that it had nothing to do with Springfield. "Garcia's response was, and I wrote it down, quote, "I am the spokesperson for the gay and lesbian community in Illinois, and I will do what I want to."'
On December 9, 1994, Garcia sent Swift a letter confirming that there would be no discussion between Impact and the Illinois Federation for Human Rights. On December 13, Garcia, responding to a PR flyer Swift put out boasting of Impact's accomplishments, requested a list of those accomplishments. Impact had, over the years, made recommendations in every election, raised a lot of money, and given plenty of it to candidates. It had a hand in voter-registration efforts that signed up nearly 20,000 voters. But Impact also had its problems, and Swift felt a list of accomplishments could easily be torn apart. "I didn't respond to it," Swift says. "I think he really wanted to get his hands on it and go through it line by line and discredit it."
Sometime around December 19, Swift received a letter nominating Garcia for the Alongi Award, given annually by Impact for notable achievement in promoting gay and lesbian civil rights. Though the letter was dated 1993, it was received in 1994. Swift believed the letter to be a perennial. It was signed by Tobi Williams, the director of special events for Cook County. Though Williams says she wrote the letter, Swift says he thinks the letter came from Garcia himself. He brought it to the attention of the board.
"We did discuss it," Swift recalls. Some people said that perhaps they should give the award to Garcia. They thought, Swift says, "maybe this would smooth the waters." Garcia didn't get the award and never will, according to Swift. "No way."
Swift admits that Impact was not immune from criticism. "It really had suffered a lot. There was a whole period where it had no executive director, and it's very difficult to run those things as a volunteer organization." He ordered an audit and found some serious financial problems. Impact was fined by the Federal Election Commission for improper reporting of campaign contributions. Swift earnestly set out to clean things up, and when word of the troubles leaked to Windy City Times he forthrightly discussed them with the press. Many saw Swift's efforts as a way of upgrading Impact's bad image.
"There had always been this culture at Impact of, if we screw up, don't tell anyone. Give me a fucking break!" he says. "And a lot of that I think is also perpetuated by Art and Rick because it's like, "Oh, we can't show any vulnerability.' That's just stupid, I mean, volunteer organizations--mistakes happen. The best thing to do is just say, "Oops, we've made a mistake, but the good news is we've rectified it.' The whole culture of political organizing is set by Art and Rick, so it is a culture of fear and hiding."
But Garcia says Impact's problem is its lack of focus. "Over the years they've had no vision, no mission, no goal," he says. "They have a mission du jour, a goal du jour, a strategy du jour. If you go through and look at newspaper reporting in the gay press about Impact, every 12 to 14 months you have this new restructuring, revision, whatever. And a lot of planning, planning to do a whole lot of things that never come to fruition. And by your fruits you will be known." He believes that the annual fund-raising dinner is Impact's main accomplishment. "They do it splendidly and fantastically. I will give them that."
Impact claimed leadership of the massive gay voter-registration efforts in the city, but Garcia says the organization's role in registration didn't become official until 1992. "Lesbian and Gay Voter Impact [was] the city's best voter-registration drive ever--20,000 registered voters," says Garcia. "In 1992 they come along and promptly kill it off." Garcia says that he tried to get Impact back into the registration business in 1993, when the federation was pushing for the state gay rights bill. "And they went, "Oh, please, why would we want to do that?' Yeah, that's right, find us something insignificant to do.
"Any political organization that takes a highly successful voter-registration drive and kills it," Garcia says, his voice rising, "is not a political organization. I don't know what it is. One of the most effective tools minority groups have in this country for change--they kill it." The federation has been conducting its own voter registration drives since 1993.
Both Garcia and Johnston claim that Impact made commitments that it hasn't met. Garcia maintains that Impact promised to give the federation $10,000 in late 1993 for lobbying work in Springfield. "I'm still waitin'," he says. "I still go to the post office every day . . . someday my check will come."
Though the $10,000 promise was made nine months before he became Impact's director, Swift says the whole episode was in Garcia's plan. The letter signed "In disgust" arrived soon after the money was promised. Swift says he agrees that Impact shouldn't have endorsed Phelan, but the letter and the resulting feud were part of "a perfect political ploy, and it's how Rick plays. They either get $10,000 or they can turn around and say, "See, these incompetent assholes--they can't be trusted and they go against their word.' It's a perfect ploy. They win both ways.
"A promise was made and not followed through on," he adds, "and that's a bad thing. At the same time you should never expect to receive money biting the hand that feeds you. That's not how you raise money."
The promise was made to Garcia by two board members, says Swift, but it hadn't been voted on by the full board. Garcia takes the episode as an example of Impact's instability. "I've met with chairs and executive directors to plot strategy or even to talk about problems that we've had with them. And they'll go, "Oh, Rick, there you go again, bringing up the past.' Lamb chop, six months ago, a year ago, is hardly the Middle Ages. So it's always, "Well, let's forget about it, let's have a new day.' And that's their problem, they always have a new day.
"Last year they announced--while we are doing it and doing it very successfully--they announced that they are doing a registration drive. And I called them up and said, "We're gonna meet now. Come over children."' Garcia met with Swift and Richard Huitema, then Impact's chairman of the board.
"I said, "We have these agreements.' "Well, we don't know anything about that, that's the past.' I said to them, "Do you see my frustration? Do you see my frustration that there is no continuity, no consistency?"'
Huitema, Garcia says, reassured him that Swift would provide consistency, and then at the end of the meeting mentioned that he was stepping down as chairman in a week. Garcia says he exploded: "Mother of God! What did I just talk about? No continuity, no consistency." He says he walked out of the meeting thinking, "Oh dear Jesus, once again we have these new people. Many of them are just very well intentioned, want to get involved. They're thrown on the board, they don't know who or what or where, de nada, nada, nada, zilch, bupkus. And they get upset because I'm frustrated?
"There's nobody over there who wants to do anything badly for the community," he says. "They are all extremely well intentioned, but we know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Any organization that has to spend retreats and board meetings to decide who we are--and what our mission is and what are our goals--should go out of business. If I cannot walk in here right now and tell you what my mission and goal is, I should get out of here. And if this organization can't tell you what its mission and goal is, it should close the front fuckin' door. Because if you don't know what your mission and goal is, you ain't got no mission and goal."
Swift says, "Rick Garcia has run more people out of town and out of involvement than anything else. There's a legion of people who used to be involved and no longer are because of him." Swift stayed at Impact for a year and a half, then resigned citing health problems. He discovered he was HIV positive. Now he lives in California and works for Brush Creek Media, a publisher of gay pornography.
Impact has had a new executive director, Gary Heebner, since March. Before leaving, Swift led Impact back into voter registration in 1995, and over the last six months Impact has received funds from the Human Rights Campaign for a new registration drive. Heebner says he's never met with Garcia or spoken to him.
"It's unhealthy to dwell in the past," Heebner says. "This community needs more than one political organization, and competition can be healthy as long as it's not too focused on personalities. No one organization is going to make that legislation pass in Springfield."
Swift says, "Art and Rick have both publicly said--and both have said to me--that they want Impact to not exist. And Impact, despite its faults, is the model. Board-driven, donation-driven, volunteer-driven, that's how it's done. Everyone would turn around and say, "Gosh, look at the federation, look how effective they are.' You know, they have created this bizarre paradigm where noninvolvement, no board, and no membership is good! When in fact, it's not good, it's not fair, it's not representative, and it's not the model. No one has a voice. No one speaks out."
But the federation is now a membership organization, and it does have a board. Still, Garcia often seems to deal better with the opposition than with his allies. At a reception last year at City Hall, Garcia called a Human Rights Campaign fund-raiser a "duplicitous bitch," and Johnston ended up flying to Washington, D.C., with Lana Hostetler to meet with Elizabeth Birch to patch things up. While Garcia waited in a room outside Birch's office, Johnston says he made it clear that "HRC was not going to determine who represents the federation." Birch responded, Johnston says, by telling him that Garcia is rude.
"She called Rick toxic waste, told me that she was ashamed of me. It went on, a remarkable bunch of words saying how rude we are. And I said, "Elizabeth, you mean you will meet with Ralph Reed'--because she was all over the newspapers wanting to meet with Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition--"but you won't meet with Rick Garcia? Rick Garcia, who is one of the people seminally responsible for gay rights for millions of people in Chicago and Cook County?' And her response was, "Ralph Reed is polite."'
After the meeting, Johnston says he tried to stay in touch with the Human Rights Campaign through intermediaries. After all, he was one of the original members of the organization's Federal Club, a group of sustainers who each give $100 a month. Steve Endean, the late executive director of HRC, had left money to the Illinois Federation for Human Rights in his will. "It was Steve's dream to pass gay rights in his home state of Minnesota, and it did pass in '93," Johnston says. "He felt the Illinois Federation for Human Rights had helped him realize his dream. It was a great compliment to our work."
The two groups worked together, often closely, until Birch became HRC's executive director in early 1995. When Birch came to Chicago on her first tour of the country, she didn't meet with Johnston and Garcia. They flew to Detroit to meet with her, and they believed that meeting went very well. But after the City Hall incident, Johnston says, all attempts to reconnect with HRC were rebuffed. "They've said it was Rick Garcia, and at one point I thought that was true. But it became pretty clear that that was not the case.
"I think that HRC wants to take over the entire gay rights movement across the country," Johnston says. "Elizabeth has publicly stated on a number of occasions that we should only speak with one voice in D.C. Recently, she's added to that. We should speak with one voice within the beltway and in the state capitals."
Johnston says he thinks Garcia was intentionally goaded by the HRC fund-raiser that night at City Hall. "I've never seen him so livid. He went on and on about being treated like the "spic yard boy.' "I've never been so condescended to in my life; she told me I don't know anything about politics.' She got on him so much, he finally responded."
Johnston accuses HRC of undermining the federation in Springfield. "Our bill here in Illinois is a comprehensive civil rights bill. That means employment, housing, public accommodations, and credit transactions. That's the full boat, and almost every state and most municipalities that have gay rights have that." But the federal bill that HRC is behind in Washington--the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA--addresses employment only. "Their local supporters who are pushing that kind of bill nationally have occasionally gone to our local legislators and suggested employment-only language. That's very dangerous to us and directly impacts on our work in Springfield.
"Clearly, introducing language into Illinois for basic civil rights that does not include all civil rights demeans our community. To even suggest that certain civil rights should be ours and others should not, I have a real problem with."
On Tuesday, May 21, Rick Garcia didn't bother to shave. He pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, went to mass, and then walked to his office at the Illinois Federation for Human Rights. The Supreme Court victory was yesterday; today the issue was same-sex marriages. A bill banning same-sex marriages was already on Governor Edgar's desk, awaiting his signature. "We're gonna lose this one anyway," Garcia said. But it didn't much matter. "This is gonna wind up in the Supreme Court."
He wasn't surprised when Governor Edgar signed the bill on May 24, and his comments in Windy City Times were even tempered. "The governor has had a reputation of being moderate and decent, and this is contrary to his reputation," Garcia said. Then he went on to warn that "right-wing fanatics increasingly control Springfield" and "this does not bode well for the state of Illinois." The governor would not get an invitation to this year's federation fund-raiser. Yet deep down Garcia realized that the driving motivation behind the bill was politics, part of a game he plays daily--and plays to win.
The game may seem complex, but Garcia says the underlying rules are simple. Right and wrong don't count for much. "It's one thing to go and say, "Now you know Senator, discrimination is wrong, and these people are being discriminated against. Make it illegal.' And it's quite another to go to a senator and say, "Look, there's this voting bloc of people out there who traditionally have not voted for you, and if you support this kind of bill, hmmm, just so happens that the two things you care about most--votes and money--may be coming your way from that community. And the parents of that community. And the friends of that community.'
"I don't care what anybody says. It's all that legislators understand, votes and money. "Who cares whether it's right? Is it gonna cost me my seat?' Because the one thing--particularly in the state legislature, their number one priority is to maintain their seat. That's number one."
Garcia's desk is surrounded by icons--a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. with a lit candle in front of it, a picture of Harvey Milk, a porcelain figurine of a nun cradling a crucifix. A poster across the room proclaims the lasting legacy of Daniel Sotomayor: "Even from the grave, Danny remains Chicago's most powerful gay activist." The phone rings. Garcia checks the caller ID. "State's attorney's office," he notes. "I don't have to take it." Ten minutes later, the phone rings again. It's the state's attorney again. Garcia, who couldn't get the police to respond to a bashing complaint in 1987, still doesn't have to take it.
Some people say Garcia won't work with others, but he's been one of the few suit-and-tie activists to earn the respect of street activists. This year's fund-raiser for the Illinois Federation for Human Rights--a gala concert starring Carol Channing at Navy Pier--boasted a full roster of national gay organizations on its honorary committee. Only HRC was absent.
In three years the federation's annual budget has gone from under $50,000 to more than $200,000, one of the largest budgets of any state gay organization in the country, and its political action committee has given nearly $60,000 to candidates. It has moved from a spare room in Garcia's apartment to a street-level office on Halsted. It has a paid staff of seven and a steady stream of volunteers. For Garcia, who worked on his own for so long, it's a new world--one he sometimes resents.
"I had no desire to run an organization," he says. "I didn't want to be called executive director. I wanted to be an activist." Running an organization means endless fund-raising to maintain the office, and he says that can get in the way of doing the important work--giving witness and speaking out.
"We have to recognize that 30 years ago, 20 years ago, this community was still largely invisible," Garcia says. "And it's increasingly visible. You know, we used to be the love that dare not speak its name. Now we're the love that doesn't shut up.
"I mean, people have talked about our lobbying effort in Springfield. It's kind of wild--you'll see a mine worker, a beer distributor, and a nun all talking about gay rights in the same afternoon. That's our coalition." He laughs. "Coalition politics--mine workers, nuns, and beer distributors. And it works."
During the Democratic National Convention the federation hosted a joint fund-raiser with the Victory Fund, a national organization that supports gay candidates for public office. Two weeks earlier Garcia had taken the federation's lobbying effort where no gay activist had gone before--room 544 at the Princess Resorts in San Diego, where he ran a hospitality suite for members of the Illinois Delegation to the Republican National Convention. He went alone, and on the first day stayed alone, surrounded by champagne, chocolate, and petits fours set out for guests who didn't show up. "It should have been scotch, red meat, and cigarettes," he says, "but what the hey." The next two days did bring state's attorney Jack O'Malley, state comptroller Loleta Didrickson, Cook County Republican chair Manny Hoffman, and a few other delegates, and he dined with state treasurer Judy Baar Topinka and attorney general Jim Ryan. Garcia was the only gay activist in town who was there as a guest of a state delegation. He hadn't exactly been invited to the party, but he decided to invite himself.
"I called Chris Dudley, executive director of the state Republican party, and said we would like to have a hospitality suite, and she said OK." Dudley helped make the arrangements and gave him a list of the delegates to invite. But when he arrived at the resort he found that room 544 wasn't a room--it was one cottage among many spread over a wide tract fronting the bay. "The resort looks kind of like an upscale trailer park," Garcia notes, "a Republican trailer park. Given who we were and given the layout of the resort, they weren't beating a path to my door."
With six swimming pools, a golf course, tennis courts, and big, expensive banquets thrown daily by banks and businesses, the competition for a delegate's attention was intense. "It's just an orgy of overeating and drinking and partying," he said, "so who's gonna come by for a glass of champagne and a handful of chocolates?"
But Garcia had flown 2,000 miles to schmooze with Republicans, and he wasn't going to just stay in his room. Wearing his identification tag, which he had modified with an Illinois-shaped pin in rainbow colors, he went out to the pools and the parties.
"The point was not to do a major seminar there, but to be a presence, to be inside," he says. "They had to see us wherever they went, and we were the only gay rights organization that was inside of a delegate hotel, the only one in the entire country." Noting that the gay Log Cabin Republicans did send five delegates to the convention, he clarifies his assertion. "We were the only nonpartisan group to have a presence there."
"Significant segments in the Republican party are rabidly homophobic," acknowledges Garcia, but everyone he met was friendly. "We were not invited, but we were welcomed. We will never mitigate those negative attitudes if we are only on the outside pointing fingers. We have to be on the inside and be willing to talk to these people, to find a way to inspire them to have a conversion of heart." During convention hours, however, Garcia stood outside the hall and demonstrated with other gay and lesbian groups.
"I was almost schizophrenic because in the morning I schmoozed the folks, from two to four offered hospitality, and at four I closed up the hospitality suite, changed my clothes, took off my tie, put on jeans, and went downtown. In a sense I had the best of both worlds." And there was plenty to protest. Garcia calls it "the Trojan horse convention" because, he says, the party platform "seeks to demonize immigrants and gays and lesbians, and really does not care about the people, and poor people in particular. But the face they have put on it is one of moderation."
Garcia flew back to Chicago on August 16 and wrote a press release. "Gay Endorsement of Dole Blasted" was the headline, and the gays Garcia was blasting were members of the Log Cabin Republicans. "It is disgusting that a gay group would endorse a candidate who has demonstrated rank antigay bigotry," he wrote. "What next, the NAACP endorsing David Duke? This endorsement is pathologically partisan and betrays the community they claim to serve."
Garcia admits, "I'm very hard on some other activists and organizations in the community. I may come across, maybe, as hard and critical. But if we can't criticize one another, how are we going to refine our message, how are we going to refine what we're doing? Without criticism we just go on and on and on, and we're not effective. So the criticisms come not because I hate these people or I dislike these people--it comes because I want us all to be the best we can be. And the way we can be the best we can be is to raise issues, and to have some criticisms, and to ask some hard questions. And not just always be polite and nice and smiley and turning a blind eye to incompetence and stupidity."
Garcia says he's had a small epiphany about the way his style is perceived by others. "When I look at them and say, "You politically brain-dead idiots,' now somebody could come in here and say that to us, say that to me about a decision, and I would discuss it with them, fight back a little bit. But I would not look at that person and say, "Hahh! He called me--me--a politically brain-dead idiot!'
"All of a sudden I realized that I'm dealing with a bunch of folks who have internalized and personalized my political analysis and criticism," Garcia says. "What I recognize is they have received it as a personal attack. I said this more than once to Tom Swift, and I know he never got it. That I have high regard for him, that what I say should not be taken personally because this isn't a personal thing between Rick and Tom. It's a thing between Rick and the institution that he represents.
"Maybe I'm just getting older. In the past I'd just think, well, fuck 'em. If they can't separate those kinds of things, they shouldn't be in the business. But now that I'm a little bit older I'm thinking, well, just because I'm able to have people come in here and holler and scream at me . . . but still look at them and still like them, and still go out and have a drink with them. No, in my mind, one thing doesn't have anything to do with another, but for a lot of people over there . . . " He trails off.
Both Garcia and Johnston like to quote Tip O'Neill's maxim "All politics is local." Garcia has been working locally for a decade, and he's still here, still queer, and many of his former foes have more than gotten used to him. He's helped to connect the gay rights movement to other political, business, and religious groups, and due to these connections, gays and lesbians--and their parents and friends--possess a bit more freedom than they would have if Garcia had left town after his summer vacation ten years ago.
But the law can only take you so far. There will always be people who think the freedoms granted to others are freedoms taken from them. "I mean, you still have the Near North News editorially saying gays and lesbians were the mainstay of the Nazi Party, you know?" Garcia says. "And we all want to go to work for the Boy Scouts so we can have easy access to children, you know? We're still gonna have that kind of crap, so our work is not anywhere close to being done.
"You know, you always hear activists saying, "We're working to put ourselves out of business."' Garcia smiles. "Well, child, I'm not going to be around that long."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Randy Tunnell of: Rick Garcia, Art Johnston, Elizabeth Birch, Tom Swift, Kit Duffy, Jon-Henri Damski.