John D’Emilio dives deep into queer archives | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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John D’Emilio dives deep into queer archives

With his new book, the historian highlights underappreciated LGBTQ trailblazers.

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Queer history lives in its multitudes. While specific individuals like San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and Chicago businessman and photographer Chuck Renslow have historically dominated the spotlight, the real legacy of queerness is rooted in the untold stories of the historically forgotten and discarded, those refusing to passively accept their assumed fates. Every untold act of resistance echoes down to us today, whether we know it or not. As one web series of underreported trans narratives says: We’ve Been Around.

That sense of little-known but vital queer activism is the focus of Queer Legacies: Stories From Chicago’s LGBTQ Archives (University of Chicago Press), a new book from historian John D’Emilio. D’Emilio, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been an essential chronicler of histories of queer organizing, most notably in his well-received history Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. With Queer Legacies, the effort is more focused: with 38 short essays, none more than five or six pages long, D’Emilio hopes to introduce readers to a panoply of underappreciated trailblazers fighting for their lives in a post-Stonewall era that remained deeply hostile to most forms of queer life.

The book also shines a light on the extensive collections of the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, located in Rogers Park; each chapter is drawn from a different collection within the archives, effectively daring readers to find a specific story and dig deeper inside the community-driven archive. It’s a perfect text to introduce high school and college readers to LGBTQ+ history beyond the well-known, and D’Emilio hopes the book will be valuable to state educators responding to last year’s inclusive LGBTQ+ curriculum bill.

I recently discussed the book with D’Emilio, exploring the fragility of queer archiving, the balancing act between visibility and sustainable positive change for LGBTQ+ people, and what it’s like to do research at Gerber/Hart.

Annie Howard: At one point, you note “how tenuous the survival of LGBTQ history can be.” Can you give an example of a story that you were pleasantly surprised to find in the archives?

John D'Emilio: A very good example is the essay that I have on Robinn Dupree, who lived her adult life doing what was at the time called female impersonation [now known as drag]. It's a wonderful story of survival and determination and fighting against oppression and training next generations of younger people to follow in her path. The only way we know about this is because of a graduate student at a Kentucky school; her professor took the class to one of Robinn Dupree’s performances, and the grad student got so excited by it that she decided to write her master's essay on the topic. She did extensive oral histories of Dupree, who otherwise would have been known only to those who saw her performances. Because Dupree’s origins were in Chicago and her first decade or so of performance was here, the student donated her master's essay and the interview to Gerber/Hart.

What's interesting about that to me is: Oh my god, how many other Robinn Duprees are there, whose stories are not being preserved in this way in different parts of the country, who are performing the same function for younger generations?

In addition to stories like Dupree’s, you talk a lot about queer organizers and their efforts to battle discrimination wherever they met it. How did those efforts make a difference in Chicago?

Virtually every chapter in the book is about something that doesn't have a high profile. It's not something that we've learned about, and even people who lived through the era might not remember these stories. One that also fascinated me was the archival material on this project called Impact 88. It was an effort by the LGBT community in Chicago to do significant voter registration during the 1988 election year, to demonstrate that we are a force in the political system. They exceeded their wildest expectations in terms of how many people they registered, and it got covered by the Chicago press. Now, is it a coincidence that one month after the election, the Chicago City Council passed a sexual orientation non-discrimination bill? It’s this wonderful form of political organizing that remains unknown to almost anyone who didn't participate in it.

In many cases, you write about groups of queer activists like Latina lesbian group Amigas Latinas who just a few decades ago felt that their communities had no visibility or mainstream support. What does that historical context tell us about queer life today?

A definite question is: Is the change that we've achieved permanent, and do we have to not worry that things are going to go back to the way they were? What about the people who have been left behind, who have not yet benefited to a great degree from the change that's occurred, who are still targets of serious oppression? Especially in Illinois, with the new curriculum inclusion law that passed last year, I hoped to write something that took the form of easy to read essays that illuminate different pieces of queer history, with the hope that it can be used by high school teachers to prepare talks to their students, to find simple ways of including this or that or the other thing.

What is it like to do research at Gerber/Hart?

I find it to be a very welcoming space. In this era where everything is virtual, when was the last time that anybody sat in a room surrounded by LGBTQ books, where you could walk up and down the aisles and just look at all the titles? It's a joyous experience every time I’ve been there. I’ve also been there a couple of times when high school and college classes have come in, and it’s amazing to watch the students walk through the library. They just stand there staring, like they can’t believe they’re in the middle of everything.

Speaking as John the history nerd, I get to look through archival boxes and find things that I even had no idea ever existed. I could spend forever working through archival materials, but it's especially nice at Gerber/Hart because it's LGBTQ.

I was raised Catholic, but I’m not what you would call an active Catholic anymore. One of the things I discovered was this material about “gay mass,” where in the early 70s in Chicago, it was arranged that a Catholic priest said mass to a group of queer folks every week or every other week. That's not the impression that we have of the Roman Catholic Church and its relationship to these issues, and it was amazing to me that something like this was happening here. I'll be sitting there with my box and be researching quietly, and then I just get very happy and surprised, like, “Oh my God, who knew?” And I can imagine lots of other people, even if you're not a historian, experiencing that same sense of discovery.   v

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