TONI ARMSTRONG JR.
Born Toni Lou Armstrong; name changed in 1991 to honor my mother
Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas
3) Date you first mark as getting together with spouse Janis Kidder:
In 2001, I met Space Shuttle rocket scientist Janis Kidder; we were married in Canada in April 2005.
4) City/state where you live currently:
I lived in Chicago from 1978 until June 2006, when I moved to Riviera Beach (Singer Island), Florida. After Hurricane Katrina, my wife Janis had to leave New Orleans, where she had lived since the 1970s, so she switched careers from rocket science to robotic submarines and we both relocated here.
Illinois State University (Normal, Illinois), BS, Special Education, 1976
Northeastern Illinois University (Chicago), MA, Special Education, 1984
Also classes on Gifted Ed. and school administration at Northeastern (took many courses after 1984, but they did not go together to make an official second MA).
Also took miscellaneous classes in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and gang-cult issues at Xavier College (1990s and early 2000s).
Special Education teacher/program facilitator/LD diagnostician: two years at Orland Park Junior High, 28 years at Maine East H.S. in Park Ridge, Illinois; left the public school system in 2006, officially retired in 2009.
Publisher/editor: HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture (1984-1994); Women’s Music Plus/We Shall Go Forth directories of resources in women’s music and culture (1977-1995); Paid My Dues: A Journal of Women and Music (1977-1979); Long Time Friends newsletter (2007-present).
Activist/organizer: 1973-present; see question #14.
7) Did you serve in the U.S. military?
No. My father was in the Army. My mother was one of the civilian women who worked for years on Okinawa and Guam to clean up after World War II so the male soldiers could go home.
8) How do you describe your sexual orientation and gender?
Gender: female. Orientation: bisexual with strong lesbian leaning. Identity: lesbian-feminist.
9) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?
I have one lesbian foster daughter, Kim Murray, born in 1977.
10) If you are GLBT, please describe when you first “knew”:
Looking back, my first crushes as a very little girl were on Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and my preschool teacher Mrs. Naden. These feelings continued to mature through a succession of female babysitters, teachers, classmates, and the occasional celebrity. In junior high, I first discovered the disturbing yet intriguing word “homosexual.” In high school, I believe around 1971, I happened to see my first “real-live lesbian” on TV – Barbara Gittings (on the David Susskind talk show – which had a profound effect. My first girlfriend came along the summer of that year, and after that I was absolutely sure.
11) Who did you first “come out” to and when?
In junior high I saw the film The Children's Hour and thereafter started to try to discuss homosexual feelings, in the most fumbling possible ways, with a few friends who were as clueless as I was. (I was obsessed with Shirley MacLaine for years afterwards.)
In high school I attempted to discuss my confusion with a young, hip guidance counselor; she wasn’t homophobic but she also was unable to be helpful. I met another gay student (Chris Bloch, who has since been murdered) and we spent a lot of time talking about being gay and trying to connect with any sort of gay community, which at the time was to be found in “counterculture" newspapers such as The Seed.
My first sort-of coming out as a pro-gay activist was an attempt to write my junior-year English-class term paper on the topic of that new “gay liberation” movement that I had heard of (bless the First Amendment and the freedom it gives to our media). This was at Eisenhower H.S. in Blue Island, 1971, just two years after Stonewall. The young teacher was game, but told me she was frankly nervous about letting me proceed with such a controversial topic. She asked the principal, who said I couldn’t do it, so I wrote instead on that other new liberation thing I had been reading about – something called “women’s lib.”
I got with my first serious girlfriend the summer between junior and senior years in high school; that was the undeniable and final coming out to myself.
As a freshman in college I got involved in our campus’s new Gay People's Alliance; it was January 13, 1973, and I still remember because it was the day after my birthday. Later that same year I picked a trusted straight friend for what’s now called “the big reveal.” As is the case in so many of our personal stories, she (Sharon “Brooklynn” Lynn, now the out-and-proud Town Manager of gay-friendly Provincetown) turned around soon thereafter and came out to me as well. We are still dear friends.
The only time I have used a pseudonym was in college, and only partly seriously; a group of us lesbians doing public activism were “the Willie sisters,” and I was occasionally “Jackie Willie” (e.g., when writing letters to the school paper).
12) What troubles did you face as a GLBT person?
Along with everyone I know, I had the typical horrible early coming-out rejections and dramas with family/friends. I felt forced to choose between religion and my true self, so I walked away – and stayed away – from all matters spiritual for decades. My troubles over the years mostly fell into the CONSTANT FEAR bucket. Fear that as a result of my very open college gay activism I’d be denied my teaching credentials based on “morals” issues (didn’t happen); anxiety that I’d be fired if school administrators “found out” (didn’t happen); the worry of being accused of “recruiting” young people (I forced myself to stop fearing that one); and a real adrenaline-soak for my whole body whenever men would shout anti-gay epithets at me on the street, alarmed this would escalate to physical violence (didn’t happen).
The daily fear of humiliation and occasional professional problems resulting from being an out teacher in the strongly homophobic public school system took its toll, but aside from some unpleasant backstabbing and hurtful name calling from colleagues – and one horrid meeting they had behind my back that ruined my relationships with several coworkers – there wasn’t too much real trouble. Delightfully, not even from parents who read about my activism in the newspapers or saw my Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame induction on TV. (Some parents and colleagues were actually quite supportive and encouraging. The importance of straight allies cannot be overstated.)
There are many things I declined over the years due to fear of the impact public exposure could have on me as a teacher – e.g., invitations to be on TV shows or get interviewed for newspaper articles; I even delayed induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame by declining to be nominated out of “what if” fear. And these fears weren’t groundless paranoia; I know several people who were in fact fired, disowned, kicked out of housing, denied promotions, forced out of their religious communities, not allowed to claim the body of a deceased partner – one openly gay teacher had her car burned up right in the school parking lot, for heaven’s sake.
And the steady reports of beatings, killings, child custody battles gone bad, people who can’t see partners in the hospital, families who refuse to acknowledge long-term partnerships after one partner dies, on and on… this is the psychological wallpaper of every LGBT person’s life.
Despite all this, I was very “out” through my activism/publishing/performing in the lesbian women’s music subculture. Eventually I overcame my own deepest fears and stepped up fully in the other areas of my life – my work with GLSTN/GLSEN, starting in 1995, was the most decisive turning point. I realized I had to be a better role model for the students and young activists, so I learned how to at least ACT fearless. Then after awhile I was only afraid when truly tackling something big and new. The fear has never totally stopped being a problem, though; that’s the price you pay for being an out activist, I guess.
13) Did you have mentors in the Chicago GLBT community?
My role models and mentors were mostly in the national gay and feminist movements (Barbara Gittings, Donna Allen, Kevin Jennings) or from history (Homer Plessy, Harriet Tubman, Bayard Rustin), but some Chicagoans have been and still are especially influential.
Lesbomaniac writer Jorjet Harper taught me more than I can list about writing, copy editing, computers, websites, publishing, photography, Paris, and lesbian/feminist literary history, knowledge that has helped me to go very far with professional and personal projects.
Hooking up with Paula Walowitz made profound and long-lasting changes in my life; she inspired me to move to Chicago, to have the courage to start playing live music, to take up Re-evaluation Co-Counseling, to continue to go to women’s music festivals, to commit to fighting anti-Semitism forever, and to become involved with Mountain Moving Coffeehouse. I needed a job within driving distance of where we lived in Rogers Park, and that’s the only reason I came to have my 28-year career at Maine East H.S. If I hadn’t crossed paths with Paula, my life would have taken a very different direction.
Lesbian musician Ginni Clemmens taught me to play clawhammer-style banjo in the 1970s, something I enjoy doing to this very day, up to and including going to annual banjo camp. I always start playing with her song “Holler All Night Long.” Her insistence on sharing the spotlight via round-robin song sharing influenced lots of women, including me.
In a non-gay way, my mom’s friend Marilyn was a great role model because she traveled all over the world by herself – took a boat down the Amazon River, went on a freighter in French Polynesia, booked an apartment in Sydney, Australia for a month just because she felt like it… always something slightly exotic. Thanks to Marilyn, I never knew a world in which women didn’t travel alone, and so I’ve done a lot of that myself. Also, my Aunt Lil let an endless parade of down-on-their-luck relatives (including my mom and me) live at her house. When I owned my place at 5210 Wayne, I made sure to carry that value forward. Young people watch and imitate the values of their elders – a cliché, but true.
Lesbian writer and organizer Terri Jewell was a great inspiration. For years before we met, I watched her move to various locations, and everywhere she went, a new lesbian activity, conference, or writers group was started. She role modeled for me how one lone unknown woman can just drop down in a new place and creates lesbian community. I keep a picture of us over my desk now to help me work Terri-like mojo here in Florida.
Casey Schwartz and I did some very significant activist things together, including starting the GLSEN Youth Leadership Summits. In later years, we had one particular long, very intense conversation that was a turning point in my thinking about trans issues. It's a testament to why such conversations are necessary if sometimes painful - people with good hearts DO change their opinions and behaviors if someone they love makes the effort to educate them, to talk across what seems at the moment like a great divide.
Finally, I’ve worked with the amazing Tracy Baim on many projects over the decades. Her enthusiasm, dedication, skill set, and sheer willpower are unbeatable in terms of inspiring me to do more. She is one of the only true visionaries I have had the good fortune to actually know well in my lifetime.
14) Involvement in organizations (GLBT and/or mainstream):
* Illinois State University Gay Peoples Alliance (co-president 1973-1976)
* The Color Triangle anti-racism coalition (steering committee member and volunteer)
* Florida ACLU (member and volunteer)
* Fairness for All Families/Florida Red and Blue bipartisan “Vote No on Amendment 2” campaign (volunteer and donor)
* Maine East H.S. all-school all-year tsunami relief fundraising drive (founder and coordinator)
* GayLife and Outlines newspapers (typesetter, copy editor, and volunteer)
* Windy City Times (writer of the “Lesbian Music Hotmix” columns, typesetter, copy editor, volunteer)
* Empty Closet Enterprises publishing and event production (founder and president)
* HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture (managing editor/publisher)
* HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture (co-founder with Ann Morris, Yvonne Zipter, and Michele Gautreaux)
* Out of the Past film premiere in Chicago, featuring live appearances by film stars Barbara Gittings and Kelli Peterson (initiator and coordinator of the event)
* Women’s Music Plus Directory of Resources in Women’s Music and Culture (founder and editor)
* Paid My Dues: A Journal of Women in Music (staff member, co-publisher)
* Eden Built By Eves by Bonnie Morris (donated most of the photos that appear in the book)
* Long Time Friends newsletter for veterans of the lesbian women’s music industry (founder and editor)
Lesbian music and general lesbian culture:
* Member of lesbian bands including Surrender Dorothy (with Paula Walowitz, Laurie Lee Moses, and eventually Jane Kreinberg); Lavender Jane (with Kay Gardner and Alix Dobkin); Starkissed Tunaband (with Karyn Pritikin); and The Old Cronies (with Jorjet Harper, Paula Walowitz, Tricia Alexander, Diana Laffey, Laurie Lee Moses, and Laurie Benz)
* Mountain Moving Coffeehouse for Womyn and Children (concert producer, member of collective, general volunteer help, and occasional back-up musician – early 1980s until it closed)
* National Women’s Music Festival (coordinator of Women’s Music Industry Conferences for three years; founder of NWMF Women Writers Conference)
* BLAST (Bi, Lesbian and Straight Together): Women of the Palm Beaches social network (founder)
* Various national and regional women’s music festivals, including the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, East Coast Lesbians Festival, Heart of the West Fest, and Heart of the South Fest (staff photographer, volunteer, workshop presenter, and merchant)
* “Together, Strong, and Proud” March on Washington anthem (coordinator of the Chicago group recording session)
* Presenter in NYC for the Gay and Lesbian Music Awards (GLAMA)
* Radical Harmonies documentary film about women’s music (steering committee member, and provider of most of the still photos used in the film)
* Amazon Lesbian Red Hat Sisterhood/Chicago, the first openly lesbian Red Hatter chapter in the U.S. (founder and member)
* Leaping Lesbians Chicago Skydiving Club (founder and member)
* WACT – Women of All Colors and Cultures Together (member and frequent hostess)
* Annual Chicago Lesbian Capricorn Parties (founder and frequent hostess; these were often co-sponsored with Tracy Baim)
* June Millington’s not-exclusively-lesbian Institute for the Musical Arts (grant writer and volunteer helper for IMA’s summer rock ‘n roll camp programs for girls)
* Nedra Johnson’s Testify album (cover photo is mine)
* Pam Hall’s Honey on My Lips album (cover photo is mine)
* Ubaka Hill’s Shapeshifter album (cover photo is mine)
* Yvonne Welbon’s documentary Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100* (financial supporter)
* Hannah Free feature-length independent film starring Sharon Gless & Maureen Gallagher (co-producer)
* Chicago Gay and Lesbian History Project (indexer and survey editor)
* Chicago Historical Society’s Out at CHS: Exploring the LGBT Past series (co-producer with Evette Cardona of the 2004 “Women, Womyn, Grrls, and Kings” program)
* Initiator of nationwide drive to encourage lesbian-feminist women’s music industry members to donate their archival materials either to The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts) or the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
Youth leadership development and LGBT teachers:
* GLSTN/GLSEN – Gay Lesbian and Straight Teachers Network/Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (steering committee member, coordinator of youth leadership development and youth scholarship programs, co-director of Midwest regional GLSTN conference, liaison with Metro History Fair)
* GLSEN Youth Leadership Summits (founder, organizer, and volunteer)
* Student Pride USA, now run by GLSEN as their Student Organizing program (co-founder with Miguel Ayala)
* Maine East H.S. Gay-Straight Alliance (founder and advisor)
* LGBT youth dances sponsored by Fuel Youth and later Synergy/Howard Brown (volunteer chaperone)
* Maine East H.S. Sign Language Club (founder and advisor)
* Maine East H.S. Special Education Student Council (founder and advisor)
Over the years I have been especially pleased to support the following organizations with money, items, and/or other resources. I list them individually because I want to give them the shout-out they deserve. Each of these groups has improved my life in a significant way, in addition to making the world a much better place for us all:
About Face Theatre youth productions (Chicago)
ACLU - American Civil Liberties Union (national and local)
ALMA - Association of Latin Men in Action (Chicago)
Amigas Latinas (Chicago)
BLAST - Bi, Lesbian Straight Together Women of the Palm Beaches
Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays
Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Florida farmworkers)
Dolphin Democrats (gay Democrats club, southeast Florida)
Emily’s List (national financial support of women candidates)
Florida Red and Blue (nonpartisan No on Amendment 2 campaign)
GLAAD – Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (national)
GLSEN – Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (national and local)
GLSTN – Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (national and local)
HRC – Human Rights Campaign (national and local)
Illinois Education Association (IEA) and National Education Association (NEA) teachers unions
It’s Time Illinois (Chicagoland)
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (national and local)
LCCP – Lesbian Community Cancer Project (Chicago)
Lesbian Connection publication (donor and contributor of info, especially obituaries)
Lesbian recording projects (several; donated money and/or photos to be used on album covers)
Lincoln State - institution for disabled people (volunteer in the 1970s)
NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (national)
NGLTF – National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (national)
PFLAG – Parents Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays (national and local)
Red Cross (national)
Ripe Fruit Films Hannah Free film project
Rogers Park Youth Arts Program (Chicago)
Southern Poverty Law Center (including support of their Rosa Parks documentary Mighty Times)
Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (national)
TWO - Truth Wins Out
WBEZ Public Radio (Chicago)
Windy City Radio/Windy City Queercast (Chicago)
15) When you were coming out, what were your favorite GLBT bars in Chicago?
I was never much of a bar person, but I did waste some youthful hours and brain cells at CK’s, then Augie and CK’s, Swan Club, "The Bug" (Ladybug), occasionally Lost and Found, and later Paris and Stargaze. Our band Surrender Dorothy played at Opal Station and Different Strokes as well.
Marge Summit’s His ‘n Hers was “THE” place to go for live music in a mixed female/male, straight/gay environment. Her club was a real hotspot for us musicians and fans of gay-friendly music. Ginni Clemmens recorded her Gay and Straight Together album at His ‘n Hers. It was also my first exposure to straight musicians writing explicitly gay-supportive lyrics, especially the staunchly feminist, unshakably pro-gay, progressive folksinger Kristin Lems, to whom I will be forever indebted. Her “How Nice,” for example, written and performed in the 1970s, was an unbelievable song in support of gay marriage – 20 years before its time.
16) What were the key issues faced in the GLBT community when you first came out?
By the time I came out issues included forced invisibility; how to form a community, especially with most people still in hiding; explicit, unquestioned, and often brutal discrimination in all areas of public life; homosexuality still being defined as a mental illness; routine rejection from families, friends, and religious groups; no media mention of LGBT issues except in mocking, defaming ways; how to build working groups while struggling with internal community issues like racism, sexism, and classism; vast ignorance re sexual orientation and gender expression, even by well-meaning people; and of course not yet having any laws on our side.
Lesbian-feminist separatism was a big deal in the 1970s and ‘80s. I am of the Stonewall Generation, though, so luckily my coming out coincided with the birth of the mass gay liberation movement. Luckily gay-activist pioneers such as Barbara Gittings, Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin, Henry Gerber, and Frank Kameny laid the groundwork for us.
17) What issues do you see as key in the GLBT community today?
On an ongoing basis, we will and should continue to confront racism, classism, sexism, and internalized homophobia as well as the many manifestations of heterosupremacy; these are endless struggles that look different from decade to decade, but are always important to address. Prime issues at this moment in history are the legalization of gay marriage (or at least civil unions to give all citizens equal protection under the law); the advancement of equality and LGBT visibility in the K-12 schools; stopping the relentless erosion of “separation of church and state,” along with the stranglehold that virulently anti-gay religious fundamentalists have on the U.S. government; the reversal of the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell military policies; increased knowledge about/protection for transgender individuals; electing politicians at every level who are committed to LGBT equality; AIDS and breast cancer; respect for/protection of families with same-sex parents; and soon, we’ll have to deal with the flood of LGBT senior citizens who have no kids to care for them in their old age and who are unwilling to “pass as straight” in their elder years.
I believe the horrible public demonstrations of gay hatred put on by Fred Phelps and his godhatesfag.com group, painful as they can be, are actually helping our cause. People who were mildly homophobic or just uncaring are soooo turned off when they see a funeral picketed with signs like “Fags Die God Laughs” or “Matthew Burns in Hell.” It makes the average person more gay-supportive to see things like that, especially at the military funerals.
18) How have AIDS and/or other health issues impacted your life personally?
Like all Stonewall Generation activists, I watched as AIDS (men), cancers (women), and heart attacks (both) extinguished countless bright, creative lights. The worst losses for me personally were musician Kay Gardner, concert producer Joy Rosenblatt, poet Pat Parker, Michaeline Chvatal of Artemis Singers fame, writer Audre Lorde, singer Laura Nyro, festival producer Brenda Henson, some close high school friends, and of course activist Barbara Gittings. Pat, Michaeline, Kay, and Joy were all HOT WIRE magazine staffers, so these losses were especially tough for me personally. My mom’s partner of almost 50 years has been fighting fallopian tube cancer since 2006, and I have other dear friends who have so far outrun the cancer cells, but it’s a struggle. My several male friends who are HIV+ have all lived for many years, luckily – and mostly with minimal symptoms – with the exception of interpreter Thom Ford, who passed in 2007.
Movements are often strengthened when people pull together for a common cause, obviously – fighting AIDS discrimination (even if we personally didn’t have the disease) was one of those causes, in the same way that fighting for gay marriage/civil unions (even if we don’t personally believe in the institution of marriage) pulls us together today. Those who chose to mock or trivialize or ignore AIDS just served to motivate the LGBT community to coalesce as activists.
In retrospect, lots of lesbian energy, time, and money that would have otherwise gone into LGBT politics and lesbian culture – or even lesbian health care – were diverted into caring for men, especially early in the AIDS crisis. There was a lot of pressure (to the point of guilt-tripping) on lesbians to devote themselves to AIDS issues. Many gay men have generally overlooked this fact over the years, although I’ve heard acknowledgements lately from some who care about LGBT history. It was a big topic of discussion in the women’s communities as time went on. Sexism trains females to drop everything that is important to them if any male needs something. Why, we asked ourselves and each other, weren’t we as feminists putting the same amount of energy, time, and money into caring for lesbians struggling with breast/ovarian cancer? And of course eventually that did happen in organized, efficient ways, particularly in Chicago, and particularly due to the awesome efforts put forth year after year by the women of LCCP (Lesbian Community Cancer Project).
Another, less personal, impact came with the realization in the 1980s that this global health crisis (AIDS) could be and would be completely ignored by our government – because from the top down it seemed like the people in charge were really okay with gay people and people of color dying. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but wow, to have it confirmed by watching public policy and lack of funding was horrifying. I began to really pay attention to how the radical religious right was influencing our government during the Reagan years; it’s done nothing but strengthened its grip in subsequent years, though thankfully AIDS education is no longer such a contested topic in schools. Unfortunately, the “abstinence only” approach to sex ed certainly is one of their legacies. Don’t get me started on the pernicious, destructive influences of the radical religious right.
19) How would you describe the “diversity” within the Chicago GLBT community?
Any time humans are together, we tend to voluntarily group ourselves based on commonalities and “safety in numbers” – we are a herd species, after all. When there are a small number of LGBT people in an area, gender and intercultural differences are often overlooked because everyone’s so happy to have “family” nearby. When there are b’zillions of LGBT people available and visible, like the way the Chicago community developed, you get lots of smaller and more specific groupings. As we finished out the twentieth century and moved into the new millennium, the macro picture was one of great diversity – all races represented, all religions, people with various abilities and disabilities, Deaf and hearing, a wide spectrum of gender expressions, professions, hobbies, sports, political viewpoints, ages, etc. etc. Just take a look at the listings in the gay newspapers. The micro picture, however – that is, if we look at the individual lives of various LGBT people – shows more homogenous experiences. Certainly living in Chicagoland with its widespread segregated housing patterns affects the community life of every LGBT person. And money has always been/will always be a great divider.
To the credit of our community, there have been endless discussions about access, discrimination, class issues, resource allocation, diversification, and all the various “isms.” There has been, as long as I’ve been involved, a constant pressure (in comfortable and uncomfortable ways) to question the prejudices with which we were raised, as well as how we are doing things – to try to construct our organizations and social groupings in fairer, more open ways. Those who enjoy the privileges of the status quo routinely and boringly try to dismiss these efforts as “political correctness,” but despite those jeers, most people I have known continue to try to reach for the dismantling of the old ways of thinking. I give great credit to the large number of people in our Chicago LGBT communities who have spent decades at least trying to consciously address diversity issues.
Attending a racially mixed high school (Eisenhower in Blue Island, Illinois) in the race-conscious late 1960s/early ‘70s, coming from a mother whose explicit value system was anti-racist, and working for decades in special education, I have always gravitated to organizations, events, and people who value “diversity in action” – that is, some obvious walk to go along with the talk. A great example of this would be the Color Triangle, a highly diverse coalition of local leaders that had as its mission statement the elimination of racism in the Chicago LGBT community. This group sponsored events and projects that brought people of many races and ideologies together. For participants, it helped broaden the definition of who is “us,” which is a crucial first step in getting someone invested in anyone else’s core issues. The end result was not just friendships and “mixed” events, but substantial cooperation on projects that otherwise would not have been diversified at all. For example, for several years I was able to facilitate a number of diverse groups offering youth leadership scholarships (via GLSEN), something that never would have happened without my involvement in Color Triangle.
For many years there was this huge International Women’s Day Dance held at the Congress Hotel downtown – more than a thousand women attended annually. The organizers consciously made a coalition of lots of different lesbian and feminist organizations, so the event was always, again, very “mixed.” This is a great example of how the Chicago lesbian community put thought and effort into diversity issues; whatever critical things we can say about our community, we can also point to lots of examples where successful efforts were put into play.
Another wonderful group – still going after all these years – is Women of All Colors and Cultures Together (WACT). “Food and women, how can we go wrong” was the unofficial motto. There was no agenda other than meeting for potlucks once a month in various women’s homes. We all tried to move around to different neighborhoods, so we’d have a sense of where lesbians lived in the city and suburbs. It was a relatively mixed group in terms of age, ethnicity, and all the rest. WACT helped many women expand their definition of “us” and provided non-threatening ways to diversify participants’ social networks.
20) If you consider yourself a “political” activist, how do you define this?
Although my actions had wide-ranging and ultimately political effects, my efforts were primarily cultural, journalistic, and/or school-based. Mainstream political activism in Chicago for me consisted of supporting gay-positive candidates, showing up for events/demonstrations, and donating to political causes. After moving to Florida I got involved with The Dolphin Democrats (LGBT Dems), ACLU Florida, and several bipartisan groups working to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would forbid future civil unions and strip away existing domestic partnership benefits in Florida.
I have donated to various political campaigns, as I’m sure most of us have, including most recently Hillary and then Obama. The only mainstream political campaigns I have actually worked on by donating labor have been (a) helping to elect Sherry Pethers as Cook County Circuit Court Judge in 2004, and (b) working to defeat the hideous Florida Amendment 2. I guess we could also count my doing voter registration in Riviera Beach, Florida, a community of low income, often disenfranchised, citizens.
21) Describe what you feel your personal legacy is to the Chicago GLBT community.
* I documented – and supported others who documented – woman-identified culture and media. This trail of printed words, video images, audio recordings, and photographs will make it that much harder for people in the future to dismiss/ignore the contributions of lesbian-feminists when it came to changing the course of American history. I hope our work will inspire people of the future to do even more on behalf of increasing LGBT visibility and equality, whatever forms that may take decades from now, the way I have been inspired by viewing films such as Out of the Past and Before Stonewall.
* “Fighting the good fight” when it came to racism, classism, sexism, supporting the Deaf community, advocating for people with disabilities, and so on. I hope that the bridges I helped build along the way lessened traditional disenfranchisement in some permanent ways. I role modeled for young people that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” and “never fight a war if you can help it, always build a bridge.”
* I brought lots of affirming, lesbian-positive music and culture to Chicagoland audiences during the many years before it was available in the mainstream. This served to provide encouragement and education, raised consciousness, and gave ways for non-bar-dykes/non-athletes to be together in groups where lesbians were the dominant culture. It also brought forth opportunities for learning technical skills, along with all the pure entertainment value. The choir does indeed need to be sung to sometimes.
* I led the charge when it came to advancing LGBT equality and visibility in the Chicagoland schools at a time when it was extremely risky and scary to do so. More than 40 Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (GSAs) were established in the city and suburbs during my time as youth leadership development coordinator with GLSEN Chicago… and believe me, getting this done was no cakewalk for me OR the student activists. My efforts showed that LGBT visibility was possible in schools for teachers and students, even in conservative places. Part of my work was running the GLSEN scholarship program; the money we gave certainly helped individual students and their families, but the program itself also gave the community a structured way to become involved in supporting youth activism. One of the best things about this work is the living legacy: I always wanted our GLSEN work to teach young people how to be activists, and several “GLSEN Youth” have in fact gone to become very powerful adults, already using their talents to make substantial change in this world.
* I created many networks to do activism and/or social things - and followed up for years afterward, initiating group reunions, and so on. I am a big believer in the power of "we."
* And then there’s the 20-plus years of Lesbian Capricorn Parties (mostly at my house); I like to think the thousands of women who attended experienced grade-A women-only fun that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. Countless women now know how to do the vampire tequila slammer ritual; some women put to good use the skills learned during those lap-dancing lessons with Dionysia; and the photos from the Wheel of Debauchery sessions speak for themselves.
22) This project is also about “defining moments.” Please discuss some of those in your life.
I take defining moments seriously; I notice them, dwell on them, and use them to move me forward. I encourage everyone to take stock of his or her own life from time to time and truly honor “those moments.” Here are some of the highest of the high for me.
Olivia Records celebrated its tenth anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall (1982). This was the first time I had a sense of lesbian culture being completely normalized, and I remember this realization made me cry during the show. For so long being a lesbian had included struggling just to be seen, and resisting feeling defensive or afraid. To be visible and joyful in such a respectable venue was simply impossible to put into words. Similarly, late in the 1980s there was a Teresa Trull/Barbara Higbie concert at the Park West venue in Chicago. These two events really drove home to me that wow, we really don’t have to remain in the closet, the world is ready to accept us in respectable venues just like everyone else, and after that I really went for it – in every aspect of my life except for at work. Fast forward to Gay Games 2006 Opening Ceremony… in the Chicago Bears Soldier Field Stadium, that bastion of heteropatriarchy. There are no words for how overwhelming that event was, and I can’t imagine anything topping these three events for me in that cognitive-dissonant “I can’t get my head around the fact that we’re here” department. Deep bow once again to Tracy Baim for her vision and guts.
Two important defining moments happened for me at National Women’s Music Festivals. As coordinator of the National Women’s Music Festival Music Industry Conference in the mid 1980s, I received a standing ovation from the almost 200 women working in that industry, many of whom I looked up to. I’ll never forget how great that felt. Also at NWMF, in the early ‘90s, HOT WIRE magazine won a prestigious honor that came with a cash award. Ronnie Gilbert was awarded something similar, and on stage she announced that she was donating her cash to HOT WIRE out of support for its importance. Her unexpected kindness, generosity, and graciousness were so touching, I’ll never forget it.
My political coming out and social coming out are all tied up in the fiery excitement of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois – and I can’t overstate how many jokes we made about that name in the 1970s. Being co-president of the Gay Peoples Alliance for three years (with Cindy “Jennifer Willie” Stachowicz) and building the community there from a few unconnected lesbians and gay guys to a support group of dozens was my first inkling that I had a knack for this organizing stuff. A defining moment was when I was asked to come back and speak to the still-existing ISU gay student group in the late 1990s. Back in the day, my lesbian roommate Lisa and I had had the pleasure of seeing notes posted by our dorm elevator saying charming things like “Kill Kill Kill the Queers Queers Queers” (that would be us). In the late 1990s, there was lots of rainbow-LGBT-positive signage in the dorms. It seems like such a small thing, judging by today’s standards… but it was a highly emotional and healing homecoming for me.
Kay Gardner and Alix Dobkin decided they wanted to play some 20-year reunion shows for their groundbreaking lesbian band Lavender Jane. (In 1973, they released the first lesbian-specific album, Lavender Jane Loves Women.) By the late ‘80s, however, Kay and Alix had no idea where their original bass player was, so they asked me to fill in, even though my skills really weren’t good enough. I will be forever grateful to them. We performed at several venues, including the 1991 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival Night Stage (a life highlight for any performer in women’s music), plus a series of events produced by Lin Daniels – the East Coast Lesbians Festival, New York City, and so on. A defining moment was when Lavender Jane played at Carnegie Hall (also produced by Lin Daniels) as part of the massive Stonewall 25 weekend celebration in 1994. To be playing lesbian music and saying lesbian things in Carnegie Hall (Carnegie! Hall!), with my beloved mom sitting in the front row… that’s pretty hard to top for a life-affirming moment.
The high school where I taught for 28 years was very conventional and conservative for most of that time; it’s an understatement to say the administration did not welcome an overt gay presence. It took years and years of effort to establish the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club and to fully come out as a teacher there. When I got married in 2005 (Canada), about 50 of my colleagues gave me a wedding shower in the principal’s conference room. Unbelievably touching, and proof how far the world has come due directly to our own collective efforts.
In 1987, there was a huge March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Conservative estimates put the attendance at 200,000; many believe it to be significantly higher. In any case, I had never even conceived of that many gay people all in one place – the event was simply overwhelming in every good way. We had a small HOT WIRE contingent, and we were marching along, when who should I spy on the sidelines but my idol Barbara Gittings. I kept thinking about how she and a tiny handful of brave, brave friends picketed places like Independence Hall in the 1960s, prior to any sort of large, well organized gay rights movement, and what it must be like for her to see at least a quarter of a million of us descend on Washington only 20 years later. Talk about reaping what you sowed.
People like me who work mostly behind the scenes don’t expect to get much attention or awards for it, so when we do get recognized, it’s especially memorable. Some that meant the most included being named one of the Gay Games 100 Champions (2006); receiving the GLSEN Pathfinder Award (2003); and of course being inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame (1997).
For many years I have privately visited the grave of Homer Plessy in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery #1. For many reasons, he is an inspiration and a reality check for me; I feel he is my activist ancestor. He tried big things, and suffered unswallowable defeats. (See the history and aftermath of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling.) At the end of our chats I pat his grave and tell him he can rest, because we’re on it. He didn’t live to see fruits of his labors; that didn’t begin to come until Brown v. Board of Ed reversed the “separate but equal” ruling in 1954. When I cast my ballot for Obama, it will be a defining moment for me as a civil-rights activist: Homer Plessy, this one’s for you.
Marrying Janis in 2005 was a defining moment. I had come to believe I was “not the marrying kind” (to say the least), and certainly had lived my whole life without same-sex marriage even being an option anywhere on the planet. We had a sweet little self-designed service just outside of Toronto; our moms gave us away; it was perfect. After all the activism to which I have devoted my life, I reserved this event as a purely personal moment. Our ceremony was exactly what we wanted, we had the loving support we wanted, and the day could not have been more meaningful.
23) Additional comments and memories.
Elected officials coming out as LGBT (or strong allies of the LGBT community) have made a huge difference in every way. Ones who especially impressed me included Jan Schakowsky, Carol Ronen, Carol Moseley-Braun, and the marvelous Dawn Clark Netsch. Also we should never forget Tom Chiola, Dick Durbin, Mike Quigley, Susan Catania, Lisa Madigan, Tom Tunney, Sara Feigenholtz, Helen Shiller, Sherry Pethers, and many others, including some who have passed away, like Larry McKeon. The book Out and Proud in Chicago is a tremendous resource in this department.
Mayor Daley’s continual and very public support changed the life of every LGBT Chicagoan forever, regardless of political party affiliation, regardless of whether they realize it or not. I treasure his cheerleading for the Gay Games, his writing letters of support to be read aloud at events like GLSEN, and his especially surprising and delightful press conference – the one he held along with County Clerk David Orr – at which they announced they would be supporting gay marriage if it were legal in Illinois.
The women of HOT WIRE magazine devoted uncountable hours of time, energy, financial resources, and expertise to making the magazine fly. The publication was run with dozens and dozens of volunteers. Going above and beyond any reasonable definition of "volunteer" were Chicagoans Chris Crosby and Annie Lee Leveritt, Dawn Popelka and Jean Durkin, Lynn Siniscalchi and Susan Waller, Larra Clark and Sara Wolfersberger, Sally Neely and Tracy Baim, our halftone maker Marcy, and of course Jorjet Harper. Most of the photos in our 30 issues - which had well over 1900 total pages - came from the cameras of Chicago lesbians (Marcy J. Hochberg, Vada Vernée, and me). These women, and so many others – please read the magazine mastheads to see names – deserve full recognition that without their efforts, HOT WIRE never would have been. Also, special kudos to Michaeline Chvatal and Lori Weiner, who hung around for a full year after HOT WIRE stopped publishing and helped me package/ship magazines and generally finish up all the very unfun work associated with closing down a business.
My first exposure to what would turn out to be a primary relationship throughout my entire adult life – that is, lesbian-feminist women’s music – came when I was in college at ISU, prior to ever attending a women’s music festival. Linda Shear and her band Family of Woman came to my college to play a dance… at the time, I had no idea what a revolutionary night I was having.
The Surrender Dorothy song that has come to widely be known as “Goddess’s Rage” was originally titled “Neopaganomics,” which I think was Paula’s most clever title of all time. It was a play on the term “Reagonomics,” which you couldn’t go a day without hearing back in those years.
Finally, the value cannot be overstated of having a lesbian mom with whom I have been able to share women’s music festivals, Lesbian Capricorn Parties, the highs and lows of my love life, the fears of being out in a public school environment, my wedding, etc. etc. etc. My internal life is infinitely richer and deeper because of all the two of us have shared. I am proud to be named after her.