In March, Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Elizabeth A. Kelly chairperson of the Advisory Council on LGBT issues to the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations. Kelly, who has been serving on the advisory council since 2006, fills the position that was previously held by Laura Rissover who resigned from the chairpersonship in 2005.
"The main thing I've worked on with the council is the hall of fame committee. As an academic the whole history thing is so appealing to me," said Kelly, who is a professor of women's and gender studies at DePaul University. "For the past several years I've drafted the biographies that are included in the program book and been very involved in some of the fund raisers."
Kelly was also involved in advocacy for the Pride Campus and served as the acting secretary of the council. "I did a lot of note-taking. It was important for my sense of historyyou need the records," she said. Kelly spent time in Boston in the late 1970s and 80s. One of her involvements was the Boston area lesbian and gay history project. "It was a very heady time for organizing," she said.
Kelly did her doctoral work in political philosophy at Rutgers and came to Chicago in 1992 to teach at DePaul University. She taught her first LGBT-oriented course in 2002. The topic was LGBT politics, and she invited advisory council director Bill Greaves to speak. "It was only a couple of weeks after the Chicago City Council had adopted the ordinance banning discrimination against transgender people. The advisory council had been very involved in that whole process and the work sounded really interesting to me," she said. Kelly applied for a position on the advisory council almost immediately and was appointed "only 3 ½ years later."
"Until my involvement with the advisory council, my principal organizing in Chicago was here at DePaul. To build a women's and gender studies program at a Catholic university is a very specific form of activism and it really didn't leave me a lot of time." The program, which was founded in 1986 and offered a minor, launched the undergraduate major the year Kelly joined the faculty. A graduate certificate was added in 1994 and a Master of Arts in 2004. Kelly served as director of the program during 1997-2003.
Despite misgivings about teaching at a Catholic university, "I was raised Irish and Catholic and actually lapsed from the church before Vatican II," she said. Kelly discovered that DePaul administrators were serious about diversity hiring and since the early 1990s the number of LGBT faculty has grown to the point where "today I know that I don't know all of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender faculty at DePaul."
Shortly after she joined the faculty, an LGBT cohort began working on the proposal for a program in LGBT studies; Kelly was part of that pioneering group. "What was interesting to me was the lack of opposition," she said. "Part of that was because we had some very highly skilled people involved in the process of preparing the proposal, people who were able to anticipate the problems and pitfalls. We had amazing support from our Dean and President Holtschneider was, and has been, very supportive. The one thing that the president asked of us was that we include education on the Catholic Church's positionthat's really not a problem.
"At this point I have to stop and pinch myself because nobody should have this much fun at work," laughed Kelly. "I teach Creating Change: LGBT Politics. I teach a course that is unique in undergraduate education anywhere in the U.S., so far as I've been able to determine, and that's Sexual Justice: Lesbians, Gays, and the Law, which looks at the history of Supreme Court decisions on homosexuality. Kelly also teaches an Introduction to LGBTQ Studies, a sophomore multicultural seminar that includes a unit on contemporary LGBT issues and a course called Queer Pioneers.
But her new favorite class is Lesbian Lives, Politics, and Communities, which she developed based on Alison Bechdel's comic strip, "Dykes to Watch Out For." "I use Bechdel's work from the late 1980s to 2008 as a jumping off point for consideration of a reader that I've put together that begins with the Radical Lesbians' piece that begins 'a lesbian is the rage of all women compressed to the point of explosion' and I show the evolution of specifically lesbian-feminist history, theory and community building and how lesbian communities have changed dramatically over the 20 year period.
"If someone would have told me 20 years ago that I would be a full professor teaching the courses that I teach, developing the courses I develop as a publicly professed lesbian at the nation's largest Catholic University I would have found that completely incomprehensible."
As chair of the mayor's advisory council team, Kelly is set to build visibility and increase advocacy on behalf of the city's LGBT communities. "There are many, many Chicagoans today to whom the advisory council is invisible. We need to make better use than we have been of the amazing diversity and talent of the council members. I want to play to their strengths and do what we can to advocate for better conditions in Chicago and I'd like to facilitate more dialogue among and between Chicago's diverse LGBT communities.
"We have very strong anti-discrimination ordinances but not everyone is aware of them," Kelly said, noting that while good progress has been made with the Chicago Police Department, a lot more work needs to be done. "There are times when the CPD has done a marvelous and admirable job with gay-related crimes. There are other things, like the unsolved murders that are still on the books and treatment of patrons who are leaving bars, where I think we have a lot of room for improvement. Sometimes, when you are dealing with organizations like the police it's simply that the people who are in charge and are most able to make change are isolated from the lower ranks. I don't know if that's the case with Superintendent Weis, but I'm hoping we can sit down and talk about these things.
"Eventually when the time is right, I'd like to see a revival of an LGBT friendly high school. As an educator, the reality of safe schools for all students is essential and we are a long way from having that in CPS.
"People have very high expectations for the council. The key word is advisory. It's our job to advise people in the health department, people in the human relations commission, people in the police department on where our communities are, what our communities need and facilitate discussion.