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Charlotte Newfeld: Activist turns 80 —and stays engaged
by Joseph Erbentraut
2010-11-24

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Whenever you ask someone about longtime LGBT ally, activist/artist and proud Lakeview resident Charlotte Newfeld, many phrases tend to pop up again and again: She's tenacious and dedicated, they say. Hardworking and determined, they reiterate. And, above all, she's not afraid to mince words.

That steadfast dedication to human rights and environmental issues, in particular, has been a consistent force for three decades of activism leading up through today for Newfeld, who celebrates her 80th birthday Nov. 26. Although the city where she calls home has come a long way since she first arrived here in the 1950s, she will be the first to tell you there is plenty of work ahead for the LGBT movement both here and across the country.

"I think of every day in my life as a celebration that I'm still doing everything that I wanted to do, or at least enough of those things," Newfeld told Windy City Times. "I'm looking forward to the next day and the next year and all the things that still need to be done. As the expression goes, don't look back because something might be gaining on you."

Newfeld described her first awareness of the gay community as arriving during her graduate school years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which she attended until 1951. Studying art, Newfeld came to know many fellow students and staff who identified as gay and feared open knowledge of their sexuality could end their academic careers. All left-leaning liberal types, she said, lived in fear of being targeted during the days where McCarthyism had only just begun to take root.

"It became obvious to me that there were unbelievable prejudices and many people had to be in the closet in order to survive," she said. "It was really terrifying, particularly for people in the arts and music building, and anybody who was a left liberal. Everybody was really frightened and it hit me so hard why these wonderful people should have these problems."

Upon arriving in Chicago, Newfeld worked to establish her career as an artist, exhibiting in art shows and finding an Old Town studio space with the help of several gay artists. She later wrote columns for "gay rag" GayLife, encouraging gay men and lesbians to register to vote and become involved in politics. In 1982, she took up the cause herself when she ran for city council in the historic 46th Ward, holding her primary victory party at His 'n Hers, a gay bar.

"Once it started, it never stopped," Newfeld said. Although she lost the aldermanic election in a run-off by the tiniest of margins—66 votes—she soon found other avenues for activism, remembering the LGBT community every step along the way and garnering a laundry list of achievements.

As vice chair, she lobbied for the Chicago Commission on Women's first-ever openly lesbian appointee, typesetter Sarah Craig. She further worked with then-mayor Harold Washington to establish the mayor's Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues and lobbied for the passage of the city's gay-inclusive human rights ordinance. She later joined the effort pressuring Mayor Daley to increased funding for services and education on AIDS, working alongside pioneering activists like Danny Sotomayor and Art Johnston. In 1996, she was inducted as a friend of the community into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

Longtime friend Lori Cannon, co-founder and program coordinator of Vital Bridges, said Newfeld represents "the best of old-school politics."

"She knows where the bodies are buried and she's not afraid to name names," Cannon said. "This is a woman who knows her community and has never betrayed it. Community organizing is her strong suit and heaven help anyone who dares to get in her way."

Congressman Mike Quigley and 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney both acknowledged they have not always agreed with Newfeld on every issue but both respect her dedication to her community. Tunney described Newfeld as "indispensable ... a matriarch of the Lakeview community."

"Charlotte is the marathon runner of community activism," Quigley said. "She is who she is, no filter, no hesitation, no apologies. She shows democracy is not a spectator sport and I think we can learn a lot from [ her ] tenacity and consistency."

"The community would be better off if we had more people like her," Quigley added.

Today, Newfeld occupies much of her time as the project director of the Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary, located just east of Lake Shore Drive at Addison, walking distance from her home of the past 45 years. Known to some as "the Jarvis Earth mother," she oversees a fleet of volunteers who keep up the sanctuary's eight acres. She said she "couldn't be prouder" to see how the project has matured since she first took it on.

She also, expectedly, remains active in the city's political circles and said she is keeping a close eye on the upcoming city elections, including the same aldermanic race for which she once ran. Newfeld supports openly gay aldermanic candidate Don Nowotny in that race. As for the mayoral race, she said she's been impressed by both Carol Moseley-Braun and Miguel del Valle. Rahm Emanuel, Newfeld said, has a background on human rights that is "not very strong for the community."

No matter which candidates succeed in February, Newfeld is hopeful city leadership will protect reasonable low-income housing for North Side residents feeling the pinch of increased rents and continued gentrification in Lakeview and Uptown. She also hoped HIV/AIDS funding will remain a priority and not be "lost in the shuffle"as lawmakers strive to trim the state budget.

Above all, she hopes the LGBT community will remain engaged in the political process, resisting the urge to give in to apathy and disappointment, which she shares, with the Obama administration. She hopes younger activists will stay informed and engaged, as they lead the next generation of the movement she holds dear.

"It's always been the complaint that the younger people just don't get it, but they got involved with Obama and they'll get involved again," Newfeld said.

"You'd better get your act together, because the other side certainly isn't going to help you," Newfield added, regarding gay voters considering staying home from the polls in future elections. "There's no question [ Obama is ] the game in town and we have to stay there with him. There's still a lot we can and must do."


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