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Chicago History Museum set to open 'Out in Chicago'
by Joseph Erbentraut, Windy City Times
2011-05-18

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This revealing new exhibition at the Chicago History Museum represents the culmination of three years of research and development by museum curator Jill Austin and guest curator Jennifer Brier. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

From the start of the Chicago History Museum's popular 'Out at CHM' LGBT history-centric series—which happened eight years ago—museum curator Jill Austin and guest curator Jennifer Brier knew the series would one day form the basis of an exhibition. With the unveiling of "Out in Chicago" this Saturday, May 21, that goal has become a reality.

Weaving the history of Chicago's LGBT communities into the broader patchwork of the last 150-plus years of the city's development, "Out in Chicago" is the result of more than three years of research and development by Austin and Brier. Divided into four distinct sections, the exhibition is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, progressing from "the individual unit to the family unit to communal units to the political unit," according to Brier.

The first section is kicked off by a unique historical document, printed in 1856: A handwritten ordinance outlawing crossdressing in the city which represented a true gem of a find to Brier.

"It's an incredible thing that city officials at the time were as concerned with regulating crossdressing as they were with where you bathed or tied up your horses," she told Windy City Times.

In addition to providing insight into how gender-variant individuals lived in the mid-19th century, the ordinance, which reportedly ignited quite a bit of backlash, sets the stage for the city's ongoing reputation as a cultural crossroads where LGBT people access their visibility at least partially through their dress.

"Over the course of Chicago's history, the city has been a place where people have been able to take on, both temporarily and permanently through clothing, different ways of expressing themselves that do not necessarily accrue to their biological sex," Brier added.

The second section brings the focus to LGBT people forming families through the years and features a dozen videos depicting the stories of many present-day Chicagoans. Their stories, Brier noted, challenge the notion of gay Chicago as a community geographically limited to Andersonville and Boystown.

Also included in the section is an item Austin noted as a particular item: A letter Noble Peace Prize winner and Hull House founder Jane Addams penned to her nephew, asking him to burn some "personal and intimate" letters written to her longtime companion and romantic friend, Mary Rozet Smith.

"Jane's sexuality and relationships have always been protected by different people in the city and it's something we felt was very important to address within that idea of making homes and families and the way you could be and love at that time," Austin said.

The third section sheds light on the origins of the city's queer communities' creation of social and communal spaces, most notably the history of bar culture and entertainment spaces and the impact law enforcement sometimes made on those spaces. The story travels from Gertrude "Ma" Rainey's raucous blues gatherings in Bronzeville in the 1920s to the development of the Levee red-light district ( near the intersection of Cermak Road and Michigan Avenue ) and the controversial 1985 police raid of Carol's Speakeasy, then a Near North Side bar.

The exhibition then concludes with a section focused on the emergence of openly LGBT people participating in the political realm and, an artifact Austin said was among her favorites, a motorcycle on display from the city's Dykes on Bikes contingent which provides "a powerful note on which to end."

The section also predominately features the story of Chicago Gay History Project creator Gregory Sprague who Brier noted collected "some of the most amazing oral histories I've listened to" before he succumbed to AIDS in 1987.

Both Austin and Brier admitted it was a difficult task to whittle the exhibition's content down and that there was at least another exhibit's worth of artifacts and stories that could have just as easily been a part of the upcoming show.

"We recognize that there are stories that still need to be told," Brier said, "and we hope to inspire people to do that."

The exhibition, which will be on display through March 25, 2012, is considered to be the first mainstream urban history museum's specific take on LGBT histories and will also form the basis of a forthcoming book of essays edited by Austin and Brier. The exhibition will be unveiled during a special preview party, featuring cocktails, a performance by FurrLesque and music by DJ Charlie, on Friday, May 20, at the museum, 1601 N. Clark.

For more information on the exhibition, visit http://www.chicagohistory.org/outinchicago.


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