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Chicago History Museum unveils LGBT exhibit
by Joseph Erbentraut, Windy City Times

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"It's not every day I get to design a show with a disco ball, black bra and a motorcycle," revealed Chicago History Museum ( CHM ) senior designer Dan Oliver as his latest creation—the museum's "Out in Chicago" exhibition—was unveiled at a preview party May 20.

The exhibition, as previewed in the May 18 edition of Windy City Times, tells the story of Chicago's LGBT community against the backdrop of the city's development over the past century and a half.

Exhibition co-curators Jill Austin and Jennifer Brier developed Out in Chicago over the course of just over three years. Brier described watching the exhibit anew through the lens of those who came to see it as "amazing."

Particularly poignant, she added, was the attendance of many of the LGBT Chicagoans who themselves play a critical role in the exhibit through videotaped interview segments that are a part of "In the Life," one of its four main sections. Memorable interviews feature long-time community activists including Chuck Renslow and Kim Hunt, participants in the School of Opulence and many others.

"Seeing it through their eyes made every fear I had about the exhibit, every thought that we hadn't done well vanish," Brier said.

The exhibition is rich with a wide swath of content carrying forth many of the ideas discussed through the Out at CHM series, an annual selection of programs held at the museum since 2004 that Brier and Austin also help put on. It is said to be the first exhibition geared toward LGBT communities to be put on by a mainstream urban history museum.

Besides "In the Life," which addressed how LGBT Chicagoans made homes and formed a variety of relationships and families, the other sections touched on how queer people presented themselves to the outside world, created social spaces and over time became a vulnerable political force within the city.

While the exhibition offers no shortage of content, Brier acknowledged there are still many more stories to be told regarding the development of queer Chicago as we know it today. In the last section of the exhibition is a booth where visitors can record their own stories. Videos from the booth as well as a number of materials that did not make the cut for inclusion in the exhibition will be shared over its Facebook page ( ) in the coming months.

"We hope that we have done justice to the stories and that when we have not, people will do what LGBT Chicagoans have long known how to do: Tell us what we got wrong and record their stories so future generations of queer historians can learn about their lives, love and struggle," Brier said.

"People should think about coming a couple of times because it's a big exhibit and there's a lot to learn and a lot to read," she added.

Also on hand at the opening was one of the exhibition's three honorary chairs, chef Art Smith, who formerly served as personal chef to Oprah Winfrey and co-founded Common Threads, a non-profit organization intended to educate children about other cultures through food and art.

Neither of the other honorary chairs—actor Jane Lynch and writer-activist Dan Savage—was able to attend, although Savage's brother, Bill, spoke on his behalf.

Entertaining attendees at the event were DJ Charlie and FurrLesque, who offered up a titillating three-song performance. The next day, numerous groups, including the Lakeside Pride Band, entertained the crowds. Members of the Dykes on Bikes drove en masse to the museum.

Several speakers addressed the opening night gala as well as a ribbon-cutting held earlier that day. Gary T. Johnson, CHM's president, welcomed the exhibit as an important step for all of Chicago.

James L. Alexander, co-trustee of The Elizabeth Morse and Genius Charitable Trusts, was a force behind the Out at CHM series at its birth, and he has been a critical supporter of the efforts ever since. He, too, welcomed the opening as a historic day for Chicago. Others who spoke included Anita Medina Tyson, managing director of the JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., co-trustee of The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust; Suzanne Connor, senior program officer for arts and culture for The Chicago Community Trust; John W. McGowan, senior vice president, Northern Trust, the lead corporate sponsor of the exhibit; and Karen Sendziak, president of Gerber/Hart Library and Archives.

The exhibition will run through March 26, 2012. Visit to learn more. See more photos from the opening at .

—Also contributing: Tracy Baim

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