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AIDS: Jim Bussen, Voice of Dignity
by John J. Accrocco

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"My life has been exciting beyond my wildest dreams," said Jim Bussen, a former Chicago gay-rights activist.

Originally from a small town in Southern Illinois, Bussen hoped to deepen his Catholic up-bringing and to live his life openly. Bussen attended seminary school in Omaha after high school, but quickly found the limitations of the Midwestern city.

"This was the early 1970s and there really wasn't anywhere to go, there were only two gay bars in all of Omaha. Omaha is a very Catholic city," Bussen said. "What we needed was a discussion group. A few of us would get together and just talk about the articles in The Advocate and eventually we held Omaha's first gay dinner-dance in a hotel." In 1973 Bussen was motivated to leave the staunchly Catholic community and the seminary by accepting a position with the U.S. Railroad retirement board as a claims examiner in Chicago.

Bussen found Chicago's chapter of the gay Catholic group Dignity the very first Sunday of his new life in Chicago. Though the big city was progressive enough for the Catholic gay prayer circle, Chicago was only slightly less conservative than the Omaha Bussen left.

"Life was barely more out than the closeted '50s: bars, bookstores, baths were the gathering places," he said. "Dignity and MCC [ the Metropolitan Community Church ] were the two biggest organizations then until the Lincoln Park Lagooners started, which became huge. Back then only first names were used by the vast majority, only a brave few used full, real names. One can't dismiss the sexual boom of the baths and the entertainment there ( ala Bette Midler ) as the start of a real social scene, then separating from the sexual which lead to all the variety of clubs and organizations. I joined Dignity because it felt nice to meet other gay Catholics."

Dignity/Chicago began as the fourth chapter in the nation in January 1972. The idea behind Dignity/USA is what it means to be gay and Catholic. The Dignity/Chicago chapter was mostly inspired by an organization created in 1970 by Mary Houlihan, who noticed the need for spiritual guidance in the GLBT community. Dignity/Chicago succeeded in hosting not only the discussion group aspect of the Dignity/USA mission but also the idea of an inclusive worship masses. Dignity/Chicago began holding meetings at St. Sebastian before finding its current home at the Broadway United Methodist church. Dignity/Chicago quickly became one of the first non-bar gathering places for the local GLBT community and eventually became a strong political organization.

In the current age of growing religious indifference, some Chicagoans may not know what Dignity/Chicago is or what is stands for. "Dignity is like a split-personality, we want to be an inclusive worship community but we also need to take up GLBT advocacy because the Catholic church can afford to ( and does ) hire lobbyists against gay marriage, so we are trying to be both a supportive network for worship but also stand up against the Catholic church," said Bussen.

Bussen became a member of Dignity/Chicago upon joining in 1973. Bussen began his more high-level activism with Dignity/Chicago in 1976 when he chaired the organization's gay pride activities. His involvement evolved with the organization, as it became a more nationally recognized political assembly. In 1977 Dignity/Chicago worked with the group A Call to Action to sponsor the Orange Ball, a Chicago benefit to raise funds to protest Anita Bryant's nationwide anti-gay activism. Through this Bussen had the opportunity to represent Dignity/Chicago on a tour of churches in Wichita, Kansas, an effort to sway voters on gay rights. Bussen was also among some of the first lobbyists to journey to Springfield, Illinois when gay legislation was first brought before the state legislature. He worked hard not only to represent the city of Chicago but also the views of his rural Illinois hometown, even having his parents tag along. Over the course of his political involvement, Bussen worked with the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

From 1985 to 1989, Bussen served as Dignity/USA's national president. During his two terms as national president, the organization was the first gay and lesbian group to purchase a full-page ad in a nationally distributed magazine, Newsweek ( April, 1987 ) . Bussen's work with Dignity/USA brought about many opportunities for him.

"Who would have guessed to move to the big city, get a great job, a chance to travel ( not only to almost every state but also to Europe! ) , and from the very innocent act of going to Dignity's mass the very first Sunday after arriving in Chicago I would meet involved and challenging people, who themselves were engaged politically, and I learned from them, and would become life-long friends," Bussen said. "Then in some way [ I would ] offer my services to accept the challenge of being part of the national movement. I always wanted what was right and fair. And as part of that, to participate in confronting the Bishops face-to-face, to speak on behalf of Catholic GLBT folk, to channel anger and outrage, what an exhilarating, exhausting and rewarding experience. And hey, not too shabby to appear in People magazine as 'one of nine Americans the Pope won't meet, and why!' Now that is a hoot!"

Like so many other activists of Bussen's generation, he remembers the tragic onset of the AIDS crisis. "It was a real push to come out and then the real explosion of the volunteer groups and the gay cultural scene," he said. "It changed everything overnight. AIDS became a catalyst and a sadness. … We had to step up to the plate and stand up for our rights. The losses were very dramatic but look how many changes it brought about, especially concerning gay marriage and the idea of being able see your partner in the hospital etc. It forced us all out into the open. I look at it as the closet-door movement in the gay community.

"As far as Dignity Chicago goes, we established a committee to help raise funds for housing needs for those early years. Out of which grew Chicago House and several of Dignity's first board members then served as Chicago House board presidents."

Many years have elapsed since the initial devastation AIDS caused in Chicago, but through those years Bussen has seen a community evolve and a neighborhood change. "Boystown used to be the gay ghetto," he said. "Now if you go to Melrose, it's practically a family restaurant. The groups of kids you see on the sidewalks are much more diverse than in my day, there's less segregation between gays and straights and it has a lot to do with the work done by those organizations."

Not only has Bussen seen changes in the GLBT haven of Chicago, but also throughout the country. Bussen feels that it's only a matter of time before Illinois will follow New York's success in legalizing same-sex marriage. "I think it will be relatively soon too because of all the lobbying," he said. "It's kind of odd to have civil unions and not expect marriage rights. It's a good enough step but it's only a matter of containment. The church is always going to believe something and religion can't interfere with government. Gay marriage is inevitable."

Bussen is now retired and has stepped back from political volunteering and has moved from Chicago to a retirement community in Iowa. He feels content with his life's work and believes that the Catholic church is heading toward the right track concerning the gay movement. "Dignity is on the cutting edge even still for Catholics and gays, it's all about being supportive of what people need. I think it is up to us to find our way, I think we find god in others, and the grace provided by their energy," Bussen said.

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