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AIDS: Kit Duffy, liaison for change
by John J. Accrocco
2011-08-10

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Before there was Boystown there was New Town. What once was a fringe community became mainstream by the time AIDS became prominent by the mid 1980s.

Kit Duffy is one woman who helped bring Chicago's LGBT community to the foreground. Duffy served as the liaison between the community and Mayor Harold Washington's administration during the 1980s; it was her job to act as the go-between for the Illinois Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and others, with the administration.

Duffy grew up in Maryland and moved to Chicago to study journalism at Northwestern University in 1964. Though she did not finish, she earned a degree in engineering from IIT. Duffy stayed on in Chicago after school and spent several years working in the insurance and medical industry.

But she had always been particularly interested in political activism. As early as 14, Duffy noticed the injustices of segregation while living in her Appalachian Maryland hometown. Eventually Duffy would help form a group that would back the NAACP in the late 1960s. Throughout the 1970s in Chicago, Duffy became involved with several other activist groups including Women Employed, a group that helped pass the first laws in Illinois making sexual harassment illegal.

"I am not gay, but I have many gay friends and during the late '70s and '80s the Chicago gay scene was very raucous," Duffy said. "In a Midwestern-conservative city like Chicago sometimes the anti-gay sentiments were overwhelming."

Duffy was called to action by a few friends who suggested she work with Washington in a new position as the liaison between the Illinois state legislature and the Illinois Gay & Lesbian Task Force. In early 1984, Duffy took her position as liaison in a very tumultuous time as the tragic effects of AIDS had started to eclipse the positive work being done by gay activists.

"When I found out their agenda was primarily state issues I suggested to Harold that the function should be broadened and he agreed," Duffy said. "The thing just grew organically, mostly because the community decided the main effort should be toward passage of a [ city ] human-rights ordinance and that proved to be a huge undertaking. Our intent all along was to move toward a more formalized structure for the GLBT community within the city by first setting up the Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Mayor Washington, like myself, did not believe in having to beg for services that were already being covered by taxes and it seemed silly to us to deny the gay and lesbian movement the only thing they were asking for before AIDS, which was just to be acknowledged."

Times were very different when Duffy served as Washington's liaison. Gay youth counselor Bruce Koff recalls a different Halsted Street than the familiar hangouts of today. "The area was not as prominently gay as it is now, the bars on Halsted certainly were not as obvious as they are today," he said. "The Pride Parade in those days was made up of exclusively gay organizations, you wouldn't have seen the kind of corporate sponsorship like Treasure Island, etc., and no politicians participated. Harold Washington was actually the first politician I remember attending the parade and I'm sure Kit had something to do with that." [ Washington attended the post-Parade rally in Lincoln Park. ]

The gay movement was going strong in Chicago until the early 1980s when all that seemed dashed with the outbreak of AIDS. Part of Duffy's job was to separate the popular myths about the disease from the facts.

"The truth is that it was such a very different time back then, when open discussion of sexuality and particularly gay sexuality was taboo, and very nearly all politicians were resistant to talking openly about what realistically was needed to combat AIDS, the first and most essential step of course being that very thing, open discussion," Duffy said. "I had real conflicts with the head of the Health Department at the time over some statements he'd made about AIDS and his handling of the issue in general, which reflected that same reticence in dealing openly with needs such as clean needle programs, condom use, bathhouses, education of sex workers, etc. I felt the same I think as any other GLBT activist, anger that the disease was spreading needlessly because people couldn't or wouldn't talk about sex and in particular gay sex."

"AIDS forced a generation to become activists, it required people to get organized and to fight for the resources for prevention and research," she said. "It brought a community to the political arena to solve a problem. The AIDS crisis showed that the gay community here in Chicago had stunning organization skills."

In the wake of tragedy several organizations began to help the GLBT community from within. One group was called Horizons, the precursor to the Center on Halsted. Bruce Koff is a former head of Horizons, and he remembers working with Duffy. "Kit was our access to resources and her job was to provide a lot of education to legislators about the multiple challenges we were facing at one time: AIDS, issues of gay youth, and victims of hate violence which was all really just a part of mainstreaming the GLBT community, she really helped us forge a path. Kit helped us feel empowered and that was crucial and provided a very powerful sense of comfort," Koff said.

In 1985 Duffy became the first executive director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) .

Duffy also continued her work with Washington until his death in 1987, managing to move her role into a permanent position. In addition to helping AFC, she also worked with others to help pass Chicago's gay-rights ordinance. Duffy continues to be a strong voice in the gay community more that 20 years after that bill passed, under Washington's successor, Eugene Sawyer.

Duffy said she feels it a privilege to have seen the civil-rights movement from the start, and how awesome it was to see a Chicago community go from begging for exposure to marching in the streets. But it is with sadness she remembers those friends lost to AIDS.

"Destruction of life is horrendous and we're missing a whole generation of activists who would now be in their 50s, and there's a huge impact on today's progress because of the absence of these people," Duffy said. "The next generation is lacking the transfer of knowledge and those crucial confrontation and organization skills which allowed those activists to be heard and get things done."

Now in her 60s, Duffy is finding herself a little discouraged by the current state of the LGBT leaders. "One of the interesting things about the particular time span during which I was heavily involved was the very rapid cycling through phases of a civil-rights movement that the GLBT communities made: from suppression to activism to legislated rights to political and social equality and power," she said.

"Unfortunately, having slipped through those phases, the movement seems to have entered the same moribund state that grips many minority and liberal interest and rights groups now," Duffy said. "They gained a seat at the table but forgot that sitting there isn't so you can more easily reach the Kool-Aid, it's about dictating the whole damn menu.

"Initially I thought it was a generational shift in the definition of power. From the '60s through much of the '80s power was about taking charge and organizing was about identifying what was needed in order to do that, and strategizing ( sometimes on a very long-term basis ) over who had control, what their vulnerabilities were, what it would take to either co-opt or defeat them in order to get that power. Now it seems as if people define power in terms of how often one's name is mentioned ( and that's really a throw-back to pre-movement days ) and what one is graced to receive from those who have power.

"Today organizations are trading for that grace with money and endorsements. The shame of it is that proof that the old model still works, that the keys to power are organizing and a strategy to take power rather than wait around for someone to toss a few crumbs of it.

"So yeah there is hope, if we climb out of our Armani suits, maybe skip a few White House tea parties and hit the streets instead, realize that organizing is more than chaining ourselves to a fence and yelling stuff, and return to the concept that our job is to strategically find means to empower people rather than just ourselves. Frankly though I don't see that hope in the current or older generation of activists, the lure of that White House china has irreversibly seduced them, I think."

Duffy concluded: "If there is hope it's going to have to come from the young. I see in the GLBT youth a lot of hope. They are unencumbered by the confines of the identity politics older generations found necessary to get power and therefore whole ranges of strategies are available to them, if they learn the system and work at it. They remind me of the Teddy Kennedy quote, 'Some men see things as they are and say why, I dream of things that never were and say why not.'"


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