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BOOKS Legendary Chicago 'lesbian of conscience' tells her story
by Frank Pizzoli

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In Emily L. Quint Freeman's no-holds-barred 262-page memoir, Failure to Appear: Resistance, Identity and Loss, she provides a gripping true-life story of a lesbian of conscience who became a fugitive, on the run for over nineteen years using several aliases. Through the lens of nonstop activism, Freeman describes finding her true self and her sexual truth during the turbulent late 1960s through the late '80s.

In a big-picture way, Freeman's story takes place against a backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Nixon and Reagan years, the Women's and Gay Liberation movements, and the AIDS crisis. In a more personal way, she delves into family rejection, the price of ideals, lost love, the agony of an underground existence, and personal renewal.

One May night in 1969, Freeman and 17 others hauled approximately 40,000 records of draft-eligible men from the draft board office on the South Side of Chicago. They burned them as an act of non-violent civil disobedience against the Vietnam War and racism. The group waited at the scene, singing "We Shall Overcome," and were arrested. She takes readers on her journey, living underground for many long years, before finally voluntarily surrendering.

Windy City Times: When did the political bug bite?

Emily L. Quint Freeman: I first got into politics in high school. By the time I reached the [University of California]-Berkeley campus, the 1964 Free Speech Movement was already underway. I went full swing into anti-Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. I never looked back.

WCT: How did your values form?

EF: I always felt like an outsider even as a child. I think that helped me develop a sense of empathy for other people.

WCT: And other people helped, too?

EF: My involvement in Chicago with a Puerto Rican welfare rights organization and the American Friends Service Committee, the social action arm of the Quakers, as a draft counselor helped to shape me, too.

WCT: In 1969, you and 17 others hauled about 40,000 records of draft-eligible men from the complex of draft board offices on Chicago's South Side. Any regrets?

EF: It was an act of conscience and remains so. My hope is that this act, prior to the emergence of computers, spared 40,000+ poor and minority men from fighting and dying in Vietnam.

WCT: This action led to 19 years underground with the help of a radical group. It's your defining moment.

EF: I separated myself from that group very quickly, as I do not believe or support violence for social change, however laudable. I spent my years underground on my own.

WCT: Tell readers what it was like to be on the run for all those years.

EF: I described it best to the probation officer who asked me what regrets I had for fleeing: "I regret fleeing to an invisible prison. I regret living a false, aloof life. I regret lying to those I care about the most. No matter what happens next, my life is stamped by these years as a fugitive." However, I never disavowed the draft action or walked back my belief in social justice and peace.

WCT: Did the fact that you are a lesbian affect your social-justice work in the '60s? Were you "out?"

EF: The social justice and peace movement of the '60s was blatantly straight. So-called "free love" was heterosexual. Activists like me were generally in the closet. Even James Baldwin fled to France to be himself.

WCT: And this affected you?

EF: After an incredible but tragic first love in college, I wasn't active as a lesbian until much later—in the early 1970s, after Stonewall. I came to an understanding that my sexual truth required honesty and acceptance, first from me.

WCT: When did you emerge from hiding?

EF: In 1989, I engaged a very sympathetic therapist who sensed the turmoil going on inside me. I confessed who I really was to her and realized that I had been living in an invisible prison and my life as an alias, lying to those closest to me, was acceptable no longer.

WCT: What was it like being a lesbian during the early women's movement?

EF: Amazing! Daring, creative, a new movement of lesbian-feminist separatism expressed in music, poetry, theatre, prose, social scene, an ideological vanguard distinct from the mainstream National Organization of Women. Still quite relevant today...

WCT: What was it like being a lesbian during the early gay-liberation movement?

EF: Bars with no windows; fear of being rousted by the local police or outed; a double life outside of work; a sexual outlaw with a unique jargon, nightlife and culture. My eventual emergence from the shadows was both exhilarating and dangerous.

WCT: What was it like being a lesbian during the AIDS crisis?

EF: I had a number of close male friends who died during the AIDS crisis. The book describes those relationships and what many lesbians like myself did to support their gay brothers. At first, it was a disease with no name, a plague with no name, a cruel joke that happened right at the time we could be freer with our sexual life. So, we were sisters, we were friends. Who could forget that the Reagan government responded so slowly and inadequately to the AIDS crisis?

WCT: You've said, "In a mad country, it's sane to be insane."

EF: At the height of the carnage in Vietnam, violence and murder of protestors and civil rights leaders in America, it was really our government who was insane. At our trial, we attempted to make that point by pleading insanity so that our motives for striking at the death-dealing system of the draft could be made in court. It still rings true today: same shit, different century.

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