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Jeanne Balke on career, WWII, life as a lesbian pre-Stonewall
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Just a few weeks before Chicago native Jeanne Balke's 10th birthday, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, plunging the United States into World War II.

Balke and her family lived in the public housing project Cabrini-Green and she attended what is now called LaSalle Academy at the time. Due to her love of reading, she paid attention to what the newspapers were saying about the war.

"I would see the headlines that said 'War Declared' and remember everyone on the street talking about it," Balke told Windy City Times.

Balke explained that there were different color ration stamps for food like meat and sugar and other goods.

"When I went to the store my mother used to tell me if I saw a line get in it because the items were limited in number," said Balke. "You were only allowed two pairs of shoes a year which was hard because as a kid you went through shoes pretty fast. I always had to use my father's extra stamp to get another pair of shoes."

Balke said there was some intrigue in Chicago during the war because there were Nazi spies on the North Side and establishments were raided to root them out. Bullet holes could be seen in the North Avenue Beach grandstands.

"I was president of the LaSalle Victory Garden Club and our garden was at North Avenue Beach, but most of what we grew we lost due to its location," said Balke. "There were victory gardens all over Chicago during the war."

A year after the war ended, Balke graduated from LaSalle Academy and went onto Lincoln Park High School which was then called Waller High School.

While in high school, Balke became the first white person to integrate the now-defunct North Avenue YMCA when she applied for a social membership that included Black students.

Balke said she liked her high school because it was diverse for the times, with some Black students as well as Japanese, Polish, Irish, German and Italian students. She explained that everyone got along well.

"As kids we did not know anything about prejudice against certain groups of people except against homosexuals," said Balke.

Due to prejudice against LGBT people, Balke had to keep her lesbian identity a secret. She realized she was a lesbian at 14—when she would practice kissing other girls in the water while swimming at the North Avenue YMCA.

"I decided to learn everything I could about homosexuality while I was in high school," said Balke. "I read everything I could find but little was available. There was a bookstore on Chicago Avenue that had LGBT books and the first one I read was The Well of Loneliness. Also, a book by a woman psychiatrist where she said homosexuality is a normal phase of adolescence so I thought, 'What am I worried about' since I was still an adolescent and I will outgrow this."

Balke had two girlfriends in high school; however, her first long-term relationship began while she was a nursing student at Augustana Hospital Nursing School. It was then that Balke accepted herself as a lesbian. Her most recent long-term relationship ended several years ago when her girlfriend died.

"We did not know any other gay people when I was in nursing school and had to live a double life and do everything romantic behind closed doors in specific places where we would not get caught" said Balke.

Balke said when they went to the handful of gay bars that existed in the 1950s there was always a fear of police raids which she missed by one evening a handful of times. She explained that women had to dress in a feminine manner and that included having zippers on the side of their pants. Balke said when gay people got arrested attorney and ally Ralla Klepak, who died this past June, would represent them and was successful in getting their charges dropped.

When the Stonewall Riots happened, it made her feel hopeful about the future of the LGBT community. Balke was not involved in any activism; however, she did join a lesbian group in the 1980s that would meet at Ann Sather's on Clark Street in Andersonville.

Balke said she never thought she would see the day where same-sex couples could legally marry across the country but she worries about the LGBT advancements that could be taken away by right-wing legislators and judges.

While working as a nurse in various capacities and navigating life as a lesbian, Balke pursued other endeavors including a bike trip on July 6, 1959, to Saugatuck, Michigan, that she did with a nursing colleague. This was the same day Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Chicago for her first visit to the city. They started the journey on Outer Lake Shore Drive early in the morning on three-speed bikes and took Route 20 all the way around Lake Michigan and arrived at St. Joseph, Michigan, in the late afternoon where they stayed the night at a motel.

"I told a friend in Saugatuck to make a reservation so we would have a place to stay," said Balke. "I called the hotel the morning after we stayed in St. Joseph to let them know we would be earlier than we thought. They said, 'Are you the girls who are coming on bicycles' and I said yes. They said, 'Where are you because everyone is waiting for you here.' They took our pictures when we got there because they wanted to mark the occasion. That was a really interesting and fun trip."

Balke explained that she did not have a car until she was 30 years old and today she would not want to be without one because it is her lifeline to the world.

"I get out and drive every day to run my errands and so I do not lose those skills," said Balke. "Even though it is hard for me to get around, I can still drive."

When asked what Balke would like for the elder LGBT community in Chicago, she said there needs to be more social and support groups available across the city.

"Too many of us are alone because we have lost our spouses/partners and friends and it is really hard to meet people, especially when we have mobility issues," said Balke.

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