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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Kit Duffy dies, Mayor Washington's gay liaison
by Tracy Baim, Windy City Times
2015-12-22

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Katherine "Kit" Duffy, 71, Chicago's first liaison to the gay community, under Mayor Harold Washington, has died from complications of heart surgery.

Duffy remained active in Chicago politics until just weeks before her death, staying engaged in progressive Democratic electoral and activist efforts.

Mayor Washington appointed her in 1984 as the first mayoral liaison to Chicago's LGBT communities.

As a heterosexual ally, Duffy was a constant force in the 1980s Chicago gay community. As AIDS started to take its toll, and as the community fought for a civil-rights bill, Duffy was a key link for the community to the mayor, and vice versa.

She was inducted into the city's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2008, in part for her help in securing passage of the 1988 ordinance barring discrimination against gays and lesbians in Chicago.

The Hall of Fame website notes that after being appointed by Washington, one of Duffy's first actions was to arrange an open-ended meeting between city department heads and a wide-ranging group of lesbian and gay activists and leaders.

"That was very symbolic of what Harold was trying to do for the whole community," Duffy recalled in 2007, emphasizing that Washington was determined to give everyone equal access to city services and power.

"The one thing that really struck me throughout the time that I served as liaison to the community was the way that process paralleled what Harold was trying to do for the entire city. It was certainly time for that change," she said. "We were flying blind, but with a complete commitment to fairness."

In 1985, Duffy convened Mayor Washington's Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Also in 1985, she became the first executive director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

After Washington's death in 1987, Duffy continued to push for the gay-rights law. In 1991, Duffy was one of the co-founders of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights (forerunner of today's Equality Illinois), along with Jon-Henri Damski, Rick Garcia, Lana Hostetler, and Art Johnston, the Hall of Fame notes.

Duffy was born July 2, 1944 in Funkstown, Maryland, in 1944, and moved to Chicago in 1964. Her friend Janet Rowland said Duffy's family all preceded her in death.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia recalled that, "Kit Duffy was an angel of justice for people who have suffered through oppression and discrimination. Her life, since she was an adolescent, was about wiping out injustice. She leaves a legacy of fighting discrimination and bigotry in the city of Chicago."

Garcia also praised Duffy's political acumen, adding, "When I was running for mayor, and my people were struggling through a speech or needed some background material, we could turn to Kit. She always wanted progressives to be on point. The fact that she was so wonky was such a help—she always had answers for us, and didn't send a bill afterward."

Activist Emmanuel Garcia said, "The first time I met Kit Duffy she handed me the book Every Day Is Election Day by Rebecca Sive. She said, 'I heard about your work and I think you should take some time to read this.' You didn't meet Kit and doubt you played a necessary role in affecting change, it was just up to you to accept her plea to do more.

"Kit always spoke with a sense of urgency—one that inspired me to rethink what it means to lead in these times. In one of our last exchanges she wrote, 'Your generation is in the unfortunate position of, as NEVER has been the case before, not having the luxury of time for diversions and in particular those diversions that divide, antagonize, and exclude. To have a chance at all of stopping this rush toward selling this city to tourists and the elite the base has to grow, not shrink into the realm of irrelevant symbolism. Someone has to step up and help people see what paths are productive and which ones aren't. Not everyone will love you for it but that's one of many prices you pay for the joy of knowing you've actually helped move things forward.'

"After the Chuy for Mayor Run-off Election in April, Kit joined Lisa Marie-Pickens and me on several occasions to talk about the possibility of creating a city-wide coalition to influence electoral politics. She was sharp and committed to the very end. Kit was a fearless trailblazer committed to building future progressive leadership who strategized through intersectionality to bring more people in. There are many lessons to be learned from her life and work, but our communities are better today because of her tireless championing of civil rights."

Irwin Keller, who worked on Chicago's gay-rights ordinance and was also a founding member of the Kinsey Sicks singing group, said, "When I was in my early 20s, I thought I was so radical for being gay. And then I met Kit. She brought to our activism a revolutionary edge that made me look like the sheltered suburban boy I actually was. She was already a seasoned organizer who had done support work for the Black Panthers. I heard one rumor she'd been a gunrunner for them, which I suspect was meant to discredit her but had the effect of making people sit up and pay attention when this rosy-cheeked Irish woman spoke. Kit brought us a bigger vision. We suddenly saw our work as part of a much larger struggle for justice that included women, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, workers. We were at the margins of power, but at the center of a movement.

"I left Chicago in 1988, and only the Internet brought us back together some years ago. I discovered that besides being devoted to the cause, Kit was deeply loyal to all her comrades and had an enduring investment in those relationships. So we ended up keeping track of each other; chatting about religion, politics, the Kinsey Sicks, Harold Washington, life, loss. She was a great comfort when my mother died, and full of good advice and encouraging words when I was trying to dispose of mom's things. Kit was just like that. Radicalism and relationships. My last conversation with Kit was about Fred Hampton and Huey Newton—and Andrew Patner too. I remain stunned and sad. And Tuesday night I sat down at the dinner table, and began by saying to my children, 'Let me tell you the story of a woman named Kit Duffy…'"

William Greaves, who was director and community liaison for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations' Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues a few years after Duffy, said that she "opened the doors of city government to the LGBT communities: a community that was fed up with waiting for favors from politicians and well-connected community 'leaders.' She created the liaison position, which I subsequently held, and she inspired the gay community to become such an important and demanding constituency that the city had to respond by establishing the liaison position and the Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues.

"When [journalist] Paul Varnell introduced us, it was one good Maryland girl meeting another. We instantly became close friends, and Kit became my mentor. I love her deeply and owe her a great debt for what success I had in city government."

"Kit was always a wealth of knowledge on the city, city history, and the Cook County Democratic Party," said Ald. Tom Tunney. "When in doubt, I would ask Kit who invariably knew the answer or connected me with the person who could address the issue. She was extremely pragmatic with a great sense of humor. Kit upheld tremendous passion for the everyday Chicagoan. She is truly an incredible Chicago legacy who will be greatly missed."

"We are so sorry to hear about the passing of Kit Duffy. We are grateful for all of Kit's contributions to AFC—and to the advancement of LGBTQ equality. Kit was a true stalwart and will be missed," said Kathye Gorosh, AIDS Foundation of Chicago's senior vice president of strategy and business development.

Legacy Project Executive Director Victor Salvo called Duffy "a titan in this community's history" who "helped to transform how this community worked and how it thought of itself. She was an unrivaled community organizer, tactician, and strategist: brilliant, knowledgeable, and eloquent. She had contacts and friends in every part of the rainbow and was universally loved and respected. She was also fascinating to talk to and a helluva lot of fun. She died peacefully with her friend Bill Greaves at her side. Kit was the first liaison; Bill was the last. The Alpha and the Omega. We are devastated by her loss and extend our sincere condolences to her family, friends, colleagues and many, many fans. R.I.P., Kit … please watch over this community you so loved …. you are one of our guardian angels now."

"Kit Duffy's fingerprints are on almost everything we have in the gay community in Illinois today," said activist Rick Garcia. "She was active in a time when there were few straight allies and even fewer openly gay politicians. I really think that she is the midwife of the successes we have in Illinois. She took me around, under her wing, and introduced me to all the right people. … Just a few months ago, she and I met with [activist] Emanuel Garcia to plot strategy. She said to me, 'Rick, this is the future of our movement.'

"When she was the liaison, she didn't think it was her job to speak for gay people. She thought her job was to teach gay people to speak for themselves. She would tell activists that they needed to speak with city departments. It was Kit who said [to activists], 'You have to speak to the health department' in the early days of the AIDS crisis.

"This is a loss for the city, a loss for the progressive-independent movement, and a loss for the gay community."

"When Kit Duffy was appointed to be Mayor Harold Washington's liaison to the LGBT community in 1984, some people were surprised that she, a straight woman, was so dedicated to LGBT issues," said journalist Albert Williams. "But for her it was all part of a seamless fabric of fairness, justice and equality. She taught the LGBT community that power is never shared willingly; it must be taken. She nurtured the community's sense of self-empowerment, paving the way for the long-overdue passage of an LGBT-inclusive Chicago Human Rights Ordinance in 1988 as well as subsequent electoral and legislative victories. She was a shrewd strategic thinker (even Machiavellian when necessary) but also a passionate idealist. She cared deeply about the issues, but also reveled in the 'game' of politics. She was one of a kind."

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington added, "I have worked with and known Kit Duffy since our days in Harold Washington's City Hall. Kit was Chicago's go-to on all things progressive. A fierce strategist and social justice intellectual. She was always pushing and prodding friends, allies and enemies alike to do more, and then more—on a slew of progressive causes, from LGBT rights, to health care inequities, racial profiling, to police brutality. What a loss for Chicago, at a time when we need her political genius now, more than ever."

"I will miss Kit's unfailing commitment to fairness for all," said Equality Illinois co-founder Art Johnston. "Kit's work organizing in our communities, beginning in the mid-1980s, led not only to the passage of Chicago's historic 1988 Human Rights Ordinance but became the foundation for a new LGBTQ movement which led directly to all the political and legislative gains we have made, up to and including full equal marriage. She was, quite simply, the best."

Activist Lori Cannon said, "Kit Duffy had a lifetime of good ideas and leaves a remarkable legacy of major efforts, mentorship and intelligence when it comes to those less fortunate, or without a voice.

"Starting with creating a local NAACP/Chicago Chapter, on the South Side of Chicago while still a teenager, becoming a nationally known civil-rights activist, all the while honing her skills as an unparalleled community organizer, Chicago style. She did it all—and did it better than anyone else.

"My friend Kit stood head and shoulders above the blithering 'talking heads' when it came to racism, homophobia, feminism, civil rights; her entire life was dedicated to fairness, community, and righting the wrongs amongst those have been denied for so long.

"I admired her supreme intelligence and fairness. She and I first crossed paths during her legendary tenure as executive director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. She deeply respected my best friend, the fiery and explosive AIDS

activist Danny Sotomayor, and his clever and unique strategies to create AIDS awareness in the most dramatic and successful way.

"She worked behind the scenes with Danny, consulting and approving his tactics, as bold and shocking as they were. Kit got it. She and her dear friend, the late journalist Jon-Henri Damski, and myself made for a curious and wacky threesome. They were both into everything and coached me in the world of successful and peaceful negotiations, which are not my usual style.

"What a pleasure it was to know this magnificent woman. Her heart was as big as all outdoors, her wit was dry and wicked, and if Kit was on your side, you had a friend for life. I did. I had it for her life. How fortunate for me."

In an Aug. 10, 2011 interview for the Windy City Times AIDS @ 30 series, Duffy spoke about her work during the early years of the AIDS crisis.

As early as 14, the article stated, "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 told Windy City Times. "In a Midwestern-conservative city like Chicago sometimes the anti-gay sentiments were overwhelming."

"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."

Duffy concluded that 2011 interview with this: "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.'"

Funds are being raised to cover costs of funeral expenses for Kit Duffy. See www.gofundme.com/k8g4tsz3 . A memorial will be planned soon for the end of January at Sidetrack.

Also see: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/AIDS-Kit-Duffy-liaison-for-change/33246.html .

— Also contributing: Matt Simonette


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