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Legendary Baton owner Jim Flint looks ahead at 75
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-07-17

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In their 2011 biography of one of the Chicago LGBTQ community's most longterm entrepreneurial figures Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria, authors Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen described the owner of the nearly half-century-old Chicago landmark The Baton Show Lounge and the founder of Continental Pageantry Systems as "something of an enigma to those not familiar with him."

"This former Baton twirler from Peoria is an ultimate juggler," Baim and Keehnen added, "happiest when all his 'batons' are flying through the air—preferably on fire, with Flint on roller skates for an added level of risk as well as showmanship."

On July 25, 2016 at the renowned Lincoln Park concert venue Park West—aptly based in what began in the 1920s as a Vaudevillian theater and became another of the city's focal points of provocative entertainment—Flint will celebrate his 75th birthday surrounded by just a fraction of the people his work has affected; each an inheritor of the lessons learned and battles won since the day as a child that he "leaped into this stream of humanity with eyes wide open."

Much like Flint himself, they are lives and careers he shaped and elevated from obscurity to extraordinary.

The evening, which begins at 8 p.m. and ends "when Jim says it's over," will feature more than 30 performances including Desiree DeMornay, Tiffany T. Hunter, Dana Douglas, Maya Douglas, Jackie Couture, Brooke Lynn Hytes, Kalil Valentino, Angel Saez, Joey Taylor, Mykul, Valentine, Antonio Edwards along with a host of surprise special guests from across the country.

It promises to surpass the boundaries of the unforgettable which are Flint's trademark, however it would not be Flint if the event were wholly self-serving.

Each of the performers are donating their time in order for proceeds from the celebration to benefit the Orlando Pulse Employees Recovery Fund set up by Pulse nightclub co-founder Barbara Poma following the June 12 massacre which claimed 49 lives.

"The most important thing about this birthday is making sure what happened in Orlando never happens again," Flint told Windy City Times. "So [the event] is a tribute to Orlando and will help those who are in need."

Flint was at his Baton Show Lounge offices when Windy City Times caught up with him. While most people at 75 might have long since hung up the customary uniforms of their professions in favor of an equally mainstream set of golf shoes, Flint has no such appetites.

The love for what he does and the people and community with whom he works is too pronounced.

Besides, the dreams he has yet to realize both for himself and others leaves little time for reflection or even an interview centered upon an abbreviated repetition of a life already detailed in Baim and Keehnen's book.

For Flint, this is a time to look forward.

Naturally he looks at the progression of the LGBTQ movement in a way that is antithetical to the conventional visionary or impatient activist.

"I think we have to be a little slower in the way we move things along and get people to adjust through education," he said. "You get people into your corner so the base is much larger before you try to make a lot of changes."

Flint believes that, if the political process is ignored, whether out of cynicism or lethargy, those changes are imperiled.

"We have to get out into our community and make sure everybody out there registers to vote to get people in office who support us or want to move our agenda forward," he said. "So many just sit back and gripe and complain but they don't even vote. Everybody needs to be politically involved. I remember the first gay-rights bill we pushed in Chicago. We did it just to see who was and who wasn't in our corner so we knew who we had to go after."

He credits the Gang of Four—Art Johnston, Jon-Henri Damski, Laurie Dittman and Rick Garcia who were the architects of Chicago's groundbreaking 1988 human-rights ordinance ending discrimination due to sexual orientation—as an example of the methodology's success.

"A lot of times we have the wrong spokespeople out there," Flint asserted. "We have to get together and instead of having people speak for us, we all must have the same agenda."

A chorus of dissonant voices each with their own goals faces an uphill battle when it comes to protecting the transgender community. It is a community so deeply intertwined with Flint's work and advocacy as an ally that Baim and Keehnen credited him as being "part of the reason transgender issues are more prominent today."

"We've had transgender people comfortably use [public] bathrooms for years," Flint said. "And very few have pushed that idea forward. People like Alexandra Billings and Candis Cayne have pushed that farther and a lot more educationally than Caitlyn Jenner did. She came into the community not knowing a lot and then started turning it against her by her politics."

The commotion and division wrought by figures like Jenner is a far cry from the LGBTQ community Flint remembers.

"In the earlier days we were much more together," he said. "We had to be. We looked out for and searched for people. We built our allies together. Today, instead of using social media like Facebook for education, promotion and building the community together, there's so many people out there slamming each other and being completely destructive."

Recently, that side of social media was aimed at drag performers.

Flint took a pivotal role in raising the art of drag from the shadowed ambiguity of a stage which Baim and Keehnan described as a "piece of plywood on top of 16 beer cases" into entertainment so embedded in popular culture that the who's who of celebrities who have visited the Baton Show Lounge stretches as long as the line to get into the club on a Saturday night.

The Miss Continental Pageant Systems Flint founded 37-years ago has received an international prestige that helps launch its contestants into the kind of careers which even those who reach the Miss Worldly heights of its cisgender counterparts can only dream of.

Yet, particularly on social media, even the myriad of performers who, under Flint's employ, have magnified and brought distinction to the art of drag have found themselves excluded from the LGBTQ movement while a number of vitriolic commentators have declared drag performers as beneath the increasingly multifaceted membership of the transgender community.

"We shouldn't be separated at all," Flint said. "We might have differences of opinion. We might not like this person or that for whatever reason but we certainly don't have to start showing our negative side on Facebook. Let's keep our community positive and show people who we are."

No matter what the disparagements they receive on social media, Flint is proud of each and every one of the Baton's family past and present. Again, he remembered Billings who worked at the Baton for five years before eventually going on to an award-winning theater, TV and film career.

"What a role model. She's just so positive," Flint said. "She gives me a lot of credit for that. In all the years at the Baton we've been very accepting of everybody no matter who they are. I am very lucky. I have my own family and I have my drag family. A lot of them are like my kids. When I started the Baton, I found people that I was very comfortable working with. I built a family atmosphere. In our dressing room we don't have jealousies because everybody there is a star."

Even when his performers leave the Baton, Flint follows their careers like a doting father.

"Every time I read something positive or I see someone like Candis Cayne in Dirty Sexy Money, I am so very proud of my time with them," he said.

There is no doubt that many of the Baton's performers have drawn from Flint's own lessons and the challenges he surmounted. Paramount among Flint's recollections of those challenges were the police and the mafia.

"Being a poor boy from Peoria, I never realized this sort of thing went on," Flint said. "It's funny because it's 50 years this month that the Club Chesterfield was raided in 1966. The mob was going to use me as a scapegoat. But I met a lawyer named Ralla Klepak and here I am."

In the Boy From Peoria, Flint remembered that "they were using me, trying to bargain me through the court system as a way to find me guilty so I'd be gone. Then they could say, 'Hey, the bartender who was a bad element is gone, we didn't know what was going on.' In that way they could reopen. They were trying to use me as the scapegoat to get the bar license back after the raids."

Testifying at subsequent mob trials put Flint at his most vulnerable.

"Those first mafia trials were very hard," he said. "I didn't know if I wanted to keep moving. I wanted to pick up and run somewhere and hide because I was scared to death. I got through it because I was myself. Because I am gay. I am very proud of who I am. I have never felt discriminated against because of who I am. I treat people the way I want to be treated."

When he was organizing the first Miss Continental Pageant in 1980, Flint needed people who knew what was possible with that sort of unwavering faith in the strength of their identities.

"Getting contestants to believe that we could successfully do it was hard," he said. "The only pageant going was Miss Gay America and they didn't let any person enter who had hormones or silicone or any body enhancements so I wondered if we would ever get enough people together to get it going. We ended up with 14 and kept moving from there. This year we are going to have 51 girls and 34 boys."

"I never thought it would get where it is today," Flint added. "We're into Canada, Puerto Rico, Hawaii. I never believed this would happen."

Indeed, could a boy from Peoria ever have dreamed that he would one day be sharing a cocktail with legends in film, politics and sports?

"I remember in the '70s when people like Joan Crawford and Rock Hudson were coming to the Baton and I was sitting and talking with them. Getting to know them was really inspiring," Flint said. "I have to give a lot of credit to my mother who always pushed us. She was the great role model and I had a great family."

In his interview for the book, Flint recalled his mother being back at work two days after delivering his younger brother Ronnie—one of 13 children. "She had all of us and she had a responsibility to provide for us," he said.

That sense of responsibility has never left him.

"I feel like I've done my job but sometimes I feel like I haven't done enough," he admitted. "You always have to build together a unit in which you can all share ideas. I was very fortunate. I remember myself and three other bartenders were talking about AIDS and thinking this was too big for us. We organized a big meeting at the Baton and then another and that's how Chicago House started and moved forward."

There are many dreams for Flint yet to realize. He wants to see a cure for AIDS in his lifetime. He wants to see those souls that were lost to the disease immortalized, not just as names on a quilt but as people with their own detailed biographies—pages torn away by the disease but who "must be remembered over and over."

Meanwhile Flint wants to see Miss Continental take a further step into the public eye through becoming televised.

"If you look at Miss Universe last year, Miss Puerto Rico had the same gown as Miss Europe Continental had on that year only in a different color," he said. "So a lot of these girls do watch our pageants and copy what they see because we are so advanced when it comes to fashion and how to wear it."

That dream will be realized in the same way that the enigma of Jim Flint may best be summarized: strength of will and the belief in the limitless possibilities of existence.

The Baton is three years away from turning 50. Flint was in no hurry to predict what will happen on that birthday and beyond.

"When we get to 50, we'll see what we we're going to do after that," he said.

For more information about Jim Flint's birthday party, call 312-527-2269, M-F 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

To buy a copy of Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria, visit www.amazon.com/Jim-Flint-Peoria-Tracy-Baim/dp/146639840X . Available in both color and B&W editions, also from Women & Children First Bookstore.

Photos of the Park West celebration at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Jim-Flints-75th-celebrated-at-Park-West/56006.html .


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