Inside the Center on Halsted's auditorium, while queer community vendors tabled their wares over a DJ, an open bar, and plates of hors d'oeuvres, Chicago History Museum board member Matt Blakely called queer history and Chicago history "inextricably linked." Blakely introduced "Queer Expression In Public Spaces" as part of Out at CHM's series of events focused on seeing and hearing queer history; this event focused on feel and the documentation of public touch.
Local historian and event moderator Owen Keehnen defined queer PDA, saying it was a direct challenge to social norms and carried some degree of personal risk. "What does our willingness to engage in this behavior say about us?" Keehnen asked.
Each of the panel of local image-makers brought three or four representative images from their work, while Keehnen shared photos he found in the course of his research on the history of the former undeveloped shoreline of Belmont Harbor, known as the Belmont Rocks.
"We claimed these uneven slabs of limestone," he said, speaking of the "expanded sense of freedom" the rocks gave their pre-AIDS clientele even if they were outside in the middle of a city. "We did it in the sunshine when our bars still had blacked out windows. The straights just had to deal with it or take their picnic elsewhere."
Keehnan credited the Rocks with creating a sense of community and being a place you could find lovers or best friends. An image of six men in the same exaggerated pose prompted Keehnan to point out the freedom of the Rocks' denizens to be campy.
"I cannot imagine a group of straight men doing this," he joked, and urged the audience to pass along any photos or scrapbooks of the Rocks to him.
When she arrived in Boystown from rural Maryland, queer femme photographer Andie Meadows remembered thinking it was the epicenter of the LGBTQ community, like every travel guide said. But she realized it lacked the femme-queer energy she craved.
"It's called Boystown, what do you expect?" Meadows said she was told. One of her images was of the faded remnants of "Lesbian Love" painted on a neighborhood building. Though she knew it was graffiti, Meadows called it "the most beautiful mural I'd ever seen." It's whitewashed now, and Meadows wondered, "What else has been whitewashed?" She currently takes photos of drag queens in her bathtub for her aptly titled series, "Queers Who Bathe," which she calls a "living snapshot of Chicago's queer scene."
Patric McCoy disabused the notion that he set out to be a photographer. He was, instead, "an inadvertent documentarian" of the undercover black gay scene. McCoy lived in South Shore and commuted to his EPA job in the Loop via bicycle. He'd been teaching himself photography and often biked camera in tow. Whenever someone said, 'take my picture," McCoy would do it.
"Thousands of people did that," he said. His journey took him through multiple parks, always a meeting ground for gay men looking to hook up. One of his images shows a man sitting on the top rail of a park bench, code for "I'm available." Many of his photos were taken in front of The Rialto Tap downtown, which closed at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. and reopening at 6 a.m., and an excellent mixing ground for all walks of life, became the epicenter for Black gay life.
"Everyone went but no one said they went there," said McCoy about the Rialto. His travels resulted in thousands of pictures, whose significance he only realized years later.
Michelle Citron's workincluding a documentary "Visible Lives" shown after the panelfocused on photos taken by a lesbian couple from Rogers Park, Norma Roos and Virginia Kaitchuck. After they passed away, their caretaker found over 2,000 Kodak snapshots, many taken pre-Stonewall, in their apartment. One showed a group of people at a banquet hall likely rented out for a gay holiday party for those in the community estranged from their families. Another showed a 1950s lesbian house party.
Citron's favorite image was of a butch with her head in the lap of her femme partner. "Women shared physical affection on the front porches and parks of Chicago," Citron said, no matter if they were gay or straight.
Keehnen first asked panelists was if mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ culture affected PDA. Both the older McCoy and Citron felt that if anything, acceptance lessened PDA.
"When you become mainstream, you lose your identity," said Citron, who felt that flaunting identity in public was part of the pleasure. Meadows pointed out that platforms had moved online, relevant to Keehnen's next question about preservation.
"Inadvertent images go away," said McCoy, thinking about his own work and how someone today would have to purposely go about documenting the things he saw. He added that people are no longer as willing to be photographed in compromising positions
Meadows brought up the challenge of organizing the many images that exist online and have proliferated with the help of technology. Was the impulse to document more prevalent in queer people? Keehnen asked.
"Everyone takes photos: what motivates them is different," Citron replied, saying that 2 billion snapshots were taken every year in the '40s and '50s. "It's the way most of us write our autobiographies," she said.
But Meadows described an urgency to queer images, the feeling that photos "needed to happen." Keehnen agreed, wondering if the need to document queer lives stemmed from LGBTQ people not seeing their lives reflected. He asked about images that focused on more obvious trappings of queerness, such as camp, leather, and butch/femme dynamics.
"I didn't see people wanting to be photographed like that," McCoy responded, saying he was always more interested in the audience than the stage. Citron described Norma, her photographer muse, as becoming butcher overtime because of community pressure, which Meadows likened to how social media makes us brand ourselves.
When Keehnen asked about the effect of media representation of LGBTQ people and if LGBTQ expression will ever be accepted, Citron likened this representation to that of women, saying popular culture has an "oppressive" quality and that women have struggled with trying to fit the given images. She also pointed out that LGBTQ progress is questionable these days, which prompted Keehnen to answer his own question, saying that a need for expression outweighs the risk factors. He then asked if areas like Boystown and Andersonville provide security for PDA to take place without fear.
Meadows responded by critiquing Boystown as a capitalist enterprise, and that capitalism comes with sexism, racism, and transphobia. Yet, she admitted, "I don't know if you can have visibility without commercial influence."
Keehnen closed the formal part of the panel by asking the imagemakers if they could point to one image that was exactly what they wanted to convey, which Citron felt was impossible. Life was too complicated for one image.
"That's why I'm a filmmaker," she joked, and expressed a desire for people to see history. Meadows added that queer history is not written down in linear ways; the best way to access it is by talking to people.
Audience inquiries included curiosity about the future of documentation in a queer-youth based culture. McCoy responded by pointing out that AIDS wiped out a generation and a half, obliterating vital connections and history, and that prior to AIDS, old people used to be at parties. Meadows agreed that with drinking, dancing and nightlife preoccupying her internet generation, there were so few chances for generations to mixthough this event was an exception.
She also wanted her work to create icons, to counteract how the LGBTQ community has been pigeonholed by capturing the essence of her subjects.
"Be your own gay icon!" she told the crowd, echoing what Keehnen had concluded earlier: with an uncertain future, the LGBTQ community is "politicized by making our presence known."