Longtime gay activist James "Jim" Bussen, 63, died July 6 in Glen Carbon, Ill., after a long battle with cancer. He died peacefully in his sleep surrounded by family.
Bussen was engaged in gay and religious activism starting in 1973. He had a special flair about him, and a charismatic smile that could disarm even strident opponents.
Bussen was inducted into Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1994, in part for his longtime leadership of Dignity Chicago, and for his work as president of DignityUSA from 19851989. Dignity is the organization for lesbian and gay Roman Catholics.
During his final days, Bussen returned to downstate Illinois, where he grew up. He had a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a double major in philosophy and communication, from Creighton University in Omaha.
According to the Hall of Fame website, Bussen came to Chicago in 1973: "Bussen's flamboyant personality, gift for humor, and sense of fairness made him a welcome addition to the organizations and groups whose work helped to shape the political success that was finally achieved more than a decade later."
His organizational work included the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago, the Gay and Lesbian Pride Committee, Dignity Chicago, and the Gay Rights Task Force of the Alliance To End Repression. According to the Hall of Fame, among the activities in which he participated were the rally and demonstration at Medinah Temple that were organized in response to an appearance there by Anita Bryant, and Orange Balls I and II which were held to raise funds to counter the singer's anti-gay political activities. He also protested in Wichita, Kan., to leaflet churches prior to Wichita's vote on the repeal of its gay-rights ordinance.
Bussen traveled to Springfield, Ill., frequently to lobby on state gay-rights legislationand he recruited his parents to help lobby as well. Over the course of his political involvement, Bussen worked with the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
The Hall of Fame noted that "during Bussen's terms in office, DignityUSA became the first national gay/lesbian organization to purchase a full-page, full-circulation advertisement in a major weekly news magazine (Newsweek, in April 1987) to increase gay/lesbian visibility to mainstream America. Bussen also takes special pride in having been named by Pope John Paul II as one of nine Americans the pontiff would refuse to see during his 1987 visit here."
Martin Grochala, a fellow Dignity member, said in a July 6 email: "Many tears are being shed here today at the DignityUSA Convention in Minneapolis. Friends of Jim's from all across the country will take time this weekend to grieve, to remember, to laugh and share memories. Jim was a close friend, a mentor, a brother. Dignity, the Chicago LGBT movement and the national movement have all benefited from Jim's righteous anger, his joy of life and his wicked sense of humor. While his physical presence will be missed, his spirit will always be close to our hearts."
"What an incredible spirit he was … positive, joyful, full of hope and faith that the world, even his beloved Church, could change," remembered Kit Duffy, Mayor Harold Washington's liaison to the gay community. "He raised us all up, kept us going and working hard for equality and fairness, just as he did for such a long, long time. I loved him, and will always remember and be inspired by him."
John Chester, a former Chicagoan who was active in many causes here, said he met Bussen in the mid-1970s at a meeting of the Gay Rights Task Force of the Alliance To End Repression (the precursor to the Illinois Gay Task Force). "Jim was very able to rebut all the so-called theological and scriptural issues offered by the church with scripture and theology that he had learned. He had a very public and heated exchange with the Bishop of Belleville about us," Chester recalled. "Jim followed politics very closely and very passionately and was a very progressive Democrat. His concerns were very Christ like. … He was concerned with the poor and those needed care and support.
"Jimmy was a very alive fun nice person who definitely had his own point of view and usually a strongly held point of view. It is ironic that the bone morrow transplant was successful and he was cancer free however his body developed a rejection illness that could not be controlled. He spent most of the last eight months in bed. I am already missing horribly Jim was such a good friend but I am relieved that he is no longer suffering since the meds could not completely eliminate the pain."
Fellow activist William B. Kelley notes that Bussen moved to southern Illinois about eight years ago after his retirement from the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board.
"Jim always gave it his all," Kelley said. "He came to Chicago from Downstate Illinois, and he and his parents repeatedly met in Springfield to lobby legislators for gay rights in the 1970s. His energy was impressive, whether he put it to use in lobbying, or within DignityUSA or within Chicago gay organizations, or when trying new treatments for his cancer. Jim had a marked sense of humor, whimsy, and irony. He nearly always had a smile on his face. But when he frowned, you took it seriously.
"And he was forthright to a fault. I'll never forget sitting beside him as part of a meeting with Cardinal Bernardin and church officials on a potential compromise that might soften Catholic Church opposition to a proposed Chicago gay-rights law. After a while, Jim, who was immediately to Bernardin's right, made such heated remarks to Bernardin that the cardinal stood up and said the meeting was overwhich it was. But some years later the proposed ordinance passed anyhow, without church help but with help that Jim had given."
The following statement was given by Chris Pett, president of Dignity Chicago: "Dignity Chicago, and our broader LGBT community, has lost a significant voice with the passing of Jim Bussen who now lives eternally with our God. He was a prophet and courageous presence who could effectively challenge and demand accountability from Catholic church leadership to recognize the dignity and inherent blessedness of God's LGBT people. But he also could, with gentleness and prayerful discernment, call the local and national Dignity communities, and others who share our mission, to claim respect for our lives and loves, while remaining faithful to God's call for us to live generously, justly and with total love for one another. We can only hope and trust that his legacy will continue to inspire people of faith within our movement, and those around us, to seek justice and continually speak truth into action."
During Bussen's tenure with DignityUSA, the groups House of Delegates passed the "Miami resolution," which stated in part: "We believe that gay men and lesbian women can express their sexuality in a manner which is consonant with Christ's teaching. We believe that all sexuality should be exercised in an ethically responsible and unselfish way. We are committed to work for the development of the church's sexual theology. Therefore, in this capacity, we affirm that gay and lesbian people can express their sexuality physically in a unitive manner that is loving, life-giving and life-affirming."
Bussen's friend Pat Roche, who was his successor as national president of DignityUSA, stated: "I believe that Jim's prophetic leadership in getting the 'Miami Resolution' passed was the most important event in Dignity's 44 year history (1969-2013). It spoke truth to power by strongly affirming Dignity's belief in the life affirming, life giving nature of our relationships. It eventually led to the eviction of all Dignity chapters from Catholic Church property … but left Dignity and our members with the knowledge that we had spoken with complete, unadorned integrity and honesty … no matter what the cost. I remember one delegate saying: 'If we won't stand up and affirm the goodness and holiness of our relationships, who will?'"
Roche continued: "Jim may have been in People Magazine as 'One of the people the Pope wouldn't be visiting on his trip to the United States' but he should also be remembered as a 'Faithful Dissenter' because he truly did 'love' and 'change' our Church. Because of his efforts … and those of so many others ... polls repeatedly show that the majority of Catholics in the pews now support marriage equality … . Despite the ongoing resistance of Popes and Cardinals and Bishops. Jim was my spiritual mentor and close friend for 30 years. Someone once said that for Catholics, the faith is always in us, even if we aren't always officially in the faith. In the end, Jim always believed 'We (the people not the hierarchy) are the Church' ... and he turned there in all of life's challenges. At the end, he received last rites and, I believe, died with a peace that sometimes eluded him in his decades long struggle with the Church hierarchy."
Rick Garcia, who is also an activist on Catholic and gay issues, remembered Bussen as "a pioneer, a visionary but best of all he was a fighter. He took on political leaders, Church leaders and anybody else that did not believe that everyone should be treated fairly. His impact on the gains our community has made is incalculable locally and nationally.
"I was talking to his friends today and we don't have a couple of stories we have hundreds of stories. Stories that make us proud, stories that make us cry and stories that make us laugh. … Just a couple of years ago at Metro-East Pride in Belleville, Ill., Jimmy saw the local state senator who votes anti-gay. Without a beat Jim confronted the legislator. in grand style. When he told me the story he had his famous Lily Tomlin's Ernestine's snort. We laughed and I was again so proud of him Today we lost one of our best and brightest but his work has set a very firm foundation on which we continue to build. May he rest in peace as he richly deserves."
Bussen is survived by family, including two sisters and a number of nieces and nephews, plus many friends. A memorial service in Greenville, Ill., will be planned likely for July 13, and friends in Chicago are also working on a memorial.
Windy City Times interviewed Bussen in 2011. What follows are excerpts from the interview by John J. Accrocco, published Oct. 12, 2011 as part of our AIDS @ 30 series.
"My life has been exciting beyond my wildest dreams," said Jim Bussen, who attended seminary school in Omaha after high school, but quickly found the limitations of the Midwestern city.
"This was the early 1970s and there really wasn't anywhere to go, there were only two gay bars in all of Omaha. Omaha is a very Catholic city," Bussen said. "What we needed was a discussion group. A few of us would get together and just talk about the articles in The Advocate and eventually we held Omaha's first gay dinner-dance in a hotel." In 1973 Bussen was motivated to leave the staunchly Catholic community and the seminary by accepting a position with the U.S. Railroad retirement board as a claims examiner in Chicago.
Bussen found Chicago's chapter of the gay Catholic group Dignity the very first Sunday of his new life in Chicago. Though the big city was progressive enough for the Catholic gay prayer circle, Chicago was only slightly less conservative than the Omaha Bussen left.
"Life was barely more out than the closeted '50s: bars, bookstores, baths were the gathering places," he said. "Dignity and MCC [the Metropolitan Community Church] were the two biggest organizations then until the Lincoln Park Lagooners started, which became huge. Back then only first names were used by the vast majority, only a brave few used full, real names. One can't dismiss the sexual boom of the baths and the entertainment there (ala Bette Midler) as the start of a real social scene, then separating from the sexual which lead to all the variety of clubs and organizations. I joined Dignity because it felt nice to meet other gay Catholics."
About his years of activism, Bussen said: "Who would have guessed to move to the big city, get a great job, a chance to travel (not only to almost every state but also to Europe!), and from the very innocent act of going to Dignity's mass the very first Sunday after arriving in Chicago I would meet involved and challenging people, who themselves were engaged politically, and I learned from them, and would become life-long friends.
"Then in some way [I would] offer my services to accept the challenge of being part of the national movement. I always wanted what was right and fair. And as part of that, to participate in confronting the Bishops face-to-face, to speak on behalf of Catholic GLBT folk, to channel anger and outrage, what an exhilarating, exhausting and rewarding experience. And hey, not too shabby to appear in People magazine as 'one of nine Americans the Pope won't meet, and why!' Now that is a hoot!"
Like so many other activists of Bussen's generation, he remembered the tragic onset of the AIDS crisis. "It was a real push to come out and then the real explosion of the volunteer groups and the gay cultural scene," he said. "It changed everything overnight. AIDS became a catalyst and a sadness. … We had to step up to the plate and stand up for our rights. The losses were very dramatic but look how many changes it brought about, especially concerning gay marriage and the idea of being able see your partner in the hospital etc. It forced us all out into the open. I look at it as the closet-door movement in the gay community.
"As far as Dignity Chicago goes, we established a committee to help raise funds for housing needs for those early years. Out of which grew Chicago House and several of Dignity's first board members then served as Chicago House board presidents."
Bussen said he felt that it was only a matter of time before Illinois would follow New York's success in legalizing same-sex marriage. "I think it will be relatively soon too because of all the lobbying," he said. "It's kind of odd to have civil unions and not expect marriage rights. It's a good enough step but it's only a matter of containment. The church is always going to believe something and religion can't interfere with government. Gay marriage is inevitable."
See www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/AIDS-Jim-Bussen-Voice-of-Dignity/34186.html .
Also see "Highlights of Dignity USA's History" at dignityusa.org .
The Dignity Celebration of Life for Jim Bussen will be on Saturday, August 10, 2013 at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 W. Foster Ave., Chicago, IL 60640 at 11:00am. A Reception will follow the Celebration.
Inquiries should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Jim Bussen at a Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting event in October 1988. Photo by Lisa Howe-Ebright.
Bussen at a Catholic event, July 23, 1987.Back row, from left Thom Dombkowski of Chicago House; Bussen, who was president of Dignity/USA; Bill Seng, president of Dignity/Chicago; and Frank Kellas, owner of the Gold Coast bar. Front Marge Summit, owner of His 'n Hers bar; and Jim Pilarski, secretary of Dignity/USA. Outlines newspaper archives. The event was called a Service of Healing, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church, but even though it was about AIDS, the word AIDS never came up, as reported in the July 30, 1987 Outlines newspaper (which purchased and merged with Windy City Times in 2000).