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'Queer Bronzeville': The South Side's LGBT history
by Wes Lawson
2009-07-01

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In the 1920s, in an area of Chicago known as Bronzeville, a small but powerful queer subculture emerged. Located on the South Side from State Street to Cottage Grove Avenue, along 43rd and 47th streets, a group of African-American LGBT individuals began to carve out the neighborhood as their own in bars, restaurants and jazz clubs, where they were free to be amongst like minded individuals in a situation similar to that which was taking place in Harlem, New York City.

These stories of life on Chicago's South Side for LGBT individuals have been collected into an online exhibit called "Queer Bronzeville: The History of African American Gays and Lesbians on Chicago's South Side, 1900-1980." The site's content runs from the end of the Great Migration ( when 1.3 million African Americans moved from the south to the north, Midwest, and west portions of the United States ) to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and the exhibit comprises not only written history, but photographs, songs, videos, interviews and articles. The exhibit is on display at www.outhistory.org , and is similar in format to Wikipedia.

Tristan Cabello, a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer at Northwestern University, spearheaded the project, which has a focus on 20th-century American history. For him, the project began three years ago as part of his dissertation, and the way in which it became an OutHistory exhibit was through a contest.

"Outhistory.org has several exhibits, and my exhibit was chosen when they held a contest 6-7 months ago. They asked gay history scholars to create exhibits, and they chose mine," said Cabello.

"I came onto this almost by chance. It started when I took a class on gay history, where it was extremely obvious that most gay history only equates to white, male gay history," said Cabello. "There are not a lot of sources for the other aspects of [ LGBT ] history, so it's very hard to find people, articles, and other things from that period."

Cabello says one of the places he started was the African-American newspapers of the time, which included the Chicago Bee, Chicago Defender and Chicago Whip. He was surprised to discover what a dense history African Americans had in Chicago, especially among the LGBT community.

"If you look back, the first articles about [ LGBT ] African Americans appeared in the '40s in Ebony. The history that is documented in these papers is very dense," Cabello said.

Among his discoveries were people like Tony Jackson, a gay blues pianist from Chicago who migrated to Chicago after persecution in New Orleans; Nancy Kelly, a drag queen from what was called the South Side Drag Circuit; and Keith Barrow, a singer and Chicago native who succumbed to AIDS early on in the epidemic. All of these artists are profiled in the project, and many others.

In doing this project, Cabello had a simple goal: to show people that there was gay history in their neighborhoods.

"I wanted to show that people back then were accepting. Homophobia in the Black community is not a historical thing," said Cabello. "Sexual identity didn't really matter. It was not part of the public discourse and people were accepted and integrated."

One of the crucial shifts in this mentality came when the Civil Rights movement began. Cabello spoke of how Martin Luther King's goal to gain full citizenship for African Americans often overshadowed other problems within the community.

"Oftentimes, Black people, in order to gain acceptance, had to play to white heteronormativity. Ebony published an article in the 1960s where MLK took questions from young people, and one person asked him about being gay. King suggested that he seek the help of a doctor. This is when the discourse begins to shift," said Cabello. "When people began to write black history, they tried to use the templates for white history, and that doesn't really work. Segregation is still happening in the city today, and white and Black LGBT people typically are not integrated. With this exhibit, we can work toward changing that."

Cabello also mentioned that LGBT people, particularly African Americans, began to lose their sexual freedom when they began to work toward equality, because the civil rights movement mostly worked to uplift the race.

Ultimately, Cabello wants people to know that there is more to LGBT history than they are probably aware of.

"One of the other purposes of this exhibit is to let people know that not only was there [ LGBT ] history for African Americans before the civil-rights movement, but there was general [ LGBT ] history before gay liberation in the '70s," Cabello said. "If people get to know this, then my work here is done."

The ultimate goal of the exhibit will be for Cabello to turn it into a book, which he plans to publish within the next three years after completing more research. Until then, readers can see the exhibit at www.outhistory.org, in the "Exhibits" tab.

GLSEN report: Many Illinois LGBT students harassed

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network ( GLSEN ) has released a report that reveals that LGBT students in Illinois face high levels of harassment at school.

"Inside Illinois Schools: The Experiences of LGBT Students" surveyed 206 Illinois students in 2007 about the level of harassment they receive in school, as well as related questions.

The report showed that 89% of Illinois LGBT students experienced verbal harassment in the past year that involved sexual harassment, 43% said they had been physically harassed and 21% said they had been physically assaulted.

In other results, 97% of the respondents said that they had regularly heard "gay" spoken in a negative way, such as "That's so gay." Also, 36% of LGBT students had skipped school at least once in the previous month because of safety concerns.

GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said in a statement that " [ w ] hile we applaud Illinois for being one of only 11 states to pass a law that explicitly protects students from bullying and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, Inside Illinois Schools shows just how much work still needs to be done to make sure LGBT students in Illinois are safe in school."

Read the entire report at www.glsen.org/binary-data/GLSEN_ATTACHMENTS/file/000/001/1391-1.PDF.


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