Sidetrack co-founder and legendary activist makes history with award
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond 2016-06-09
The Chicago Historical Society's 22nd Annual Making History Awards event lived up to its name when, on June 8, Chicago LGBTQ civil-rights legend and Sidetrack co-owner Art Johnston received the Jane Addams Making History Award for Distinction in Social Service.
It is the first time an open LGBTQ individual has received the honor.
There was barely a dry eye to be found in the filled-to-capacity downtown Chicago Four Seasons Hotel ballroom as Johnston accepted the award from Chicago Cubs co-owner and fellow activist Laura Ricketts.
Johnston now joins a pantheon of names which the Chicago Historical Society has immortalized as legends who have played an indelible role in shaping the city throughout its 183 years.
They have included best-selling novelist Sara N. Paretsky, musician and composer Ramsey Lewis, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center co-founder Fritzie Fritzshall and, this year, JP Morgan Chase, philanthropist Shirley W. Ryan, former President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Michael H. Moskow and retired Chairman and CEO of ComEd and 2015 appointee to President of the Chicago Board of Education Frank M. Clark.
In presenting the award to Johnston, Ricketts recalled Henry Gerber's Dec. 10, 1924 creation of the Illinois-based Society for Human Rightsthe first known gay-rights organization to be founded in the United States.
"By the next summer his home had been raided by police, he and others had been put on trial for deviancy and he had lost his job," Ricketts said. "More than 90 years later that's still what it is all about: human rights."
"Nobody knows that better and nobody has done more to make that a reality in Chicago than Art Johnston," Ricketts added. "Thanks to him and many others, so much has changed. When Chicago's first gay pride was held in 1970, police estimated the crowd at about 150 people. Last year a million people celebrated."
Ricketts credited such a massive surge of support of LGBTQ rights and the subsequent changes in laws in a relatively short amount of time to people like Johnston's understanding of the importance of "changing hearts and minds."
"As Art always says, 'it's very hard to hate someone when you get to know them as a human being'," she said before calling Art a "father figure to so many in our community" and his Sidetrack bar a "second home and safe place."
"He commands great respect and great love from Chicago's LGBT community including myself," Ricketts stated.
The prolonged standing ovation Johnston received as he walked up to the stage to accept the award demonstrated that such respect and love has broken the boundaries of the LGBTQ community to be similarly bestowed upon him by some of the most prolific and influential people in Chicago.
Johnston could not contain his emotions, particularly when he thanked his partner of 43 years and now legal spouse Pepe Pena.
"His love makes me the luckiest person on earth," Johnston said as he wiped away his tears.
Johnston reflected on the importance of the momentnot simply a recognition of his own accomplishments but those of LGBTQ people as quintessential influencers in the course of local, national and world history.
"Until a short time ago, the words 'gay' and 'history' were seldom used in the same sentence," he said. "The stories of LGBT people, many of whom you think you know, have had the basic facts of their sexual orientation or gender identity systematically removed, erased and redacted from the common historical narrative that we have all grown up with. Not only have those of us who are LGBTQ not been told about our contributions to the world, no one else has been told about it either. We have all been denied significant LGBT role models and the price we, as a society, have paid is incalculable."
"Indeed, much of the histrionics and madness we see on the news every night, like North Carolina, is perpetuated by those whose hatred for LGBTQ people could not exist had we not been erased," Johnston added. "Almost none of us grew up with a gay grandpa who would regale us with stories of the great gay old days or lesbian aunts who had no way to express their true identity. We were as invisible to our own parents as we were to the worldtoo terrorized to live own reality, contributing to our own redaction by taking the only refuse available to young LGBTQ people: the deafening, claustrophobic silence of the closet."
Johnston asserted that such invisibility is a "poison that has slowly eaten away at our self-esteem, our sense of personhood, our pride."
"For those of us who are adults, we can learn to live with it but for young people forced to grow up without any historical context for their existence, bullied mercilessly in school, unable to confide even in their own parents, is it any wonder that the suicide rate for LGBTQ youth is four times that of straight kids?" he said. "Until these kids and the straight kids who bully them are able to learn about all that LGBTQ people have contributed to the world, this epidemic of our kids destroying themselves will not stop."
Johnston noted that, through members of the Chicago LGBTQ community who have "given their lives to challenge the systems arrayed against us," seeds have been planted that will inevitably grow into hope and change.
"The AIDS epidemicthe most important thing in history that our children are taught nothing about transformed my community," he said. "Through sheer force of will, we in turn transformed Chicago and made this place an island of LGBTQ acceptance that exists as a beacon against the shroud which surrounds usplaces where LGBTQ people remain under assault politically, morally, economically, systemically. What is the common denominator? History. Or the lack of it."
"Every single evil that has ever been visited on my community is the result of the fact that we have been removed from history intentionally because ours is an inconvenient truth," Johnston added. "Denying the most vulnerable among usour kidsthe knowledge that people like them matter, that they will always matter even if no one bothered to tell them so."
Johnston honored the programs and archival support of the Chicago History Museum as an ally in recognizing the contributions of LGBTQ people to the growth of the city. He said that the organization has retrieved an essential part of the community's past.
"This institution has helped capture the rich history of the exciting, complex, difficult LGBTQ communities of Chicago," he said.
By way of illustration ( one which seemed to surprise many in the audience ), Johnston took note of the person behind the name on the plaque he was receiving.
"Jane Addams whose contributions to the community and social justice have made her a legend in Chicago and an icon worldwide," he said. "She was an amazing woman who defied every social convention to provide services to the poor and disenfranchised simply because she knew it had to be done."
"You have no idea what it means to an LGBTQ kid to learn that this lionized woman, this Nobel Peace Prize winner was a lesbian," Johnston concluded. "You now understand why it is so important to begin to look at history through a new lensone that sees every color of the rainbow."
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