Review: A Pride Parade on Paper, Queer Legacies, by John D’Emilio

Queer Legacies: Stories from Chicago's LGBTQ Archives John D'Emilio University of Chicago Press

Reviewed by Carr Harkrader

Who doesn’t love a parade? It wouldn’t be completely wrong to describe Queer Legacies: Stories from Chicago’s LGBTQ Archives as the closest thing to the Pride Parade we’ll get this year. While nothing can fully replace gay line-dancing cowboys and dykes on (very loud) bikes, the historian John D’Emilio has written more than 30 short essays that march us through LGBT life in Chicago in the 20th century. Like the physical parade, the book has a bit of everything: “self-consciously lesbian choruses” and “barbershop queertets,” religious gays organizing for better representation, the development of sexual health clinics in Cook County, and groups of cross-racial organizers demanding desegregated Boystown bars.

Unlike the Pride Parade though, Queer Legacies knows the benefits of editing. The entries are usually no longer than three or four pages, which allows D’Emilio to cover a lot of ground in a relatively slim volume. It’s a credit to D’Emilio that Queer Legacies does so while not feeling like a complete pile-up of queer history.

It helps that throughout each of these narratives, as D’Emilio writes, there is the “air of crisis and possibility.” A few stories stand out for their contemporary echoes. Police abused and harassed gay, lesbian, and trans Chicagoans throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In response, radical activism rose up that both defended and defined members of the community. The formation of the Transgender Legal Committee to defend trans people’s rights was prompted by the 1970 shooting of James Clay, a Black transwoman, by the Chicago police. TLC defended the rights of trans people, especially trans people of color, and demanded reforms regarding the treatment of transgender individuals within the Chicago criminal justice system.

Amigas Latinas, formed in the mid-'90s, grew from Sunday brunches between friends to an activist organization that advocated on behalf of LGBTQ immigrants. D’Emilio quotes from their records that “ to integrate LGBT concerns into the mainstream immigration reform movement and immigration concerns into the LGBT community.” Eventually offering a mix of community services, educational opportunities, and a platform for political organizing, Amigas Latinas resembles several groups profiled in Queer Legacies who arose from small gatherings of friends and slowly transformed into cultural and political forces challenging Chicago’s status quo.

The author, John D’Emilio, could well have taken up one of the chapters with his own story. D’Emilio helped establish the field of gay and lesbian studies and was, for many years, a professor of history at UIC. His biography of civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin and his research into the development of “out and open” gay organizing in America has cleared a path for historical scholarship of a group that, until very recently, was invisible in American life. As a scholar, D’Emilio has turned archives into allies, expanding a community’s understanding of itself and its commitments.

All the essays originated out of research D’Emilio did in the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. One of the underappreciated jewels of Chicago, Gerber/Hart collects historical material, books, videos, and memorabilia related to LGBT culture and life in Chicago and the Midwest. As D’Emilio mentions a few times in his essays, he’s only sifted out a few of the many possible research nuggets from the archives at Gerber/Hart. Many more boxes filled with documents, pamphlets, and registration lists remain to be examined.

And perhaps that’s the ultimate revelation of the book. Activism, at its core, is about paperwork. Change consists of printing periodicals, compiling mailing lists, and writing mind-numbing grant applications. All the stories in the book only exist because someone kept those receipts. Perhaps one of the benefits of coming out of the closet is being able to fill the space with banker boxes of files. Remember this the next time someone insists on deleting your in-box: history, it could be said, is written by the pack rats. We’re here, we’re queer, and we keep carbon copies!

Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter @CarrHarkrader.
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Carr Harkrader