A Last Look at Out in Chicago
Contributed by Jennifer Brier, Out in Chicago co-curator and associate professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at UIC
On Monday, March 26, Out in Chicago will close. To mark this moment, I wanted to talk a bit about what I have learned from visitors as they walked through this remarkable collaborative space (the exhibition team was made up of curators, researchers, designers, editors, filmmakers, and potential visitors).
I am constantly amazed by how visitors shared their immediate experiences of the exhibition. When it first opened, I watched as LGBT people, many of whom had likely never been in CHM, walked through the galleries with tears in their eyes. I could see their powerful emotional responses to seeing their history on the walls of a museum. For these visitors, learning about and engaging with like-people from the past allowed them to see how central they are to Chicago’s past and present.
I will give you two particularly poignant examples. In the first gallery, we briefly tell the story of Jackie Bross, the Cherokee woman who almost single handedly made it possible for women to wear front-fly pants in Chicago. About two months ago, a woman came to CHM with her third-grade daughter’s school. The class did not go into the exhibition, but the woman did. She got to Bross’s picture and recognized Bross as her husband’s great-aunt (her husband had recently begun a genealogy project and had collected stories about Bross, including that she was purported to have brought the most beautiful woman with her to a family funeral). The visitor immediately brought her daughter into the gallery and showed her Bross’s portrait. The girl returned to her classmates with a puffed out chest, proud to have a family member remembered at CHM.
Jackie Bross’s story appears with others who resisted Chicago’s ban on cross-dressing. Photograph by John Alderson.
Evelyn “Jackie” Bross and Catherine Barscz at the Racine Avenue Station, June 5, 1943. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, ICHi-63143.
The second example is of a different sort. In the third gallery, we built the façade of a bar to represent Carol’s Speakeasy, one of Chicago’s legendary gay bars of the 1970s (it was located on Wells Street, just blocks from CHM). On the bar, we reproduced four advertisements from Carol’s—each one from Chicago’s Gay Life newspaper in 1981. The ads show gay men, many clad in leather, partying at the bar. From the moment we found the ads (almost by chance) I loved them because they captured the exuberance I imagined the men felt when hanging out at Carol’s in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the height of gay and lesbian liberation. But I also had a terrible feeling that most of them had died of AIDS. This might explain, I thought, why I regularly saw men in their late 40s and 50s cry when they got to this section of the exhibition. A few weeks ago while in the gallery with political activist and bar owner Art Johnston, he confirmed my suspicion about the men pictured. We spent some time talking about gay liberation, queer political struggles, AIDS, and bar life. It was the kind of conversation I would happily share with any queer history class I might teach at UIC.
As the exhibition closes, I realize that I have learned almost as much from our visitors as I did from hundreds of hours in the archives. Because the exhibition is a living and breathing space, it has provided the entire curatorial team with a chance to interact with queer Chicago, past and present. Please consider heading down to CHM sometime this weekend or on Monday to catch the exhibition one more time before it closes.
Breaking news! The Committee on LGBT History (an affiliate of the American Historical Association) selected Out in Chicago as co-awardee of the Allan Bérubé Prize for 2012. It is a wonderful honor to win a prize named after Bérubé, who along with Greg Sprague, was a pioneer in community-based history.