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A movement is made up of more than marches – it’s also made up of moments and mistakes, and the people who made them. That is what Tracy Baim, co-founder and editor of the award-winning LGBTQ paper The Windy City Times, wants scholars, academics, and activists to understand.
With Pride Month in full swing, the National Pride Parade as well as the Equality March for Unity and Pride scheduled in Washington, D.C., and with marches occurring across the country, it’s easy to see the enthusiasm behind the LGBT movement’s headline events. What slips away through the hands of history are the stories and experiences of LGBTQ individuals, living full lives within and on the outskirts of the historic events, who have experienced rapid shifts in the varied national attitudes towards LGBTQ people.
Getting to talk with Tracy Baim is like speaking with a veritable encyclopedia of that nuanced and overlooked history. She celebrates 33 years as a journalist who’s written for such publications as Windy City Times, Outlines, BLACKlines, En La Vida, and Clout! not only about the intersection of LGBTQ lives and politics, but about the intersection between the individuals who make up the LGBTQ movement and the importance of representation for all members of the community. Within the exploration of these intersections emerges a career devoted to the accountability of politicians and scholars to ensure that the truth of individualized LGBTQ experience is not lost, overlooked, oppressed, or ignored.
What was it like compiling your articles from Windy City Times?
Tracey Baim: Part of the reason I saved everything over time is because, when I came out, I knew that there were pioneers before me who were trying to capture the gay history they lived through, as well as of the people they met and who had passed away. I knew that very little of that history was being studied or taught in schools. And I had this sense as we were losing many, many people to AIDS and other things, so it was important to preserve our history because no one else was.
I’m a pack rat by nature. I think I was drawn to saving these materials as we produced them for our own internal reasons, but also for future historians and other people who would want to have access to the material. This was prior to the internet, so I didn’t know that a lot of things would be able to live online later. I always thought they would be in an institution people had to visit in order to do research.
Why did you decide to focus on Chicago? A lot of archives focus on New York City LGBT culture, or the west coast, or DC, but you really don’t hear of other areas.
TB: Most people are very east or west coast centric, but if you look at LGBT history, there’s been so many significant things that have happened in small towns and big towns from Miami to Dallas to Atlanta to Chicago and even Des Moines, where you just don’t hear about it. That is why I’m glad we had this opportunity.
Going through your files, it was interesting to see how you focused on the “L”, the “B”, the “G”, and the “T,” as well the intersections between each of these groups.
TB: From day one my mission was to be sure that parts of the community that weren’t covered got covered. Being a white lesbian myself, the lesbian community was important to me. But my mother was a journalist during the civil rights movement, so I also wanted to make sure that African-American, Asian and Latino people were covered.
And in the early days, when the trans community wasn’t as strong, we went out of our way to make sure we covered anybody as they came out as trans. We were really trying hard. We were the first newspaper in the country in the mid-‘90s to have a column about intersex people and issues, and that was very early on in the understanding of what that was.
My goal has always been to uncover parts of the community that don’t get as much attention.
One of the other things I found interesting in your files were the questionnaires that politicians filled out on how they were going to be accountable to the LGBT community. What was it like to get that immediate feedback?
TB: It’s kind of funny. I didn’t know I had saved it, but I had Barack Obama’s survey from when he was running for State Senate the first time in 1996. I didn’t remember, because of course it wasn’t something to remember yet, that he had said he was for marriage equality in 1996 until just before his first campaign as president. A reporter dug up the questionnaire from the archives online and found a paragraph that said Barack Obama is in support of marriage equality. I said “Well, if it was reported on there must be evidence to it, so go with that.”
After Obama won the presidential election, and before the inauguration, I had started going through all our boxes and getting them organized by topic. During that time we found his original questionnaire. And not only did he get a 100% on our questionnaire, he took the time answer beyond “yes” or “no,” and give full sentence answers.
I love how your tallied scores are written in margins and how you took this blunt, blanket approach to determine whether or not these politicians were measuring up.
TB: Nobody has ever seen those forms except for on your site, because when we published the score [for each candidate], we just rated them. It’s interesting because you study many politicians over many years and some of them certainly change and evolve or in [Obama’s] case, go backwards and then he went forwards. It was important for us to make sure that we were watching politicians on LGBT issues, especially AIDS issues, and what they were going to say and do.
We sent the questionnaires to all state House candidates, all 813 of them. We sent them to all Cook County judicial candidates and we tried to reach all the races, not just the ones in the city of Chicago, but all races that would affect LGBT lives including state House and Senate. We still do that today. Obviously it’s more electronic in form, but when we get the list of people who put in their petitions to run for office, we would get their mailing addresses and mail them out. Last year my dad and I stuffed 430 envelopes of questionnaires. It’s still important for us to do.
Have you ever had anyone decline to fill one out before?
TB: Oh, most people do. We probably get a return rate of 15-20%. We survey all the candidates, which in some races can be up to 200-300 people, and we might get 40 responses. So no, not everybody feels like they need to respond to us.
With the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 and the passage of marriage equality, it seemed like it was almost a golden time to be gay. But the ebb and flow of progress and regression is always in motion. How has the narrative of LGBT rights been evolving in the past two years or so?
TB: I can’t believe how much has changed since 1984 when I started this paper. There’s nothing really to compare it to because the black civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement took place over hundreds of years. I feel very fortunate to have witnessed such a condensed history [in the LGBT movement]. It’s a history that has benefited from previous social movements no doubt, and also was forced and propelled forward because of AIDS and HIV. Those are the two reasons our movement has had as much forward momentum as it did.
There seems to be a rise of people who don’t remember how bad the AIDS crisis was, or who don’t remember that it was only 30-40 years ago.
TB: The problem is they don’t teach it in school. I ask students, “What did they teach you about LGBT and AIDS in middle school and high school?” and they say, “Absolutely nothing,” so how would they know? I knew about World War II even though I was born in 1963. The war was twenty years before I was born, but I knew about it because I was taught it incessantly, [it was in] the history books. They don’t even bother to mention [LGBT history] at all, much less at the level it should be. Even with the internet and all the ways you can find out about history, if you don’t have the kernels to follow you’re not going to go there. So it’s really quite a shame that history repeats itself because no one is taught it correctly.
Your work is so important in preserving the history and truth of what was happening during those times. What kind of things do you want LGBT scholars to take away from the study of where LGBT movement has been and where it’s going?
TB: I think that gay history tends to be more of a blunt force instrument. It’s the same old big stories that get told again and again, the big picture of AIDS and the marches on Washington, but just like any other movement, it really is about the people and the nuances that propelled the movement forward. Celebrities might have helped, but they couldn’t have helped if the movement wasn’t there for them to help move.
The everyday soldiers of our movement and the unheralded people that I’ve met and got to cover over the years are really, to me, what the movement is about, and it's very difficult for historians to get that nuance.
There have been some recent books that have come out and some of them have really gotten it and some are horrible at interpreting what happened. Having lived the movement and having lived the gay press movement, seeing these errors, these easy errors… The information is there and the people who lived through it are there if you bother to ask them what really happened. The whole LGBT history movement is so new and there’s so many unforced errors out there, the separation between the academics and the movement creates a lot of problems. It does for any movement. I’m hoping that with time and education and more people who care to get it right, that more of the stories will be told.
Is there anything else in your files that you would want to mention that we didn’t get a chance to talk about?
TB: I think there’s a lot of different kinds of tidbits in there. I would encourage people to look at it as a moment in time. People made mistakes in those moments, but you can learn from those mistakes as well as all the good stuff that happened. It’s a great way to capture the flavor of any one year in a movement. There’s so much that happens that doesn’t get covered even by the LGBT media. There’s stuff in the files that nobody’s ever seen because we only had so much space in the paper and it was before the internet and the ability to put extra online, but back then if it didn’t run in the paper it didn’t run. Nobody ever saw it except me and one or two other people. A lot what is in there are the voices of history that no one has ever heard.
Tracy Baim Editorial Files
Tens of thousands of documents make up this collection of files from Tracy Baim, who started reporting on feminist and LGBT issues in 1980, and her company, Windy City Times, which was launched in 1985. Baim also includes her files from other papers she worked for, including Outlines newspaper, BLACKlines, En La Vida, Clout! and more.
LGBT Thought and Culture is an online resource hosting the key works and archival documentation of LGBT political and social movements throughout the 20th century and into the present day. The collection contains 150,000 pages of rare archival content, including seminal texts, letters, periodicals, speeches, interviews, and ephemera.
LGBT Studies in Video is a cinematic survey of the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as well as the cultural and political evolution of the LGBT community. This first-of-its-kind collection features award-winning documentaries, interviews, archival footage, and select feature films exploring LGBT history, gay culture and subcultures, civil rights, marriage equality, LGBT families, AIDS, transgender issues, religious perspectives on homosexuality, global comparative experiences, and other topics.
Students can take research deeper with complementary resources including GenderWatch, The Visual History Archive, The Women’s Magazine Archive, The Vogue Archive, The Harper’s Bazaar Archive, History Vault Women’s Studies, and more. Learn more at proquest.com.