UW Press book covers 300 years of gay Chicago history

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St. Sukie de la Croix. -Photo: Corey Black

Before he became a saint, Sukie de la Croix and I just missed crossing paths as members of New Town Writers, the Chicago gay writers’ group. But shortly thereafter, the native of Bath, England, and I found we were both writing for what would be the first in a series of Chicago LGBT publications, some of which are now defunct.

Nearly 20 years later, we each have new books out, and we’re about to embark on a tour together – an experience that should either enrich or completely destroy our friendship.

De la Croix’s book, “Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall,” is being published this month by the University of Wisconsin Press. It’s described by the publisher as “a colorful and vibrant record of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people who lived and loved in Chicago from the city’s beginnings in the 1670s as a fur-trading post to the end of the 1960s.”

Based on extensive archival research as well as numerous interviews, the book sheds light on such legendary gay characters as Jane Addams, Ma Rainey, Lorraine Hansberry and Henry Gerber.

I spoke with de la Croix shortly before we hit the road.

 Who’s the book’s target audience?

The target audience for this book was originally me. I wrote the book I wanted to read. Outside of that, it will be of interest to anyone who has ever lived in Chicago or been intrigued by its history. Whatever comes to mind when you hear the word “Chicago” – Al Capone and the Mafia, Chicago Blues, political shenanigans – LGBTs were sucked up into the great drama of all of them. It’s a book about a metropolis, and the contribution that LGBT people made to its growth and development. But most of all, it’s about individuals cast out from society who found a niche, a way to survive, sometimes against terrible odds. In the end, Chicago LGBT people said “enough is enough” and they kicked against the pricks. And there were a lot of pricks in Chicago back then (laughs).

You say that you approached “Chicago Whispers” as a journalist, not as a historian. What’s the distinction?

Historians have a set way of doing things, an academic clarity. There are rules to follow. A journalist will sell his own grandmother to get to the bottom of a story (laughs). Gay history is so hidden and buried that it sometimes requires intense detective work. For example, I lied through my teeth to get into a couple of membership-only libraries. However, in the end, if the book is to be of any use to students, all the information has to be sourced, and I’m very proud of my bibliography.

“Chicago Whispers” was also the name of the LGBT history column that you wrote for six years. Did any of the chapters in the book have their genesis in those columns?

Writing the column inspired me to write the book. However, I didn’t use much from the columns, as they were oral history interviews, and I was writing a factual history book. I did use a few anecdotes about gay bars and raids, but only when backed up by other sources, such as newspapers.

 You shine a spotlight on the contributions of Chicago’s LGBT artistic community. Were you surprised to learn about some of the people in the community – and do you think they will finally get their due?

Chicago has always been a city of artists and writers. I’m just pointing out that a lot of them were LGBT. I think that’s  important. An            individual’s sexuality is a vital ingredient to their work, but sadly it’s often ignored, denied or glossed over.

Are there any surprising revelations in the book?

In 1925 Henry Gerber, who founded the first gay group in America in Chicago, was arrested. But no proof of his arrest has ever been found. Until now, that is. I did some serious sleuthing.

Is there anyone you wrote about whom you wished you had met in person?

All of them. I would love to have interviewed the author Henry Blake Fuller, and Margaret Anderson, although, in truth, I don’t think we would have hit it off. She was terribly pretentious – ghastly but fascinating. I’d love to build a time machine and zap myself back to a club called Diamond Lil’s in 1928 and hear a 16-year-old Alberta Hunter singing in a brothel on Chicago’s South Side. Imagine meeting Ma Rainey ... Wow!

Many of the chapters have a cinematic quality. Do you think any of them might make a good movie?

Somebody needs to make a documentary about Chicago cross-dressers in burlesque, both male and female. Also, there’s a rich seam of history to mine on the subject of African-American pansy parlors in the early 1930s. Having said that, I’ve seen some awful gay history documentaries, made by well-meaning people ... but just dreadful.

In person

St. Sukie de la Croix and Gregg Shapiro bring their “Symbiotic Book Tour” to Boswell Book Company on 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, at 7 p.m. on July 24.

To purchase the DVD from Amazon, click here.