• Ken Ilio
  • Ron Dorfman

When some (I like to think of as fairly dramatic) medical concerns of mine showed up in a Mike Sneed column earlier this month, my friend Ron Dorfman immediately put me in my place. His e-mail, slugged et tu?, made a reference to his own “dire straits” and another to the “Riccardo’s geezer gang”—hardly the cohort I most want to think myself a part of. In Dorfman’s view I was merely bringing up the rear.

But I can’t stay mad. Not only is Dorfman’s story much more interesting than my own, he’s permitting me to tell it. What more can a journalist ask? Besides, I owe him: Dorfman was an inspiration to me long before I even knew his name.

This goes back to the fall of 1968, when I worked for a wire service in Saint Louis, where nothing much was going on besides a pennant race. Meanwhile, in Chicago blood was running in the streets, and hearing that my profession had just stepped up and asserted itself was one of the proudest moments of my life. What happened in Chicago is that newspaper reporters my age—angered and embarrassed by their papers’ timid coverage of the Democratic convention—banded together in an upstairs room at Riccardo’s (the legendary joint on Rush Street that now goes by some other name) and organized the Chicago Journalism Review. If the dailies, by God, couldn’t handle the truth, the working stiffs would tell it on their own dime.

By the time the Sun-Times brought me to Chicago in 1970 and I learned the names of CJR‘s defiant founders, Dorfman had resigned from Chicago’s American to run the monthly Review full-time. He and I have just gone back over this distant history, and he’s explained to me that it wasn’t the convention-week coverage itself that was so troubling, but what was published a week later, “when the papers backtracked on everything.” For instance, during the convention, his American carried headlines such as these: “Editors Protest Police Beatings of 15 Newsmen”; “Who Controls the Cops?” (an editorial); and “A Horrifying View of the Police State” (a column by Jack Mabley). But the next week brought these stories: “Daley Bares Assassin Plot”; “Police Blame TV for Role in Hippie Riots”; and “American Warned City on Radicals” (a Mabley column); while an editorial made the point that “experienced agitators know how to trigger a police attack, and TV watchers should be aware of their methods. But the networks so far have not shown great interest in informing them.” Then the American published “What Really Happened,” a 12-page special report on the “Battle of Chicago,” in which Mabley explained, “The one common goal of those in the Movement is to bring down the present form of government in the United States.”

In 1973, when Dorman asked me to take over CJR from him I was too flattered to say no, despite its likely impact on my career at the Sun-Times. (In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end.) Our friendship didn’t mean I actually knew him. Dorfman’s always been one of the most reticent people around (he might say the same about me). That he was gay was an assumption easy enough to draw, but he didn’t talk about it. When I ask him today to compare the life of a gay journalist in Chicago in 2013 with that life when he was starting out, he describes the changes as “almost 50 years of progressive decloisterization.” Today, “you put it on your resume.” Back then you didn’t acknowledge it, possibly not even to yourself.

“I started out at City News Bureau in 1964 and I was still in denial then,” Dorfman tells me. “I’d sort of known since I was ten years old, but I didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t want to be Liberace—and that’s all I knew. I had practically no sex life to speak of, and there would be things like a raid on the baths we had to report—with everybody’s names, addresses, work places on the front page of the Tribune—that scared the shit out of me.” Not that he’d ever gone to the baths.

By the time Dorfman reached the American in 1966 he had a pretty good idea who he was, “but I thought I was reformable. And I had occasional liaisons with various women.” During a fellowship at Stanford in early ’68 “I fell in love with a woman but meanwhile had gay affairs on the side. By the time my fellowship was over she started talking about getting married, and I hadn’t told her, ‘Hey, look, I’m gay!'” So Dorfman told her and she reeled, but for the next couple of years they tried to make it work. It didn’t. “She’s in Madison now,” he says. “I just got a really nice note from her in response to this series of e-mails.” These were the e-mails he recently sent his friends elaborating on his dire straits. Dorfman announced he was getting married and that he was dying.

“The CJR years were experimental, I guess,” Dorfman continues, looking back. “I was all over the map, and with the discos and drugs in the 70s it got pretty wild. We had what we called the ‘Zebra gang,’ mostly black and white male gay couples and some lesbians who hung out together and partied. That period of the 70s was when I was most intensely into gay life—that is, the bars and scenes—but even then, at work it was sort of unspoken.” In 1976 he became articles editor at Chicago magazine. “Everybody knew that everybody there was gay, but nobody said a word. There were some exceptions like Conroy”—John Conroy, breaking into journalism then in Chicago, talks of Dorfman as his mentor—”but there were enough closet cases to make Macy’s happy.”

Dorfman quit Chicago in 1978 as a matter of principle—the magazine had spiked an investigative piece he was deeply invested in (the Reader published it instead, along with Dorfman’s account of why Chicago wouldn’t)—and after working in Beijing a year, teaching Western journalistic principles to Chinese journalists, he became editor of the Quill, the monthly magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. Later he wrote a syndicated column and was director of publications for the Field Museum. He resigned in the mid-90s because he believed he was about to die.

Dorfman had been diagnosed with AIDS in the early 1990s. When I heard the news and dropped in on him, he was so gaunt and weak I assumed this was the last time I’d see him alive. But science stepped in: Dorfman started taking protease inhibitors in 1997, and his T-cell count, which had dropped to 18, rose quickly to 200 and then slowly to almost 400, not quite normal but close enough for Dorfman to become, in his words, the “poster clear queer boy at Riccardo’s.”

I remember him marveling, “Those cocktails really work.”

This summer I saw Dorfman again for the first time in ages, and he looked terrible. I figured it was HIV finally getting the upper hand, but it wasn’t. Which brings us to the climax of Dorfman’s story. The most dramatic of the e-mails Dorfman recently sent his friends was slugged ‘The bells are ringing . . .’ and the body of the e-mail went on, ” . . . for me and my guy. Ken and I are getting married!”

Attached to this e-mail was a legal brief. You might have read about this case a few days ago in the Sun-Times or Tribune, though neither paper mentioned Dorfman or Ken Ilio, the teacher he lives with. With the blessing of Cook County clerk David Orr, whose office issues wedding licenses, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a class-action suit asking the federal courts to make Orr do what he wanted to do anyway, let gay couples like Dorfman and Ilio get married immediately. Illinois’s new same-sex marriage act doesn’t go into effect until June 1, and by that time there’s a pretty good possibility Dorfman will no longer be alive.

“Ron and Ken have been in a long-term, committed relationship for 20 years and were registered as domestic partners in Cook County in 2004,” said the Lambda Legal brief. “They met in Chicago in 1994 at an AIDS Foundation dinner, where they sat at the same table. They immediately had a connection, and after a first date at an Italian restaurant on Western Avenue, began a relationship. They moved in together within months and have been together ever since.

“Ron has systolic congestive heart failure and complete blockage of his right coronary artery that has prevented even the use of a stent, and kidney problems likely to require dialysis. He is currently being evaluated for possible treatment, but his cardiologist is not optimistic about his chances of surviving until June 2014.” In which case, unless the court steps in now, “they will be permanently denied the opportunity to declare their love and commitment to one another through marriage.”

Dorfman tells me that a few weeks ago doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital tried to insert a stent but couldn’t. “So they closed me up and sent me back upstairs.” Dorfman’s cardiologist overheard Dorfman and Ilio discuss getting married over Christmas in Iowa, where same-sex marriage is already legal. The doctor butted in and told them the sooner the better.

Dorfman called Orr’s office, which under court order had already granted one same-sex couple in the same boat a dispensation to marry early, and he found out that Lambda Legal was working up a class-action suit. Lambda added the two of them to the suit as named plaintiffs, and with no one opposing it, “everything moved very quickly.” On December 9 Judge Sharon Coleman granted the temporary restraining order Lambda Legal had asked for and on December 13 Dorfman and Ilio married in the Northwestern Memorial chapel. “It wasn’t quite as icky as I thought it might be,” says Dorfman, just as romantic about life’s most hallowed moments as a lot of straight journalists I know. The Reverend Barbara Zeman, a Roman Catholic “womanpriest,” officiated. On hand were Robert Murphy, the AIDS doctor who’d brought Dorfman back from the dead, and a buddy, Allan Katz, who happened to be passing through town. Back in the day, he and Dorfman had edited the yearbook at Central High School in Philadelphia.

Ilio came to Chicago from the Philippines in the mid-1980s, picked up doctorates in veterinary medicine and reproductive biology, and was director of research and urology at Stroger Hospital until a budget crisis during the Todd Stroger era cost him his job. “What does a smart guy like that see in a journalist?” I wondered. “He likes Jewish boys,” Dorfman explained.

Seeing as the Lambda Legal brief made a florid case for marriage as a public declaration of love and commitment, I asked for Dorfman’s view of the spiritual dimension the ceremony has added to his life. “Ken and I have been together 20 years,” he told me. “We were married, married, married, married. There was nothing we hadn’t been through together.” What legal marriage brings them, he said, is peace of mind: the mundane assurance that if Dorfman dies—he tells me a bypass operation scheduled for late January is eight times as risky as the usual bypass surgery—Ilio won’t get screwed when such matters as social security benefits and inheritance taxes are dealt with. In the eyes of the state, he and Dorfman are newlyweds, but they know better. They’ve been married forever.