The who’s who of local journalism gathered recently at the Newberry Library for the 83rd annual Chicago Journalists Association awards. As the organization’s first in-person ceremony since the pandemic took its grip, a buoyant feeling was in the air (aided perhaps by an open bar), as Chicago journalists rocked their finest duds (props to Sun-Times columnist Ismael Pérez for outshining us all), and took a beat to look back at their work across the past year—and its resulting community impact.
The night was an extra special one for the Reader, as publisher Tracy Baim received a Lifetime Achievement award, and our own Kelly Garcia was chosen as the Emerging Journalist of the Year. If that weren’t enough, staffers Katie Prout and Mike Sula were nominated for Sarah Brown Boyden awards, and freelance contributor Matthew Ritchie took home a first place distinction.
During the pre-awards mixer, Reader managing editor Salem Collo-Julin asked if I’d picked up an index card and written down a query for Baim’s Q&A session. I’m not sure if it was the free-flowing bourbon, but for some unexplained reason, I brushed it off as a joke.
The ceremony underway, Baim was called to the lectern, and the emcee mentioned that in lieu of a stuffy speech, the honoree had decided to have an informal chat featuring questions from the audience. Panic set in. My boss was about to take the mike, and she might not be able to fill her allotted space. I needed to do something. Swiftly, I pulled out my phone and looked up “Windy City Times,” the storied LGBTQ+ publication Baim launched alongside Drew Badanish, Bob Bearden, and Jeff McCourt, and that’s when I saw it: Founded 1985.
I immediately felt a knot in my stomach, as even as a schoolboy, I remembered the significance of that time, and what it meant in the queer world I would one day grow up to be a part of: the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Gladly, Tracy is a talker, and didn’t need my help filling up time thanks to her extensive mental Rolodex of experiences, including interviewing Mayor Harold Washington, and taking him to task on the city’s poor economic response to the nascent health crisis.
Still, for a moment that seemed eternal, I dissociated, remembered being in Catholic school and having the nuns show us a news report mentioning this new condition, which they packaged as God’s welcomed punishment. At that moment, not having experienced my first crush, long division, or having even shaved for the first time, I remember thinking, I know what I’m going to die of. Moreover, I knew that no one would come to my funeral, and that my sole existence would be my family’s forever shame. That’s a lot for a grade schooler to take in.
Anyone who has ever taken a rapid HIV test knows how mortifying those 20 minutes between being swabbed and getting your results can be. Imagine prolonging that over two weeks, which was the norm at the time, way before pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) was a glimmer in science’s eye; when the White House press secretary used the syndrome as a punchline during a briefing; and when, as one poignant scene in a sitcom of the time put it, it was believed AIDS was “killing all the right people.”
The LGBTQ+ community desperately needed allies in those primordial days, and the “L” in the acronym stood hand in hand with their brethren. They organized, marched, rallied, screamed, and fought like hell. Baim did all that while informing, dispelling misinformation, pairing a human face to the crisis, and saving lives along the way. She won’t want to hear this, but I say give her all the awards.
Ahead of Thursday, December 1, World AIDS Day—a commemoration that started in 1988 as the first-ever global health day—it’s worth noting that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS if left untreated, is now a manageable condition with multiple treatment options, and that while the threat of infection seems like something for the history books, the World Health Organization estimates that 650,000 people died from HIV-related causes globally last year alone, adding to the more than 40 million worldwide deaths since virologists first classified it.
AIDS, and the stigma it carried, robbed the world of a whole generation of artists, thinkers, performers, storytellers, and everyday folk who hid their true identities till the end because the world around them wasn’t ready to hear it, let alone accept it. To them I say I remember, and I thank you for being at the forefront. I, and many others, are indebted to you for paving the way, for taking the brunt of this epidemic, and for bringing exposure to a community that had long become used to living in the shadows. I also say thanks for allowing yourself to love when chances are that, like me, you were conditioned at a young age to think you’d never be worthy of it. Thank you from that little boy who was not able to properly word it, and would pray at night for God to make him “normal.” Thank you from the adult who still prays, and now gives thanks for every single thing that makes him unique, and asks for a more compassionate and caring world—one where our mere existence isn’t an open invitation for banishment, derision, or violence.