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Brandon Neese was the first to notice it. An aide to Alderman David Orr, Neese was opening the office mail when he came across the announcement that a last-minute addition had been made to the annual Commission on Human Relations awards presentation. The late Alderman George Hagopian, who had led the fight against gay rights with remarkable vitriol, was now slated to receive one of the commission’s awards–awards that are to be given “to individuals making an outstanding contribution to the improvement of human relations in Chicago.”
The announcement cited Hagopian’s work on behalf of veterans, but Neese thought that was a flimsy excuse: Lester Maddox did a lot of work for the Red Cross, he remembers thinking, but that hardly exonerated him from handing out ax handles to beat up blacks who tried to enter his restaurants.
Even more unbelievable to Neese was that four of the commission’s originally slated honorees were lesbian/gay rights activists who had spearheaded the campaign to pass the very human rights ordinance that Hagopian had so vociferously opposed. The mild-mannered Neese saw red.
He called the gay/lesbian newsweekly, Windy City Times. “You know, this just goes to show that we’re not taken seriously in this city, and certainly not in this administration,” Neese said. “They just don’t think of us as a legitimate community. I’m not even sure they think about us at all.”
That was October 18. Since then, the Daley administration has made a series of moves that have left more and more gays and lesbians with the same doubt.
First, Clarence Wood, the recently appointed executive director of the Commission on Human Relations (CHR), decided to respond to the community’s complaints about the Hagopian award by withdrawing all the awards–the one to Hagopian as well as those to the lesbian/gay rights activists and to the other scheduled recipients, including the late Al Raby, longtime civil rights leader and former head of the CHR. Lesbians and gays–as well as many blacks–saw this as punishing their communities to smooth over the administration’s mistake.
Wood had trouble making up his mind as to just why he was withdrawing the awards. First he said it was because the lesbian/gay community, by complaining to its administration liaisons instead of him directly, had acted in a “confrontational” manner. Next he backed off and said that he wanted to put the awards through a more open process, though he could offer no specific criticisms of the 44-year-old process by which the original awardees had been selected. Finally he settled on the hard-to-swallow rationale of low ticket sales for the awards luncheon. Community leaders could understand that low ticket sales might require postponing the ceremony, but they couldn’t see how it justified withdrawing the actual awards. And their anger heated up.
Next came signs that the Daley administration might muzzle the community’s main voice in City Hall–the Mayor’s Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues (COGLI), established during the Washington administration. Daley had been in office six months and despite repeated requests had not met with the committee, nor acted on five committee nominations. Then Wood declined to attend a COGLI meeting and instead met with a group of gays and lesbians handpicked at his request by Nancy Reiff, special assistant to the mayor.
Though Reiff is openly lesbian, she had already raised eyebrows by publicly supporting Wood’s story about the low ticket sales; now she seemed to be helping the administration ice out COGLI, which increased community ire.
Worries about COGLI being circumvented–or disbanded completely–reached a still higher pitch when mayoral press secretary Avis LaVelle told the gay press that the administration believed the committee should not report directly to the mayor but rather to Clarence Wood. In fact, she said, Wood had recently been assigned the task of restructuring CHR and COGLI’s new place within it. With trust of Wood at rock bottom in the lesbian/gay community, this was not encouraging news.
In the meantime, the health department had asked several individuals involved with AIDS in the gay community to review an AIDS education advertising campaign. These individuals–including street protesters as well as a representative of Howard Brown Memorial Clinic, Chicago’s largest private AIDS service provider–voiced a number of objections. They said that the ads’ prevention information was vaguely worded and printed in hard-to-read small type; the overall slogan–“I will not get AIDS”–could all too easily feed into a person’s denial and be read as I cannot get AIDS; and the people pictured in the ads were uniformly middle-class.
But what the community representatives objected to much more strongly was that the ads were scheduled to be unveiled in only a week–hardly enough time, they complained, for their input to be incorporated into the campaign. And despite the assurances by acting health commissioner Richard Krieg (and, again, by Nancy Reiff) that the ads were only prototypes, on November 1 the ads were unveiled almost exactly as the community representatives had originally seen them, small type and all.
“The theme that runs through all of this,” said Robert Adams, executive director of IMPACT, Chicago’s lesbian and gay political action committee, “is an insensitivity to the lesbian and gay community and a denial of our eager desire to participate in government.”
But how to respond? At first, when the issue was simply the Hagopian award, it seemed simple. Call the two openly gay members of the administration–Reiff and Jon Simmons, the coordinator of gay and lesbian issues stationed at CHR–and have them tell the mayor and Wood that a major mistake had been made.
But when Wood fired back that those phone calls were so out of line that he was pulling all the awards, gay activists were slack-jawed. Still, they felt that they had to escalate in kind, so they joined with black activists–including Alderman Danny Davis, former Washington aide Jacky Grimshaw, and Patricia Raby, Al’s widow–to hold a press conference denouncing Wood’s response and asking him and Daley to reverse that decision. They didn’t. As of today, Wood’s decision stands (though he is now taking a lower profile).
If it weren’t for the administration’s handling of COGLI and the AIDS advertising campaign, that might have been the end of it. The awards fiasco might have blown over and been remembered as merely a blunder by one of the administration’s smaller departments–a bad blunder, to be sure, but not a deliberate insult by the administration per se.
As it is, the community now sees itself locked in a struggle not with CHR or the health department or any other appendage of the Daley administration, but with the very center of the administration. And the organizing that is taking place is geared toward securing a place for gays and lesbians within that center–an ambitious project, especially for a relatively young community dealing with an administration whose circle of power is widely perceived to be closed.
After the press conference brought no change in the Hagopian award situation, and the COGLI and AIDS ad troubles surfaced, two community meetings were held in quick succession and attracted a broad spectrum of the community. The participants decided to send an open letter to Mayor Daley, in the form of full-page ads in the gay and mainstream press, calling upon him to address a variety of issues the community felt had been neglected.
The ads, scheduled to run Friday, November 17, also call upon Daley to attend a community forum at Ann Sather’s on Belmont on Monday, November 20. Although a personal invitation has also been sent to the mayor, as of press time Daley had not indicated whether he would show up. Whether he does or not, activists hope the event will draw enough news coverage to force him to be more responsive.
Through the 15-year battle to pass the human rights ordinance and through organizing to take care of their dying, gays have learned a lot of political savvy. Still, taking the matter to the media has its dangers.
Jacky Grimshaw, an old hand at community organizing in the black community, gives the administration “high marks on its public relations. They have the media in their hands, they play it like a Stradivarius, and it’s hard–unless you catch them falling all over themselves–to get the media to pay attention to what these guys are doing.”
Daley has been able to deflect a great deal of criticism as gratuitous Daley-bashing–the implication being that critics are responding in knee-jerk fashion to the ghost of his father rather than to what Daley himself is doing here and now. This seems especially true in the black community, where the issue is compounded by race–and by the fact that less than 10 percent of black Chicagoans voted for Daley. When blacks criticize Daley, says Grimshaw, he is able to pass it off as just the clamor of his political enemies.
The lesbian and gay community, however, voted for Daley overwhelmingly–at least white gays and lesbians, the city’s most visibly organized gay population, and thus the only gay group whose voting patterns can be gauged with any kind of accuracy. Indeed, according to reports in the gay press, most of the gay-identified precincts, clustered along the north lakefront, went for Daley by margins of up to 50 percentage points. Supporters of Daley are now heavily involved in organizing the current efforts to challenge the administration.
At the first two community meetings, more than half the organizers present said they had voted for Daley in the general election. Many had publicly supported him, and some had done so since his first bid for mayor in 1983.
A few of the organizers, such as John Chester, a staunch Daley backer, feel that the relationship between the community and the administration is not in fact adversarial. According to Chester, the pressure now being applied will only hasten what the administration would have done anyway. “I think the Daley administration got hit with some very large problems when it was inaugurated,” said Chester, reciting a litany including the school woes and the trouble at the Department of Health. According to Chester, the administration “had to get to work dealing with those immediate crises. I imagine some different communities and community groups got neglected–not because the Daley administration wasn’t interested in reaching out and working with them, but because there are only so many hours in a day and only so much work that can be done.”
But most of the community–Daley supporters included–see the situation in terms of Frederick Douglass’s old insight: power concedes nothing without a demand. Larry Rolla, chairman of COGLI, has supported Daley since 1983. Though he thinks “This is not about bashing Daley, this is about trying to work with him,” he also said, “I don’t believe that things will be accomplished unless we now assert ourselves very aggressively. I’m tired of sitting at the bar trying to get the Irish boy’s attention. I’m tired of sending over little notes and free drinks.”
Jacky Grimshaw warns that the gay community has to approach the administration warily. “The tactic I’ve seen them play is to try to isolate, minimize, ridicule any opposition to them,” she said. “And that’s what you can expect–any or all of the above.” Specifically, Grimshaw foresees a maneuver that many gays and lesbians believe has already been set in motion–mayoral assistant Nancy Reiff playing point for the administration.
“She’s going to represent that she speaks for the community,” said Grimshaw, “and the rest of the folks are fringe elements, sour grapes, spilt milk.”
Even though she had no previous experience in government, Reiff was appointed special assistant to the mayor, with one of her chief duties being to act as liaison to the lesbian and gay community. She is a longtime friend and vigorous proponent of Alderman Bernard Hansen of the 44th Ward, a solid Daley ally, and many believe that Hansen was her ticket into City Hall.
The only other openly gay administration official is Simmons–a holdover from the Washington and Sawyer administrations who, working out of CHR rather than the mayor’s office, ranks lower in the administration pecking order than Reiff.
At crucial junctures in all three issues that now concern the community–the Hagopian award fiasco, COGLI’s position in the administration, and the AIDS education ads–Reiff toed the administration line. When CHR director Wood settled on his rationale of low ticket sales, Reiff concurred. When acting health commissioner Krieg insisted the AIDS ads were prototypes, Reiff agreed. But most inflammatory was Reiff’s stance on COGLI, and her role in helping Wood to bypass it. She set up the closed-door meeting that Wood attended in lieu of COGLI’s meeting, and defended her action by claiming, erroneously, that COGLI was not representative of minorities within the lesbian and gay community. Reiff’s own handpicked group of seven people consisted of only one person of color. And even though they’d been picked by Reiff, they unanimously told Wood that COGLI was the community’s best voice in city government and should be preserved–a fact that further emphasized how far Reiff had drifted from the mainstream of the community.
All activists interviewed for this article said that Reiff was out of touch with the mass and main of gay Chicago. Ironically, many were concerned that she was thereby doing a disservice not only to the community, but to the administration as well.
“By not truly representing the gay and lesbian community to the mayor,” said IMPACT’s Carole Powell, “she is politically harmful to the administration.”
Jerry Stevens, a member of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a longtime supporter of Daley, was more succinct. “I think she’s underqualified,” he said.
Daniel Sotomayor, of the AIDS-oriented guerrilla protest group ACT UP, thinks Reiff “should ‘fess up to the community that she’s working for the mayor, and she just so happens to be a lesbian, and that she is not our connection to the mayor.”
Reiff, who agreed to only a brief interview for this article, appears to have done just that. Although she said she has “accurately brought forth the concerns of the community as a whole,” she added, “I work for the administration, and I happen to be a member of the community.”
Most of the gay and lesbian groups banding together to challenge the administration, though they often differ politically, have proceeded by the same mainstream tactics–lobbying, letter writing, donating money, registering voters, calling press conferences. But ACT UP, the street protest group, eschews such tactics, seeing its role to dramatize issues through confrontational “zaps.” And the fact that “ACT UP is a full and equal partner in the coalition,” as Robert Adams said, is compelling evidence of community solidarity.
For a time gay organizers were worried about how the anarchic group would deal with Daley if he does show up at the November 20 forum. Mike Savage, president of Dignity, the lesbian and gay Catholic group, said, “Originally there were concerns because of some of the perceptions people had of ACT UP” and because of “some real philosophical differences between people” who have been attending the community meetings.
That discomfort was aggravated when ACT UP distributed a flier calling for people to come and “express your anger to the mayor over the fucked up AIDS ad campaign.” The poster ends with a teasing jab at the mayor: “It’s up to you, Dick.”
“Some people wanted us to tone it down,” Sotomayor admitted. “But we told them all along that we would stay true to our style.”
The discomfort appears to have been smoothed out at the community meetings. Savage said, “The negotiating around the table was pretty blunt–and that’s allowed us to come to a common ground.”
IMPACT’s Adams agreed. “We’re a diverse community, but on this issue we’re speaking with one voice,” he said.
But that one voice may span quite a range. When asked what demands the community would make of Daley at the forum, Adams replied, “I wouldn’t use the word ‘demands.’ We have some questions.”
Sotomayor, on the other hand, dismisses such niceties. “We are not going to disrupt the meeting,” he says, making his only concession, “but we’re going to remain true to our style of confrontation. We’re not going to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ For some people, they’re going to be satisfied with Daley just showing up–that’s enough for them. That’s not enough for us. We don’t want to hear rhetoric. And if we hear it, we’re going to disrupt it–or interrupt it, rather.”
How likely is it that Daley–who has turned down invitations even to gala AIDS benefits–will actually show up on November 20? Unlikely, admit organizers. But if he skips the meeting to avoid ACT UP, the tactic may well backfire. The organizers have scheduled a rally for the day after the forum, and it’s being led by ACT UP. If Daley attends the forum and adequately answers the community’s questions or demands, the rally will be a celebration. If he doesn’t, organizers predict it will be an angry one–ACT UP style.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.