Fresh out of Drake University with a news-editorial journalism degree, I returned home to Chicago in May 1984, unsure of what kind of career I could have as an open lesbian. My stepfather worked at the Chicago Tribune, and my mom was at the Chicago Defender. They both knew gay journalists, but none were openly so.
My Drake professors warned me it would be a difficult path, as there were just a handful of openly gay journalists in mainstream media. I thought maybe I could work for Ms. Magazine and do typesetting on the side — those Mergenthaler and Compugraphic machines helped me pay my way through college.
Being openly gay in 1984 was a big burden to almost any career. That included highly visible careers in entertainment but also pretty much every job you could name, from dentist to dog catcher, lawyer to mayor. Journalism was a particularly entrenched area where almost everyone kept their private life locked up — except for some incredible pioneers that worked outside the mainstream, including Henry Gerber, Barbara Gittings, Alan Bell and the founders of ONE Magazine, The Ladder, and Vice Versa publications.
That changed a lot in 1990 when the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (now NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists) was formed. Not that there are not still many barriers for LGBTQ+ journalists today.
But my career started six years before NLGJA. So my path was severely restricted — if I wanted to live authentically and openly.
Fortunately, my mom also knew a gay newspaper in Chicago, GayLife, and I secured an interview as an entry-level reporter.
I walked into the small office, sandwiched between the Gold Coast men’s leather bar and the Man’s Country bathhouse. I met Chuck Renslow, the owner, and his small team of primarily gay men running the show. And I knew this could be my life. It would mean running the refrigerator-size typesetting machine, taking photos with my Pentax camera, writing, editing, paste-up, delivering the layout boards to the printer, and even sometimes delivering the weekly papers.
I didn’t know that some of the writers used fake names. I found this out when they would leave, and then let me know their real name in case there was a reference check. They did this so that working for a gay newspaper did not negatively impact their career. GayLife had a parent company name that was safer for resumes.
I did jump right into this work — covering the very early impact of HIV/AIDS, the fight for the city’s gay-rights ordinance, serial killers, drag shows, leather contests, sporting events, political candidates, choral events, protests, and much more.
Mostly, though, the hardest work was about death and dying. AIDS was very new to the city then. It impacted the east and west coasts first. Chicago knew what was coming, and not everyone wanted to hear that news, even in the gay community.
I knew from that early age that I was in the middle of a war inside a country that denied anything was wrong. We had a country and a president that didn’t care about homosexuals, hemophiliacs and Haitians dying at pandemic rates.
So it was up to the national gay press to do this work. It was vital to interview the living and pay tribute to those who died. Many were only slightly older than I was. It was an incredible honor to have these people trust me with their words and images — some just days before they died. Many of those photos are still seared in my mind today. It is really what has continued to motivate me nearly four decades later.
The other part of the struggle in the gay press in the 1980s, and the LGBTQ+ press today, has been simply continuing to exist. We have lost many great newspapers over the decades. In the beginning, it was because advertisers avoided the gay press. Now it's more about the changes hurting media overall. Some longtime legacy papers have survived, and newer websites have popped up to do this work.
But the struggle is real, and we are losing many critical outlets to continue documenting this community, even while we face a nationwide backlash on LGBTQ+ rights. One solution to that is the formation of News Is Out, a collaborative of six legacy LGBTQ+ media. We’re trying to find new funding streams to help fund the journalism our community needs.
I left GayLife in 1985 to be a co-founder of Windy City Times and later founded other media outlets. I did it all to better document the diverse communities inside the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
All I have ever wanted to do was tell the stories others can’t or won’t. And to document a community, one person at a time.
Note: A portion of this column was based on Baim’s remarks made while receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award Nov. 11, 2022, from the Chicago Journalists Association.
Tracy Baim is co-founder of Windy City Times and other Chicago-area LGBTQ+ media, including Outlines, BLACKlines, En La Vida and Nightlines. She is the author or co-author of 13 books, including Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Community Newspapers in America. She is also the producer of four films and has won numerous local and national journalism awards. Baim has been the publisher of the Chicago Reader since 2018.
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