Out at CHM: Sexual Politics

Bethany Marzewski

With the primaries in full swing, politics have been on the minds of all Americans. Concerns about the war in Iraq, health care and education take the spotlight in election season, but the kick-off of the Chicago History Museum’s Out at CHM series reminds Chicagoans of another kind of politics: sexual politics.

Introduced in 2004, Out at CHM has explored the city’s gay identity by shining a light on its forgotten past. “There was no type of platform at the time the series started that really culminated in having this kind of discussion,” says Melissa Hayes, the museum’s director of marketing.

Tonight, Northwestern University professor Lane Fenrich will be speaking at the event with historian David Johnson in a program titled “Sexual Politics: From the Lavender Scare to Larry Craig. ” Their intent is to open the series with a discussion of homosexuality under the political spotlight.

Each year, the museum works with an advisory committee made up of staffers, university scholars and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community members to select the most provocative and relevant topics for the series. Hayes says this year’s topics fall a little bit more on the national perspective, which is a break from the CHM’s usual emphasis on Chicago-specific issues.

Jeffrey Masten, NU’s director of the gender studies program, says he has excitedly attended segments at the museum in the past three years. “They’re amazing,” he gushes, recalling how hundreds of people showed up at each meeting, “the events offer a perspective on history that is unusual and unlike what you often get in (school) courses.”

The program, which has sold out every year, has largely appealed to 35- to 45-year-old men. But Hayes says programming is geared toward people of all ages and sexual orientations. Despite the series’ brevity – three programs a year typically from January through June – Hayes says the goal is to push discussions and informational outlets outside institutions. By partnering with organizations such as the Center on Halsted and the gender studies departments of city universities, including NU, the museum hopes to affirm this message. The program is leading up to 2010, when the museum will unveil a yearlong exhibit detailing the LGBT past in Chicago.

And this history is becoming increasingly important for Chicagoans, who are now finally openly examining gay identity issues. Many looked at the success of the 2006 Chicago Gay Games as a stepping stone for the future of acceptance and understanding in this city. “I think that gay and lesbian people themselves are realizing that they have a past that they don’t necessarily understand. It isn’t the past that has been represented to them, if ever,” Fenrich says.

For NU junior Jessie Kaiser, co-president of Rainbow Alliance and one of Fenrich’s former students, knowing the history of LGBT people is particularly important. Although she has never been to the Out at CHM series, she says she would give it her full endorsement. For LGBT Americans, the politics of gay identity is of the utmost importance. “It’s good to have programming like that,” she says. “It’s really heartening that it’s at a place like a Chicago History Museum.”

Tom Clark, 44, has been a part of Chicago’s gay community for nine years. He credits Mayor Richard Daley with Chicago’s progressive-leaning understanding of the gay community and its history.

“He’s very supportive of gay issues and rights,” he says. “I think there’s a huge awareness and acceptance on his behalf.” Clark adds that he feels much more comfortable being “out” in the workplace than he did 10 years ago.

Similarly, Fenrich is proud of the museum’s success with its programming and looks forward to the future of the series. “One of the things that’s amazing about this series at the Chicago History Museum that I continue to be amazed about, is that it’s the single-most successful public programming they’ve ever done,” Fenrich says, “Every single one of these events sell out. Every single one for four years.”

The Out at CHM series begins tonight, and the following two segments for the year will occur in March and May. The March program, titled, “Queer Exclusions: Sexuality and U.S. Citizenship,” addressed how questions of sexuality and race shape how the U.S. government differentiates between “citizens” and “aliens.” The May program, “Screaming Queens and Lavender Panthers: A History of Transgender Activism,” will discuss the movement for freedom of gender expression.