A GoPride Interview

Tracy Baim

Tracy Baim interview with ChicagoPride.com

Wed. September 22, 2010  by Joseph Erbentraut

Tracy Baim
For any queer Chicagoan first arriving in the city, it would be difficult to understate the impact of those early signs of our community's presence, particularly for those of us who arrived in the Windy City on the heels of a small-town upbringing. Whether it be the rainbow pylons lining Halsted Street in Boystown or simply another gay or lesbian couple holding hands while crossing the street, the marked presence of "people like you" is a comforting privilege to those who call Chicago home.

And for many, the nearly ubiquitous newsstands housing the Windy City Times, Chicago's premier LGBT news publication, that are scattered about the city represent that very same feeling of belonging to something bigger - to a community, to a movement. Or, at the very least, a welcome alternative to being stuck reading the Red Eye during our El commute.

For these reasons and many more, the publication's 25th anniversary, being marked with a special issue hitting the streets Wednesday, Sept. 29, is significant. At a time where LGBT publications nationwide are bleeding revenue and shuttering, the Windy City Times has managed to survive even the bleakest of outlooks, all while tenaciously documenting both our community's highs and lows.

With her publication's silver anniversary fast approaching, Windy City Times Media Group publisher Tracy Baim spoke with ChicagoPride.com about the publication she helped co-found in 1985 and how it has continued to persevere a tumultuous industry for longer than Gaga has been alive.

JE: (Joe Erbentraut) First of all, congratulations on Windy City Times' 25th anniversary. How are you celebrating the milestone?

TB: (Tracy Baim) I'm happy we're still around. I was 22 years old when I was one of the co-founders of the Times, so I was pretty young then. I'm 47 now and in some ways it feels like I've spent my entire adult life working in gay media in Chicago. I feel privileged to have had that opportunity and I feel lucky and fortunate that the Windy City Times has survived 25 years.

JE: To what do you attribute the Windy City Times' survival while so many other gay publications have fallen by the wayside - both here and worldwide?

TB: I think there's a few things I'll attribute that to. I think part of it has been the Windy City Times adapting to changes. These last 10 years I've been associated with the paper again, we've tried very much to stay on the cutting edge in terms of where our readers are, having a presence on Facebook or Twitter, making sure we have a podcast and sponsoring a number of community events. Our approach is also that we're very much a part of the community we cover. Our motivation is to cover that community. I think some people who come into gay media have motivations that are not community-based and are more about the money and they become disillusioned about that. You really need to have a community commitment so that when the economy ebbs and flows, you're not as vulnerable. Our approach is like ChicagoPride.com's in that we're part of our community and will do whatever it takes to cover that community, including making individual sacrifices in terms of our own careers sometimes.

JE: From where you stand today - considering how broad of a spectrum of media outlets the Windy City Media Group currently covers - do you think you could have ever envisioned, 25 years ago, the Times looking anything like what it is today?

TB: No, I mean I don't think the Internet was anything anyone thought was truly on its way back in 1985. By the mid-'90s, Outlines was one of the first papers to go online. We were always thinking it was a great opportunity to expand our coverage in a low-cost way. I'm very excited about the differences between those two - the Windy City Times in 1985 and in 2010. We consider ourselves a daily media company with a weekly print publication and bi-weekly bar guide. We are able to cover breaking news at the same time any other media outlet can as stories happen. We try to constantly update our site with new information daily, whether it's community-related or news so there's always some new information for people coming back to the site. We post on Facebook and Twitter, have an iPhone application and do all the things necessary to reach people. We're trying to stay ahead of the curve - or at least stay with that curve.

JE: Of all your experiences covering Chicago's LGBT community through these years, do any particular favorite memories or people you've interviewed that stand out as favorite moments of yours?

TB: I feel very mixed emotions about the timing of when I started in gay media. When I started, in 1984, there were fewer than 100 cases of AIDS in Chicago. The disease had just started to get a foothold at the time. I've likened the experience to starting in the middle of a war zone, and as a result of that, I feel fortunate to have met so many community pioneers before they succumbed to AIDS or cancer or other illnesses.

Between 1985 and 1990 was the heat of the moment of AIDS spreading in our community. It was a real pivotal moment in Chicago, with groups like ACT UP and those who fought for the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance getting active. Harold Washington was our mayor at the time, and I was able to interview him when he was running for re-election in 1987. That has to have been my favorite interview, because he was such a big teddy bear. Covering those demonstrations for gay rights and AIDS issues in the '80s was a real high point. Also, the marches on Washington were really vital, as well as seeing our community first participate in the Bud Billiken Parade in the early '90s. I've watched our activist community grow and change, with some changes for the better, some for the worse, and it's been a real privilege to be able to cover our community for these 26 years [Baim spent one year at GayLife newspaper, from 1984-1985].

JE: Specifically how does our community's activism of today - say, for example, the downtown rally against Proposition 8 in November 2008 - compare with the activism of then to you?

TB: That's an interesting question and I haven't really thought about it. I was at that rally after Prop 8 passed and to compare the emotions of the ACT UP movement and the people attracted to that, there was much more of a sense of... I don't want to say gloom, because people were still very hopeful, but there was this life-or-death sense about AIDS back then. Literally someone might go to a demonstration one week and they'd be gone within the next few weeks. I'd take someone's picture and realize that might end up being the picture our paper would run with their obituary. With Ron Sable, who ran for alderman twice, that's exactly what happened.

That sense of urgency around AIDS created a very different atmosphere for those demonstrations. The Prop 8 protest had much more of a sense of hope than that because, while marriage is very important and the benefits attached to it can be a life-or-death, economic survival issue for some, I think those rights are a very different thing to be fighting for. There's almost more hope in this generation -- a good sense of entitlement, like we deserve this rather than we're just asking for it. That might be the difference. The new generation of activists are very inspiring because they're not saying we want to be tolerated, they're saying we want equal rights, not just to be accepted. It's very different from the mood 20 years ago and it's a privilege to be able to experience both things.

JE: In addition to your work with the Windy City Times, I wanted to ask you about a few of your other projects, including the Chicago Gay History Project (www.chicagogayhistory.com). Tell me about the project and what inspired you to undergo the project?

TB: I was involved at a high level with organizing the Gay Games in Chicago and I worked for many years on that. After that was complete, I was a little burnt out on the community, to be honest. I then wondered why I still wanted to be involved in this community as opposed to working on environmental issues or animal rights? And I realized it was the people who inspired me, including the many people who had trusted me with their stories and mentored me from the start. If we don't control the history books, we might not be in there, and for our next generation of activists, they won't learn our history in schools or libraries -- they're going to learn it online.

The project started very small, but I ended up doing a binge of interviewing a couple hundred people in a few months in 2007. Since that time, we've been trying to get our pre-digital archives digitized and we'll donate all the original materials to the Chicago History Museum. My goal is to leave a legacy for the next generation to find their history where they won't find it traditionally. There are a lot of people I remember who nobody else might remember if we don't write these stories down. And these interviews are only the tip of the iceberg -- there are hundreds more I want to do with people who deserve to be included, but it's a matter of budget and time.

JE: I wanted to ask you about President Obama and his stance on gay marriage. The Windy City Times has received a lot of attention for its survey of Obama on the topic in 1996 -- where he is on record for supporting gay marriage. Do you think Obama may come back around to supporting marriage equality?

TB: Obama's position on this has changed several times from when Outlines sent that survey to him in 1996 [Outlines purchased Windy City Times in 2000 and merged into Windy City Times] and also when I interviewed him in 2004. Then, his position was politically practical and now it's more religion-based, which makes it more difficult for our community to understand. What Obama is saying today is that gay and straight relationships should have the same rights, but we know civil unions are not equal to marriage. Eventually, I think this argument will more likely be won for our community in the courts than in Congress. I think Obama believes in equality, but is not willing to waste political capital on the issue. It's fascinating to watch Obama on this issue. He's very gay-sensitive and pro-gay, but he's also a politician.

I think sometimes people who support Obama -- gay or straight -- see him as being too political and not true to who they really are, and that is worse to many than taking on a controversial position. That's something the Democrats are seeing with the midterm elections. If you're a principled person and stand by those principles, even those who disagree with you or don't prioritize the same issues as you will respect you more than people who weakly equivocate on issues like civil rights. As a result, I think a lot of people are staying away from the polls who shouldn't be. The Democratic base is demotivated by politicians equivocating. I have a book addressing this topic coming out titled Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage.

JE: Could you tell me more about the Obama book and what inspired you to write it?

TB: Several books have come out on Obama this year, and in those books, gay people are on the sidelines if they're present at all. The books are well-written and researched, but the role the gay community played in the 2008 election is pretty much ignored by them. Specifically, the role that gay Chicagoans played in Obama's trajectory, climbing the ladder toward the White House, is virtually ignored. I knew that someday, eventually, someone would think to write something on the topic and would end up using a lot of Outlines and Windy City Times' original source material so I thought why not get it out during his first term to assess where he's come from and what he's done for the community. I wanted to lay it all out there so people can make up their own minds on the issue. The book also features a number of guest writers, including Pam Spaulding, Chuck Colbert, Michelangelo Signorile and others -- and about 50 pages of photographs and images. It's available on Amazon.com and there are Chicago book signings in October. Our website is www.ObamaAndTheGays.com.

JE: You're also a filmmaker, having produced Hannah Free. How have you felt about how the film performed and was received? Do you think you'll take on more films?

TB: Hannah Free was a very exciting project to do and learn from. I don't know if I'd ever do it again, though. Film is a very difficult industry. But I worked with lots of terrific people, including star Sharon Gless and writer Claudia Allen, and it was very fun to tour to a few cities with the film and see it with audiences of all types -- men and women, straight and gay, old and young -- across the country. One of the difficult things was that we didn't really have a marketing budget, which hurt the film. I think over time people will find and love the film, but they'll have to find it. The film, particularly Sharon's performance, was very well received and I think that, with newspapers, you can cover a story in 500 words about discrimination, but a movie tells that story and changes people in a very different way from that.

JE: You mentioned in a previous interview that you hope to see more films released that reflect the reality of the LGBT community, which I think Hannah Free certainly has accomplished. I must ask, though, about Hollywood's recent foray into lesbian themes, The Kids Are All Right. Do you think that film was a step in the right direction for depictions of our community in the mainstream?

TB: I must preface this by saying that I haven't seen that film, but I do think that the movie was a mainstream movie for a mainstream audience -- with a lesbian storyline. I give all power to any filmmaker that can get that far with a lesbian movie and I hope Lisa Cholodenko's effort makes it easier for other lesbian films to be made in the future.

I think we can't rely on just one or two movies a year to break through and expect them to fully reflect our community's diversity of age, race and the types of relationships we have. Brokeback Mountain and Milk both represented certain parts of our community, but I wouldn't want to criticize [these films] just because [they don't] represent me or what I think our community is about. If we want more books and movies that reflect us, we need to create them ourselves. The tools are there to create very low-budget movies with good stories and good actors, so do that! Put your time and money where your mouth is and create your culture.

The Windy City Times' 25th anniversary issue will be released Wednesday, Sept. 29. Baim's latest book, Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage, will be available print-on-demand from Amazon.com and at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark, beginning Friday, Oct. 1.

Interviewed by Joseph Erbentraut