Chicago Whispers – St. Sukie de la Croix (University of Wisconsin Press)

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Buy it direct from University of Wisconsin Press

My friend and fellow author, George Seaton (Big Diehl,
MLR Press), and I have talked a couple of times about doing a Denver GLBT
history, but the task seems so daunting that I think we’d rather dwell in our
fictional realms. And being a Midwestern boy, myself, a portrait of queer life
in Chicago should have proven inspirational. Instead, the project seems ten
times tougher now that St. Sukie de la Croix has given us a rather high standard
to surpass in Chicago Whispers.

Subtitled A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall,
the book lives up to that, going all the way back—briefly—to Chicago’s Native
American roots. But de la Croix doesn’t linger there. He takes us to the
turn-of-the-century (19th) medical community’s reaction to
homosexuality, introduces us to Henry Gerber, founder of the first gay rights
organization in America, the Society for Human Rights (ca. 1924) as well as
Margaret Anderson, editor of The Little Review and tours through
Towertown, a gay artists’ colony.

Those, however, are only a few stops on de la Croix’s
itinerary. He also takes fascinating sidetrips into the (surprisingly) many
cross-dressers of vaudeville and burlesque—both male and female impersonators,
gives the lowdown on the queer blues, including such luminaries as Ma Rainey,
Bessie Smith, Lucille Bogan and Alberta Hunter and winds up a discussion of the
pansy craze of the 1920s and early 30s with a nod in the direction of Rudolph
Valentino and the incredible Ray (Rae) Bourbon.

Bourbon’s career was one of the best and brightest in the
history of drag, and many of his recordings (hilarious spoken word routines and
marvelous original songs) can be found free of charge and in the public domain
at the Internet Archive (www.archive.org).
I encourage anyone even mildly interested in our roots to download some of this
material to get a glimpse into a way of life now (for better or worse) gone by
the wayside.

However, de la Croix isn’t just about the arts. He also
explores Chicago’s past gay bars, McCarthyism and the Cold War (I can’t imagine
Adlai Stevenson and Everett Dirksen in gay nightclubs, but there you have it),
physique magazines, raids, legal difficulties and sodomy laws. I find it very
interesting that, just like New York City, the Mafia was heavily involved in
gay bars. I understand, of course, that they extorted money from business
owners who were particularly vulnerable to blackmail, but this is the first I’ve
heard that some mobsters actually attended these clubs in the company of
cross-dressers.

But you can find an interesting fact, unique character,
unknown pioneer or illuminating anecdote in just about any chapter of Chicaco
Whispers
. Moreover, these stories of men and women who have come before
have importance, weight, and a bearing on our future. Richly and respectfully
told, these histories will have you chuckling as often as crying.

George, we have our work cut out for us.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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