By Elise Biggers
After accommodating more than 400, 000 people last summer, some speculate this week’s Pride Parade may very well top the half-million milestone. Given Chicago’s turbulent LGBT history that had, within the last eighty years, witnessed the transformation of lightly attended, sidewalk-confined Pride demonstrations into a highly acclaimed yearly celebration, a rich oral tradition had been awaiting documentation up until its translation onto film in 2007. Since filmmaker and Columbia College instructor Ron Pajak’s screening of his documentary “Quearborn & Perversion” last November, Chicago’s LGBT community has connected to stories that have seldom been told by earlier generations—stories that reveal the little-known history of the Chicago’s LGBT cultural identity that began just north of the river not too long ago.
“I presumed that [Chicago’s LGBT scene] was always like the way it was when I came out in 1979,” says Pajak in reference to the years prior to his acceptance of a bartending position at former gay bar Gentry on Rush. Located down the street from what had been Chicago’s legendary Kitty Shean’s, Gentry had become a gathering place for Kitty’s former customers, the “old-timers” who could remember a Chicago that had been the only American city to approve a consenting-adult act. Tending bar while pursuing an MFA in film and video at Columbia College, Pajak, in response to a growing accumulation of insight into the past, gradually replaced his preconceptions of what LGBT culture had been before his time with the hard facts that were screaming for acknowledgment. “Old-timers started telling stories about the past, and that was the seed of my idea,” Pajak says. “They helped put me in touch with other people, but they themselves wanted nothing to do with it. Theirs was an era where people were so closeted that they didn’t like to use the word ‘gay’ around each other.”
At a loss after gathering the little information that he could at the bar, Pajak soon found himself traveling from city to city and placing ads in local gay and lesbian publications in order to find leads to aid in the production of “Quearborn & Perversion.” Despite the reservations of Gentry’s regulars to participate in the project, memorabilia and remarkable stories circulating Chicago homosexuality’s tumultuous history filtered in from elsewhere to fill in the gaps that had been left open. As the stories came in, the picture of Chicago’s LGBT community between 1924 and 1974 gradually grew more devastating than Pajak had originally conceived it to be. These were the men and women pioneering Chicago’s gay bars that were confined to what had formerly been known as “Skid Row.” Premises for police prosecution during the time ranged from simple offenses—such as displays of affection at bars like Kitty’s—to more complex ones. “If one woman butched it up as a disguise,” claims Pajak, “then women at that time could go out together” but not necessarily without getting caught. As the story unfolds, it appears that the only guaranteed source of security during this time was the closet.
After a highly successful premiere at the Chicago History Museum last November as part of the Reeling Film Festival, Pajak plans on screening “Quearborn & Perversion” one last time in the fall before releasing it on DVD. In the meantime, the filmmaker has a few more projects under way, but never closes his mind to new ideas. “My motivation as a filmmaker is to look for the stories that have never been told,” Pajak says. “They will take you someplace you’ve never been before.”
For more information and a peek at “Quearborn & Perversion” or any other of Ron Pajak’s works, visit www.awesomehero.com.
By Elise Biggers