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Marie J. Kuda, top historian of Chicago LGBT culture, dies at 76

Marie J. Kuda | Photo by Tee Corrine

There were times when people had to turn and walk sideways to get past all the boxes in Marie Kuda’s apartment.

History, not hoarding, was to blame.

“She was an archive” of gay and lesbian history, said Shirley Rissmann, her friend and former partner of 24 years.

She ranks in the “top 5″ of importance in the LGBT movement in Chicago, said Tracy Baim, publisher of Windy City Times.

A writer, lecturer and publisher, Ms. Kuda came of age before academia widely recognized LGBT studies. “She was this amateur Ph.D.,” Baim said. “She created her own life path by doing this, even though it was not accepted in her era.”

Her collection of more than 100,000 documents, letters, buttons, matchbooks and other ephemera was used by the Chicago History Museum, and by WTTW for its “Out and Proud in Chicago” documentary, said Baim, the senior editor of the companion book by the same name. In the 1970s, she founded Womanpress, a publisher of lesbian literature, and organized five Lesbian Writers’ Conferences in Chicago that drew authors from across the country, according to an article about her in the “Out and Proud in Chicago” book.

Ms. Kuda, 76, who was inducted into the first class of Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1991, died Saturday at Alden Town Manor in Cicero after a struggle with heart failure.

In the 1970s, Ms. Kuda used her materials and biting wit to give hundreds of slideshows in Chicago and around the nation that showed that gay people were always present, if unaccounted for, in society. The kaleidoscope of images she exhibited might include “ a ‘butch’ lesbian, or two men with their arms around each other, or Jane Addams,” Baim said.

She delved back to antiquity, to “cave art, ancient Egyptian stuff, that showed same-sex love,” Rissmann said.

Instead of longtime depictions of gays and lesbians as tragic, predatory or mentally ill, “It was seeing your own history through a nonjudgmental lens,” Baim said.

“She put together wonderful slide lectures on lesbian cult novels of the 50s, and lesbian erotica, the history of lesbian literature. And they were so good, we scrambled and raised money so we could bring Marie to Philadelphia to share it” with the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia, said John Cunningham, a retired librarian for that city’s main public library.

She examined stories of early gay-rights efforts in the 1920s; cross-dressing women who served in the nation’s military; and speculation that Ernest Hemingway’s mother was a lesbian. And she did many reviews for the American Library Association on books with gay content, Rissmann said.

Young Marie Jayne Kuda was born in Chicago. Her childhood wasn’t easy. At 8, she endured a bone marrow transplant from a donor to treat osteomyelitis, an infection of the leg bone, Rissmann said.

Some of her early years were spent in a boarding school near 47th and Drexel, at a time when her father served in World War II and her mother couldn’t care for her, Rissmann said. For pre-arranged visits home, the boarding school occasionally dropped her off on the steps of the Art Institute. If her mother forgot to come get her, “She would carry her laundry and walk home” all the way to Montrose Avenue, Rissmann said.

Though sometimes bleak, those years also opened up a world of history and research. The school “would take her to the Field Museum and the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry and they would let the kids go,” Rissmann said. “She learned so much, and her quest for knowledge was insatiable.”

After the death of her father, she used his life insurance benefits to move into her own apartment at 15, and later she worked her way through DePaul University, Rissmann said. At different times, she worked as a cook, house painter and graphic artist, according to the Hall of Fame, and at DePaul University’s Library, Northeastern Illinois University and Ravenswood Hospital’s Mental Health Clinic. She lived much of her life on the North Side and in Oak Park.

She loved dining at the old Waterfront restaurant downtown and was drawn to anything connected to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Many of her papers were sent to Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute on human sexuality. “We treasure Marie’s collection at the Kinsey Institute. We are just honored to have her extensive archives,” said Liana Zhou, director of the library and special collections.

Ms. Kuda is also survived by her companion, Marilyn Blackman.

A celebration of her life is planned at 2 p.m. Oct. 29 at Touche bar, 6412 N. Clark, Rissmann said.