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Is Chicago as open-minded as we want to believe? We’re going to find out

When Lori Lightfoot launched her candidacy, and again on election night, her wife, Amy Eshleman (background, left) and their daughter, Vivian (background center) were with her. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

What do Burr Tillstrom and I have in common?

Partial credit if you said “an inordinate interest in puppets.” Tillstrom created “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” a Chicago kiddie TV show in the late 1940s that broke into national popularity.

And I’ve written about more puppetry than I have about football, certainly more than is wise for a man supposedly trying to align his work with the interests of his readers. Though in my defense, I missed the International Puppetry Festival this year because, frankly, I forgot. So safe to say that my passion for puppetry is far below Tillstrom’s.

But puppetry is not the answer I’m looking for. No, Tillstrom and I are both members of Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame — inducted in the same class in 2013, in fact.


I’ve never put that in the paper before. Not that I’m ashamed of it — I’m proud. I’ve got the three-inch tall chunk of crystal they give members right here, with the Seal of the City and my name and “Friend of the Community” lest anybody suspect that being inducted means I’m gay — Seinfeld fans, all together now: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

No, I haven’t mentioned this before because I’m modest, or pretend to be, and don’t like to tout what scant honors I receive. Plus it wasn’t germane to whatever I was talking about. Now it is, I think, because I want to put into context my reaction to a certain aspect of our historic mayoral election.

Wednesday morning. WBBM radio was reporting the scene from the Lightfoot campaign headquarters the night before, and noted that Lightfoot’s wife and 10-year-old daughter joined her at the celebration.

At “wife” I sorta … the word I first thought was “flinched,” but the truth is something far milder, not at all physical. Ten times milder. A shift, like hearing the single peal of bell, far away.

Sort of an unvoiced “ah.”

This from someone who already knew this about her, from someone who’s a member of the Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame, inducted for my unwavering support of the community over 30 years, with gay relatives on both sides of my family. At my niece’s wedding, I did the same kind of echo of a flinch, too, for the opposite reason. A boisterous neighbor of theirs, in a toast, said the word “lesbian” — the only time it was spoken in the entire hours-long event. Doing so struck me as tone deaf and clueless, as if he had mentioned their shoe size or blood type: a fact, yes, but not at all relevant to the joyous celebration of these two women who loved each other and were in turn loved by their family and friends. They weren’t lesbians. They were Rachel and Mouse.

So my question is: Which reaction will Chicago have? Lightfoot won Tuesday’s election with a fraction of a fraction — 17 percent of the 34 percent who bothered to vote. A whopping 5 percent of the voters. How will the rest of the city (where I do not live, thank you for reminding me), blinking into the glare of their civic duty, view Lightfoot? Will they flinch at her being a lesbian? Or at my mentioning it? My colleague Fran Spielman wrote an excellent, two-page analysis in Thursday’s paper, parsing what analysts see as the various pros and cons faced by both candidates and the subject never came up.

So maybe I’m off base here, and apologize in advance. Though if Barack Obama has taught us one thing, it is that those announcing the end of prejudice in our country have a habit of being outed as overly optimistic. The same day Lightfoot was nudging out her 13 competitors in Chicago, in St. Louis the United Methodist Church was narrowly defeating a proposal — 449-374 — that would have allowed member churches to adopt policies friendly to gay marriage. So not everybody has gotten the memo.

I’m certainly not clumsily plumping for Toni Preckwinkle — who, as it turns out, was the master of ceremonies the night Burr and I got inducted — he posthumously, by the way, having gone to his reward in 1985. I view the Lightfoot-Preckwinkle matchup as a win-win for the city, particularly because — to give more context — I was steeling myself for a Bill Daley v. Garry McCarthy lose-lose.

Puppeteer Burr Tillstrom with creations Kukla (left) and Ollie. Tillstrom attended Senn High School and the University of Chicago before working on the TV show aimed at kids that would become a national sensation. | Sun-Times files
Puppeteer Burr Tillstrom with creations Kukla (left) and Ollie. Tillstrom attended Senn High School and the University of Chicago before working on the TV show aimed at kids that would become a national sensation. | Sun-Times files