Documenting LGBTQ history: Windy City Times an ‘invaluable resource’ for Chicago
After more than 35 years of covering major events like the HIV/AIDS epidemic and writing about diverse communities, Chicago’s main LGBTQ publication is still going strong.
Sitting in her home and sifting through thousands of negatives and photos of prominent LGBTQ activists like Daniel Sotomayor and Dr. Ron Sable, Tracy Baim had a searing memory of taking some of the last pictures of key figures in the queer rights movement while they were still alive and fighting.
Although Windy City Times “probably should have shut down a decade ago,” co-founder and co-owner Baim said the media outlet has persevered in spite of financial difficulties, mainly by relying on the kindness of strangers and personal sacrifice.
“The entire time I’ve been doing this, the money has been the hardest part of doing the work,” Baim said. “Everything else comes easy. I love telling the stories, taking the photos and doing the video. Telling the stories of the lives of people who are often ignored in the mainstream is the greatest honor.”
Windy City Times has been covering the LGBTQ community in Chicago for more than 35 years. Although the publication ended its print run last fall - the COVID-19 pandemic became the “final nail in the coffin” - its online site is still going strong.
The publication was founded in September 1985 by Baim and her co-workers Jeff McCourt, Bob Bearden and Drew Badanish, who left their jobs at GayLife newspaper to start Windy City Times.
At the time, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was in full swing, and there was a large movement to pass gay and lesbian rights legislation.
Baim said because most media outlets were not doing an adequate job of covering the LGBTQ community and its struggles, the responsibility fell on Windy City Times to offer persistent coverage of the gay rights battle, attending public meetings, protests and marches, and letting readers know where to go and who to call.
“It was really critical for our community to have our own voice … to have media that was vying for our community,” Baim said.
Rick Karlin, co-chair and director of communications at the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame, said McCourt came up with the idea to present the gay community as a “niche market” to advertisers and was able to bring in major advertising revenue from car dealerships, national companies and other mainstream retailers.
Conflicts among the co-founders and the death of Bearden prompted Baim to leave the publication to form her own newspaper, Outlines, which competed with Windy City Times for 13 years.
In 2000, Baim bought Windy City Times from McCourt, and Karlin said she reinvigorated the publication.
GLAAD honored Windy City Times earlier this month with the Barbara Gittings Award for Excellence in LGBTQ Media, an honor named after Gittings in recognition of her work as an out lesbian editing The Ladder, the nation’s first lesbian publication.
Camilla Taylor, director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, said over the decades, the LGBTQ community has relied on Windy City Times for information about important events.
Lourdes Torres, professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University, said when she moved to Chicago in 2000, she used the Windy City Times archives to find information on the history of queer Latina organizing.
Andrew Davis, who left his job at a law firm in 1995 to freelance for the publication, said he learned journalism through trial and error, joining the team as a full-time writer in 2004.
Davis said the Windy City Times staff is limited, with himself and managing editor Matt Simonette as the only staff members writing articles.
“I like to call us the queer cnn.com, because we’re constantly updating news — local, national, and global,” Davis said, who was promoted to executive editor when Baim became co-publisher of the Chicago Reader.
For years, Baim said she has helped fund the publication by borrowing money, holding fundraisers and even mortgaging her house. She said Windy City Times staffers have also had to make sacrifices in terms of their salaries.
“To me, the most important thing is making sure our website lives on for the archival and research purposes alone,” Baim said. “There’s over 25 years of content on there, hundreds of thousands of articles, probably over a million photos.”
Stephanie Skora, associate executive director at Brave Space Alliance, a Black and trans-led LGBTQ Center, said organizations can count on Windy City Times to be there to cover events relevant to LGBTQ people.
In 2018, Brave Space Alliance organized a march for Trans Day of Resilience and sent out a news release, hoping for media outlets to show up. Skora said Windy City Times was the only newspaper at the event.
“There aren’t that many local gay papers left,” she said. ”It’s really an invaluable resource for LGBTQ Chicago. And one that — if it goes away — won’t be easy to replace.”