Marge Summit, gay rights activist and bar owner who welcomed everyone, dies at 87

‘It used to be you could get denied service if you were gay. Now people are welcome everywhere. No one bats an eye, and she’s responsible for some of that,’ said Ms. Summit’s friend David Boyer.

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Marge Summit

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Two things to know about Marge Summit: Her gay bar in the shadow of Wrigley Field welcomed everyone, and she didn’t suffer fools gladly.

During the AIDS epidemic, when some businesses shunned handling money from gay customers, Summit began stamping the money that came through His n’ Hers — her little tavern under the L tracks by the ballpark — so every bill had a stamp reading “GAY $” on it.

It was 1986. And she sold hundreds of the stamps, too, so others could do the same.

“We are trying to make people realize we are everywhere, that we have a large cash flow and that we are tired of being treated as third-class citizens,” Summit told the Chicago Sun-Times at the time.

She received a cease-and-desist letter — she refused to do either — and Secret Service agents came knocking.

“I swear to God, when they came into the bar they were in trench coats. They said, ‘Marge Summit’ and flashed their badges. I made fun of them. I admired their badges and asked where I could get one like that. You can’t let them know they got you. I was scared, but they weren’t going to know that,” she told the Windy City Times in a long interview about her life, published in 2017.

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A stamp from Marge Summit’s Gay $ campaign.

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The feds ultimately decided not to make a federal case out of it.

Ms. Summit, who was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 1993, died May 16 from complications following a stroke. She was 87.

“It used to be you could get denied service if you were gay. Now people are welcome everywhere. No one bats an eye, and she’s responsible for some of that,” said her friend David Boyer. “She was one of those early voices saying, you know, ‘You still have to deal with me.’”

Marge Summit at a Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame event with former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Summit was inducted in 1993. His n’ Hers — her little tavern under the L tracks by Wrigley Field — welcomed people of all sexual orientations and backgrounds.

Marge Summit at a Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame event with then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Summit was inducted into the Hall in 1993. His n’ Hers — her little tavern under the L tracks by Wrigley Field — welcomed people of all sexual orientations and backgrounds.

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Friends used the words “sailor” and “truck driver” to describe her colorful vernacular that could be foreboding or endearing. She loved a good dirty joke.

“Marge is a legend in Chicago, one of the old-school tough lesbians. She wouldn’t take s--- from anybody,” said her friend Gary Chichester.

“If you made a remark about her being gay, she’d tell you to stick it up your a--,” Boyer said. “She wouldn’t let you shame her or intimidate her because of who she chose to love.”

Tracy Baim, co-founder of the Windy City Times, said Summit had a tough exterior but a sensitive interior, a combination that a lot of women of her generation leaned into as a survival mechanism.

“Her bar was one of those rare places where every part of the gay community felt welcome ... a lot of gay bars were one gender or the other, maybe didn’t welcome trans people,” Baim said.

“Gay, straight, lesbian, whatever, didn’t matter. She had good burgers and music,” Chichester said.

When gang-bangers in the neighborhood beat up the “leather guys” who came to her bar, Ms. Summit explained to them that the men in leather were not in a gang, but just gay men wearing leather, and if they got picked on again, she’d call the cops.

Bars like His n’ Hers held outsized importance in the days before people could connect online. The fact amused Ms. Summit a few years ago when she connected with the love of her life, Janan Lindley, on Facebook and got married.

Ms. Summit waged an expensive, and ultimately unsuccessful, legal battle against City Hall when eminent domain was used in 1986 to acquire her space under the L tracks for a new CTA station. After 12 years at 944 W. Addison Ave., she moved to a less-desirable location farther north, where the bar survived for another few years.

“I think the real problem was my choice of attorneys,” she told the Sun-Times. “I should have hired a crooked lawyer.”

The bar had left its mark, though.

It was one of the first gay bars to offer live entertainment, including open mic nights that Ms. Summit emceed. She always sought to showcase local talent and helped produce an album called “Gay and Straight Together” that featured performers who played at her bar.

In the ’70s, she fostered several children, adopted a daughter and helped start a local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, where she counseled parents of gay children.

Marge Summit.

Marge Summit waged an expensive, and ultimately unsuccessful, legal battle against City Hall when eminent domain was used in 1986 to acquire her space under the L tracks for a new CTA station. “I should have hired a crooked lawyer,” she told the Sun-Times.

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“I loved the fact that I could change a few parent’s minds and help them learn to love and accept their gay kids,” she told the Windy City Times.

Ms. Summit brought an entertainer and a nurse with her when she met with parents because she “wanted them to see gay people were from all walks of life.”

Ms. Summit, who attended Chicago Vocational Career Academy on the South Side, was raised by her grandparents on the North Side until she was 12, at which time she moved into her mother and stepfather’s South Side home.

“When my brother wasn’t around, I’d put on his clothes and walk around like I was a big shot. This was the 1940s. Life was just better if you looked like a guy,” she told the Windy City Times.

At 16, her mother kicked her out of the house. “She said she couldn’t stand that sort of a lifestyle, and I said, ‘OK. Bye,’” she said in the interview, noting that she went to her first bar at age 14.

Before entering the bar business herself, Ms. Summit worked as a typist for a phone company and frequented gay bars, often with gay male friends. They were regularly subjected to police raids. Ms. Summit climbed out a second-floor window to escape from one such raid.

Before opening His n’ Hers, she took over a bar at 661 N. Clark St. and changed the name to MS — her initials.

She co-produced the documentary “Crimes of Hate,” which shed light on violence against Chicago’s gay community, and she was featured in the 1984 documentary “Before Stonewall.”

“She was, in her own way, a great activist,” said Art Johnston, owner of Sidetrack bar in Lake View, which hosts a speaking series that Ms. Summit participated in last year.

“Her bars were a safe, joyous, place for people to be themselves, and she helped people realize that being gay or lesbian was not necessarily an impediment to having a successful life. You are not condemned.”

Ms. Summit’s wife, Janan, died last year, “leaving a big hole in her heart,” Chichester said.

“She was lonely, really missing her wife and ready to go,” Boyer said.

Ms. Summit, who lived in a condo in Uptown in recent years, is survived by her daughter, Tanya.

Services are being planned.

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