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Laura Washington: A lady with nerve who will be missed

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The nerve of her! Kit, you can’t leave us now.

On Dec. 22 Katherine, “Kit” Duffy, 71, passed away at Stroger Hospital after open heart surgery.

Earlier this year, Kit wrote that she was a “70-year-old white lady born and raised in the South where I began marching and organizing for desegregation and equality at age 14. . . . Arrested, beaten, screamed at and spit on, fired and threatened because of my activities.”


Kit had nerve.

A born rabble-rouser from Hagerstown, Md., she moved to Chicago in 1964 to attend Northwestern University. Another motive, no doubt, was to raise hell.

Kit was a quietly fierce strategist, community organizer and social justice intellectual.

In the 1980s, I covered Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, and later worked in his press office. In 1984, Washington tapped Kit as the city’s first mayoral liaison to Chicago’s gay and lesbian communities. She was straight. No matter.

Her appointment was a potent symbol of Washington’s mission to blast open the doors of City Hall. In 2008, when she was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, the hall quoted Kit as saying:

“The one thing that really struck me throughout the time that I served as liaison to the community was the way the process paralleled what Harold was trying to do for the entire city. It was certainly time for that change. We were flying blind, but with a complete commitment to fairness.”

Kit went on to serve as the first executive director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. She was a co-founder of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights, which later became Equality Illinois, the state’s leading LGBT rights group. She was always in campaign mode, working with other activists as an adviser, strategist, and muse.

Kit was fearless and unflinching, a leader who inspired others to lead. On the phone, on Facebook, in my email, pushing and prodding friends and allies to the edge, then over. There was always more to do, more to say, she argued, for LGBT and reproductive rights, health care, racial and economic inequities, and a slew of other causes.

Her emails and social media posts brimmed with keen political analysis, raising questions and naming names, all with a sage, dry wit. She weighed in on my column, but not with phony accolades or biting retorts. Instead, offering a question or angle I had badly missed, or a meaty tip I could pursue.

Kit long struggled with her weight, had medical issues, and was on a cane. We would talk about this column’s alter ego, The Fat Nag. In recent months, she plunged into diet and exercise and lost 65 lbs. “All your fault, Laura Fat Nag!” she wrote.

Her last big campaign was Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s insurgent mayoral bid. She was behind the scenes, offering policy and strategy advice. I’ll bet she helped keep a few egos and poseurs in check.

On. Nov. 23, as the Laquan McDonald police shooting case was blowing up, Kit took to Facebook:

“Funny how our ‘leaders,’ some of them anyway, are now with release of the video imminent talking about the murder whereas they had nothing to say about it before,” she wrote.

“To my knowledge the only person who proposed legislative response at any level was [state Rep.] La Shawn Ford. Where were the rest, those who now beg for restraint?  Lord, how we miss Harold.”

Now, we are missing Kit.  Chicago needs her nerve, now, more than ever.