Lost & Found was one of Chicago’s oldest lesbian bars when it closed in 2008. A jersey and hat from the bar’s softball team were among the first items on view at the art exhibit of the same name. Lost & Found was presented by Howard Brown Health, with archival items sourced from Gerber/Hart Library & Archives, as well as Windy City Times at Reunion, a gallery, event, and co-working space founded by Kristen Kaza and Elijah Mckinnon. This space was created to center creative women and femmes, the LGBTQ community, and people of color in Chicago—all of whom are represented in this exhibit.
Lost & Found was an important showcase of Chicago’s lesbian history from the 1970s and 1980s. What this exhibit made clear was that lesbian history is not lost but underrepresented and can be difficult to access within Chicago’s queer community. While many of the spaces and publications featured in the exhibit no longer exist, Lost & Found reveals that queer histories are always waiting to be found. Writer and artist H. Melt spoke with curator Ruby Western to learn more about that history and the impulse behind the exhibition.
H. Melt: Can you start off by talking about the origins of Lost & Found? Why was there a need for an exhibition like this?
Ruby Western: Liz Weck, Director of Social Services at Howard Brown and Kristen Kaza, event producer extraordinaire, came up with the idea of making an archival exhibit. I’m so lucky that they asked me to curate it. Liz and I were meeting about a separate project and she threw in, “Oh, would you want to go through the Gerber/Hart Library & Archives, research the dyke history of Chicago, and curate materials for an exhibit?” Of course, I said, “Yes, please. I didn’t know until now that I’ve been waiting for that exact question.”
There are many reasons that our community needs projects like this. I’ll talk about just a couple. Liz, Kristen, and I have all–socially, at 3 am at a bar, and in our work lives–talked about dyke erasure. Gay cis male nightlife is alive and well and expanding, but bars for queer women don’t exist in Chicago anymore. There used to be so many! I also felt so disconnected from the experiences of generations that came before me, and, through this exhibit, I learned from older folks that that feeling of disconnect and of the desire to connect, was reciprocated. We wanted to take up physical space to talk about those physical spaces and the lack of them now.
H. Melt: This show was sponsored and supported by several queer Chicago institutions including Howard Brown Health, Gerber/Hart Library & Archives, and Windy City Times. Why did you collaborate with these specific organizations and how did they contribute to Lost & Found?
Ruby: So Liz is our link to Howard Brown. They are putting together new programs, like the Women’s Health Survey #thisiswhatchicagohealthlookslike. Liz wants to grow and illuminate healthcare for women at Howard Brown, and that intention made space for this. She had reached out to Gerber/Hart Library & Archives for a few reasons: They’re the largest collection of queer publications in the country and we’re lucky enough to have them right in Rogers Park. And they share a building with Howard Brown. So not only is it convenient, it’s actually the very best place that this research could happen.
We reached out to Tracy Baim, who co-founded Windy City Times, for supplementary materials or guidance, and she gave me access to the one million, truly, one million images in her personal archives. It was more than I could have hoped for. In an interview with public radio station WBEZ, she described going to events and shooting four rolls of film, then choosing two to appear in the paper. So many of those photos hadn’t seen the light of day. I could pick up literally any box and find countless treasures.
H. Melt: The title of the exhibit is perfect. Not only is it the name of one of the oldest lesbian bars in Chicago, but it also gets to one of the core principles of the show. Why do you think dyke history is often lost, and how can it become more accessible?
Ruby: Thank you! We talked through the title a lot before settling on this. There were lots of iterations with the word “lavender” in them, and then I think it was Kristen who said, “Wait. Duh. This is it.” I think a big reason for the loss is that generational disconnect I mentioned earlier. If queer women aren’t holding and learning about the good and bad of our history, straight folks aren’t going to do it for us. And, honestly, I wouldn’t want them to.
There were so many things about that time that are problematic. There are so many things in the queer community today that younger generations are going to improve on, and I’m sure they will find our practices imperfect. When we look at the binary lesbian separatism, TERFs and racism, I think some folks in this generation find it easier to completely write off “what used to be” and stop there. But I think we have to look back at what happened then–good and bad–and actually learn about and talk about it. We need to identify what we can learn from that time. Things we want to emulate and things that we never want to do again.
H. Melt: There are a ton of literary materials on display from newspapers like Killer Dyke and On Our Backs, event listings for readings at places like Women & Children First, posters for the first lesbian writers’ conference, and a bookshelf visitors can cruise themselves. Part of the wall text read, “One of the most important dyke spaces in Chicago wasn’t a brick and mortar place; it was the pages of print periodicals.” Why were print materials so integral to the expression of lesbian identity and culture?
Ruby: This is my favorite thing! I’m so glad you asked. I got so emotional writing those labels. I was picturing being closeted in 1971 and having no way to meet dykes other than running outside and saying “I’m gay, where are you?” This probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. Or hearing someone talk with disdain about a lesbian bookstore, looking it up in the phonebook and sneaking over. Thinking about how one day, suddenly, folks like me could pick up a newspaper (even if you had to keep it a secret from your friends and family) and find a calendar of events that month to meet other queer women. This way to communicate and commune just plain didn’t exist and then–boom–Lavender Woman comes out and runs for five years. Oh, geez. I’m getting teary right now. During a tour, I said, “Imagine what that sudden change would be like. A woman in the back who was in Chicago then said, “Oh! It was wonderful!” And Chicago was happening in this regard. The prominent archivist of Chicago’s LGBTQ history Marie Kuda said that between 1966 and 1988, there were no less than 28 lesbian periodicals in Chicago alone.
H. Melt: One part of this show is a map with the locations of lesbian spaces throughout the city including bars, bookstores, and more. The map has partially been shaped by visitors, who added spaces that were missing. Why was it important to leave room for visitors to help shape the narrative of the exhibit?
Ruby: Lots of queer spaces were secretive out of necessity. It wasn’t as safe to be out. Lost & Found had dark windows and you had to ring a buzzer to get in. Some women on sports teams wouldn’t feel comfortable having their picture taken to be in the newspaper because they were afraid to lose their jobs or their children if they were out. This secrecy meant that some spaces only existed through conversation. I wanted to make space for those in the exhibition.
I got addresses from newspapers that I read and from conversations with Tracy Baim. Because of that, I knew about things that were publicized, and from the point of view of certain folks who had access to that space. There were lots of points of view in the papers, but they were bound to be skewed to the experience of the people who wrote them. I knew there were other folks who would come into the exhibit after having an unpublicized experience and I wanted to leave space for them to share.
I want to add that we talked about bars, but there were so many places that weren’t at night or weren’t about alcohol. So many things that encouraged women to bring their children. Places where people read and ate together. I think lots of queer socializing has been reduced to bars now, and those don’t exist anymore. I feel hungry for it. One of my favorite things about Chicago Dyke March is that we all picnic in the sun at the end. We eat and talk together while celebrating people’s labor and art in the sunshine.
H. Melt: The brilliance of this exhibit is that it focuses on lesbian history and many spaces that no longer exist while providing lesbian-centered space in the present. What are other spaces that are working in similar ways, whether in Chicago or beyond?
Ruby: I’m familiar with several. First, there’s artist Macon Reed’s installation, Eulogy For the Dyke Bar, an amazing work of art that brought this conversation to the forefront in New York and beyond. It was truly a landmark event and, the more I research it, the more I wish I could have been there. So many people came into one place together to talk about dyke spaces. She was very intentional about defining “dyke” and making sure folks of many genders felt welcome. And her sculpture (the bar, the pool table, the wood paneling) was beyond gorgeous. It’s also amazing because she did it by herself. I’m sure she was supported and people lent a hand because the queer community is amazing, but she wasn’t part of a collective, she wasn’t backed by an organization, she just did it. I’m in awe.
Another good example is the Lesbian Herstory Archives, also New York-based. They are “the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities.” It’s not just print– they have countless videos and oral histories. And a digital archive that you can access online. They’ve done an incredible job of making their materials accessible. They have curated experiences like group tours and exhibits, but you can also visit and just look through the archives. I love that option to be self-directed in what you’re finding.
Last Call NOLA, also compiles stories and makes them accessible. They feature a digital archive of interviews; a podcast series, live performances and community events. They bring together “queer people across lines of race, class, gender-identity and generational difference. They are involving folks from different angles. If you’re not into live performances, you can go to a community event. If you’re feeling socially anxious, you can listen to the podcast. It allows folks to engage how they wish.
H. Melt: Something I noticed while visiting Lost & Found was the mix of generations viewing the show. How can we bridge generational gaps in the queer community? What are some of the challenges and benefits of creating intergenerational spaces?
Ruby: Yes, that was the most exciting thing for me. Hearing about those times and spaces directly from those folks. A woman pointed to a poster for an art show and told me she was Cynthia’s lover. Cynthia was one of the artists in the show. People came in and found themselves or their friends in photos. An editor of one of the newspapers came to our Halloween party.
H. Melt: Is there anything missing from the show that you wanted to include?
Ruby: Well, we put this together in six weeks, so honestly– so much! I think the biggest part I would have liked to put in but just didn’t have time is oral history. We had a panel that was illuminating and wonderful, but I would have put more stories in the show itself. Archival material is amazing by itself– to read something as it was– but I would love to have more human, personal narrative in there as well.