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Out There

When the brilliant and erratic Jeff McCourt founded the Windy City Times in 1985, he began a 15-year run that changed the way gays were regarded. But his volcanic personality caused countless rifts, and he died this year at 51, largely alone.

(page 5 of 8)

The staff of the Windy City Times celebrates the birthday of theatre critic Lawrence Bommer (seated at left) in the mid-nineties.

The next few years were a time of growth and experimentation, a period when Windy City went from being a better-than-average community paper to a publication that changed the paradigm of gay publishing. “They were very emotional times,” says Kit Duffy, the city’s first official liaison to the gay and lesbian community in the 1980s. “People were writing things that had never appeared before in a gay newspaper and expressing their growing identity as a community, and Jeffrey was in the middle of all that.”

From the beginning, the paper was deeply immersed in politics. Harold Washington’s surprise victories in the 1983 and 1987 mayoral elections had ushered in a major power shift at city hall. “Harold recognized that the gay vote, the African American vote, and the Latino vote together added up to a winning coalition,” says Garcia. “He was the first politician in Chicago to see that, and it changed the political landscape.

“Jeff and the paper had a lot to do with organizing the gay community as a voting bloc,” Garcia continues, “and a big reason was the thoughtfulness and excellence of his endorsements. The whole process energized people and got them to take politics seriously as a way to change things.”

Indeed, the paper received one of its first Peter Lisagor Awards, a competition named for the late Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Daily News, for a groundbreaking series of candidate interviews in the 1989 mayoral election in which it methodically fact-checked the responses of the candidates to a list of questions and carefully noted any discrepancies. The paper was on the whole nonpartisan, though not without an agenda. “The endorsements were always based on which candidate Jeff thought would be best for the gay community,” says Garcia.

The highlight of the paper’s early years was undoubtedly the passage of the Human Rights Ordinance. The bill had been languishing in the city council since 1973, when it finally came up for a vote in the summer of 1986 and was solidly defeated. Within days, a lobbying effort began to reintroduce the bill, with McCourt playing a leading role. “I remember Jeff saying, ‘Here are the desks, here are the phones, here are the typewriters. Whatever you need, do it. Get it done,’” says Garcia. “We called Windy City’s offices Ordinance Central,” says Williams, who was one of a number of activists working on the campaign.

Two weeks before Christmas in 1988, the slightly retooled bill sailed to passage. The subsequent victory party—held that night at Ann Sather on West Belmont Avenue—felt like a watershed moment. Among the dozens of politicos and media figures who felt compelled to make an appearance and offer their congratulations to McCourt and the assembled crowd were the two most powerful politicians in the city: the then mayor, Eugene Sawyer, and the future mayor Richard M. Daley.

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Photography: Courtesy of Jasonsmith.com


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