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Last May, as they prepared to sprinkle Jeff McCourt’s ashes around the tombstones of his mother and grandmother in an upstate New York cemetery, his siblings—brothers Paul and Dan and sister Dianne—spontaneously broke into what they remembered as one of Jeff’s favorite songs from childhood. The song was Downtown, the old Petula Clark single from the 1960s that begins with the lines “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely / You can always go downtown.”
“The ‘lonely’ part just seemed kind of appropriate,” says Dan, who, at 41, was McCourt’s youngest sibling and, by most accounts, his favorite. Indeed, “lonely” is a word that crops up frequently when people discuss Jeff McCourt. He is also often called brilliant, erratic, infuriating, and visionary.
McCourt was the founder and publisher of Windy City Times, one of the most successful and influential gay newspapers in the country. Starting in the fall of 1985, the paper began a 15-year run during which it was instrumental in transforming the way that business and political leaders in Chicago regarded the gay community. With McCourt at the helm, the paper also be-came a major force in the battle for gay civil rights. Those efforts culminated in the 1988 passage of Chicago’s Human Rights Ordinance, which outlawed discrimination based on, among other factors, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Over the years, Windy City—which continues under different ownership and management—has won numerous journalism awards for the excellence of its coverage of everything from local elections to national issues such as the cancellation of a Robert Mapplethorpe photography show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1989 and the outcry in 1998 over the gay-bashing murder of the Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard.
But by the time McCourt died this spring from complications of HIV at age 51, after spending his last years in a dreary downtown nursing home, he had been largely forgotten by a community that had moved on to other issues and that, in any case, had always regarded him with a certain degree of ambivalence.
He was just too, well, out there, with his theatrical voice and mannerisms, the epic tantrums and wild mood swings, the emotional neediness, the drugs, the porn-star boyfriends. Last year, in an inexplicable twist, he was denied membership in the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
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Photoillustration: Wes Duvall