Chicago Lit: St. Sukie de la Croix knows Chicago’s LGBT history
By MISHA DAVENPORT June 14, 2012 8:30PM
St. Sukie de la Croix
St. Sukie de la Croix will discuss and sign Chicago Whispers at:
• 6 p.m. June 20 in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State.
• 8 p.m June 21 (with Gregg Shapiro) at Uncharted Books, 2630 N. Milwaukee.
• 7:30 p.m. June 22 at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark.
• 5:30-6:30 p.m. June 27 at BMO Harris Bank’s Lion’s Pride at Harris Bank Lake View branch, 3601 N. Halsted.
Updated: July 18, 2012 6:18AM
Stand on the corner long enough, peel away those cries of the past like the layers of an onion, and underneath you’ll hear the whispering of ghosts as they tell their untold stories.
—St. Sukie de la Croix
You probably wouldn’t expect an expatriate from Great Britain to be one of the foremost authorities on Chicago’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, but journalist St. Sukie de la Croix is one nonetheless.
“I get excited by details,” he says. “And it had to be right, because I’m from another country. When you think about it, all history books were written by people who weren’t there.”
De la Croix’s new book Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall (University of Wisconsin Press, $29.95) is in stores just in time for Gay Pride festivities.
A journalist in England’s alternative press, de la Croix found his way to these shores in 1991.
“I was living in Bath and I had this sense that my mission in England was complete and that it was time for adventure for my 39 year-old self,” de la Croix recalls. “I met a man — an American — and I followed him here.”
As a new person in town, de la Croix would ask people what was the first gay bar they ever went to. He remembers his own first Chicago gay bar experience vividly.
“It was Sidetrack, which was a country-western bar at the time,” he says with a chuckle. “I grew up near Stonehenge. We didn’t have cowboys, we had pagans and wiccans. I had never seen cowboys in my life, and seeing two cowboys dancing together at Sidetrack was really bizarre.”
Initially, he continued to write for England’s Pink Paper.
“I was doing ‘A letter from America,” he says. “I was this American correspondent writing this comedic look at American gay life.”
Since then, de la Croix has had bylines in just about every major Chicago LGBT publication, including the Windy City Times. Look around at any major LGBT event and chances are de la Croix will be there with tape recorder and camera in hand.
Meticulous in both fact and detail, de la Croix has a knack for making history feel alive, no matter how distant or obscure. The book gives you a fly-on-the-wall vantage point to vicariously experience some of the city’s most notable people and places from its LGBT past, from the point when the Illiniwek tribe’s gay and lesbian members were putting their footprints in the area before the city was even settled by fur trappers to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York.
“It seemed to be the perfect ending point,” he says of his decision to end with the event that became a defining moment for the LGBT civil rights movement. “And it gives me an excellent starting point for the sequel I hope to write.”
Ironically, de la Croix wasn’t much interested in history when he was growing up.
“Where I grew up , I used to walk on a road built by Romans. History was always around me. Rather than something one studied, it was something inside of me,” he says. “I just started listening to people talking. Knowing nothing about Chicago history, I just started recording.
“People were telling me I was the gay Studs Turkel before I knew who he was,” he says. “I cannot think of anybody better to be compared to.”
De la Croix says Chicago is so different from his native rural England, he couldn’t help but be fascinated.
“We don’t have the mafia in rural England, we have bake sales,” he quips. “And there certainly is nothing like Chicago political scandals where I am from. Our politicians are too polite to be corrupt.”
No book about Chicago history would be complete without political corruption on some level, and de la Croix offers up an aldermanic scandal going back to the city’s earliest roots. John “Bathhouse” Coughlin was an alderman from the city’s 1st Ward from 1893 until his death in 1938.
Although it is unknown whether Coughlin was gay, the “lord of the levee” (the levee being a vice-ridden disctrict in the 1st Ward) each year presided over a decadent fund-raiser where attendance was mandatory.
“His neighborhood had brothels, bars, and saloons, and he held this big ball once a year where you either attended or you would find yourself closed,” de la Croix notes. “It was described as an orgy, and there were certainly gays and lesbians in attendance, but what was outrageous enough to be called an ‘orgy’ back then would be tame by today’s standards.”
Even more surprising to the Brit is the standard Chicago reaction to the latest scandal — which is to say a lack of a reaction.
“I am always surprised at how people accept corruption here and always have,” he says. “People just seem to shrug shoulders and say ‘that’s Chicago.’ ”
The sexual fluidity of many of the blues and jazz artists from the Bronzeville area of the city was also a point of interest for de la Croix.
“You had all these African-American women who were expected to get married, and the only way out of it was to get into a band or touring group,” he recounts. “And the lesbians back then were feisty women who were both tough and smart.”
After years of covering things as an outsider, de la Croix finally feels like he’s a Chicagoan.
“It’s taken me 15 years to pronounce tomato to-may-to and not to-mot-to,” he says. “Now that I am pronouncing words like the locals, I think I’ll stay.”
Misha Davenport is a local free-lance writer.