Jean Durkin


1) Birthdate:

Jean: 1959

2) Birthplace:

Chicago, Illinois

3) Date you first mark as getting together with your spouse Paula Walowitz:

April 7, 1990 (first met in 1980)

4) City/state where you live currently:

Chicago, Illinois

5) Education:

Mundelein College, BFA
University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, MA

6) Careers:

Art therapist for 20 years working at Deborah’s Place with women who are homeless and formerly homeless
Catholic High School art teacher
Canvasser Illinois Public Action

7) Did you serve in the U.S. military?


8) How do you describe your sexuality and your gender?

Lesbian female

9) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?


10) If you are GLBT, please describe when you first “knew.”

I first knew I was a lesbian as a freshman in college when I kissed a girl in a bathroom because that seemed much more interesting than the guy that had taken us both out on a date.

11) Who did you first “come out” to and when?

Jean first came out to her very large Irish Catholic family at a family picnic at Dolton Park. She brought along scantily dressed gay boy friends and disco music, some younger lesbian friends, and her mortified lover who tsk, tsked in the corner with her mother – they bonded. Jean had a terrific hangover and would recommend that NO ONE ever do it this way.

12) What troubles did you face as a GLBT person?

Just before I came out I learned a friend in college spent a year as a high school student in a psych hospital when being a lesbian was an illness. Many college friends ended their friendships when I started hanging out at the lesbian lunch table.

A job at a Catholic institution suddenly dried up when I was too out. My desire to be an ex-nun (because they were/are all fabulous) dried up around then, too.

I grabbed a falling LGBT banner at a rally for Jobs and Justice in the Reagan years while my best friend got the shit kicked outta him by some union steelworkers.

I was closeted for three years as a teacher – I saw other lesbian teachers fired.

I was a Mountain Moving Collective member working in the kitchen in the basement when an explosion went off at the door – another collective member on the stairs at the time of the blast suffered permanent hearing loss.

13) Did you have mentors in the Chicago GLBT community?

Closeted ex-nuns at Mundelein College and closeted single lay teachers at Elizabeth Seton High School (including a high school women’s studies class in 1976) and a gray-haired butchy lesbian who taught me (at age 20) how to play pool (and flirt) at Lost and Found.

Local music by Tricia Alexander and Lori Noelle as well as Ginni Clemmens in the early ‘80s.

14) Involvement in organizations (GLBT and/or mainstream):

American and Illinois Art Therapy Associations Unitarian Church of Evanston (member)
Mountain Moving Coffeehouse (collective member)
HOT WIRE magazine (core staff member)

15) When you were coming out, what were your favorite GLBT bars in Chicago?

Lady Bug and Déjà vu (early ‘80s )

16) What were the key issues faced in the GLBT community when you first came out?

Job loss and getting kicked out of your family after coming out was huge on a personal level. Groups of gay men and groups of lesbian women being unable to work together, seemingly, because of their enormous differences.

17) What issues do you see as key in the GLBT community today?

Our LGBT community today is divided more by money than anything else. It isn’t an issue we discuss but it impacts our choices – what neighborhood we live in, who we vote for.

Being, dressing, or acting “too out” still gets you kicked off jobs and out of families (especially when you are closer to poverty or in a hyper-religious scene). It also kicks you out of some faith-based homeless shelters.

I think the fuss about marriage is really about the financial benefits of marriage. Paula and I are finally able to receive domestic partner health care benefits through my job (god bless ‘em). We are lucky.

18) How have AIDS and/or other health issues impacted your life personally?

When my dear friend D was diagnosed as HIV we were discussing the possibilities of having children. That discussion came to a screaming halt. D is now living in Rio with this chronic condition called AIDS. He lives between two beaches, on the edge of poverty – but living. We have no children, just health issues.

19) How would you describe the “diversity” within the Chicago GLBT community?

I love it when LGBT has straight allies and we can be allies to the straight community. At the Gay Olympics [Gay Games], straight allies from the LVC [Lutheran Volunteer Core] held signs along Clark and Waveland loving our community up.

An instance when I have seen our LGBT community join in was at one of the most diverse actions I ever attended in Edgewater when a neighbor was murdered by her husband outside their home. He put a tire filled with gasoline around her and lit it. She died. He fled the country. We marched for the rights of women to be safe. We met at Women and Children bookstore and marched around the neighborhood. We were made up of every nationality and economic group – this was an issue we all felt deserved our collective public outrage.

20) If you consider yourself a “political” activist, how do you define this?

I believe that the personal is political. A magnet of Paula and I at our wedding hangs in many offices and homes of our colleagues, friends, and family, and LGBT becomes more than a bunch of letters for them, it is people they know and love. It reads:

“Jean Durkin and Paula Walowitz
Legally married in Toronto July 4, 2003
Celebrated wedding with family and friends October 11, 2003
Legally married in the USA any day now…”

21) Describe what you feel your personal legacy is to the Chicago GLBT community.

Being an out lesbian working with women who are homeless and formerly homeless for the last 20 years has allowed me to touch more lives in a positive way than I ever could have imagined. The torn and dirty rainbow sticker on my car is incredibly important to others – program participants as well as other staff, volunteers, interns, board members.

22) This project is also about “defining moments.” Please discuss some of those in your life.

Taking a woman’s studies class in high school in 1977.

Celebrating a woman-led Catholic mass in 1982.

Trying out living in a convent for a summer and leaving it to be with my woman lover in 1982.

Moving in with my best gay man friend in 1983 and having him teach me how to dance in gay and lesbian bars.

Going back in the closet to teach at a Catholic high school in the mid ‘80s.

Joining Mountain Moving Coffeehouse collective in the late ‘80s and quitting the collective in 1990.

Meeting Paula in 1979 when I wasn’t ready, and reconnecting with her in 1990 at a lesbian Capricorn Party when I was.

Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, the book is edited by Tracy Baim and features the contributions of more than 20 prominent historians and journalists. It is published by Surrey Books, an Agate imprint, and is hard cover, 224 pages, 4-color, with nearly 400 photos.
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