Beth O'Neil


1) Birthdate:


2) Birthplace:

Chicago, Illinois

3) Date you first mark as getting together with your partner Susan McConnell:

There are a couple of important dates: March 8, 1979 and April 1982.

4) City/state where you live currently:

We have two homes. Both of us live in Chicago and in Michigan City, Indiana.

5) Education:

Northeastern Illinois University, BSW; UIC, MSW

6) Career:

Social worker/psychotherapist

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

Gender has been quite fluid, my male/butch-ness flowing/expressing into what now feels fairly feminine, yet still grounded in the male/butch parts of me over these past 35+ years of being a lesbian.

8) Children and/or grandchildren:

One daughter, Sarah, now over 30 years old. Susan is her biological mother and I have been a parental presence since she was around seven years old.

9) If you are GLBT, describe when you first “knew”:

Listening to Laura Nyro’s song “Emmie” in my last year of high school gave me the courage to listen to what I felt inside – I was attracted to women, I loved women!

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

It felt way too scary to reveal my secret in high school in 1970. I waited until I was in my first year of college. I met an African American woman from a neighboring college. We ended up having sex. I don’t think we talked about being lesbians; it was framed more as having sex with a woman. It was our secret. It was very awkward for her and me. I felt lots of shame both culturally and religiously, having been raised Catholic.

Within a year, I fell in love with another woman I met while picketing at a grocery store during the grape boycott. She was Mexican American and lived with her family. We maintained a secret relationship for about a year. When we broke up I was alone again with no one to whom I could share my experience.

That same year (1972), one of my teachers, at a community college I attended, brought speakers to our class from the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) to talk about sexuality. This connected me to organizations and to other lesbians and gay men on the North Side of Chicago. Finally, I had places and people with whom I could “come out.”

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

The most painful “trouble” I experienced was the sense of rejection I felt from my family of origin. I was 19 years old when I came out to some of my family. My mother was influenced by the Catholic Church’s beliefs about homosexuality, which considered it a sin. I think my siblings, most of whom were younger than me, were just uneducated and fearful of differences.

Along with the societal (negative) response to lesbianism, my family’s lack of understanding burdened me with a lot of internalized homophobia, a lot of shame to work through. My family has educated themselves over the years. Today my lifestyle and relationship with Susan is respected and affirmed by them all.

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

Some of my mentors early on were Jenny Rhorer from the CWLU who helped me out of the shame and isolation of my internalized homophobia; Marlyn Grossman, who was my therapist and also a model of courage to be known as a Lesbian Therapist in the 1970s; Rick, an early organizer from the pride parade who I met in the ‘70s when I did speaking engagements as an “Out Lesbian”; all the lesbians singers from that time, especially Meg Christian, Margie Adam, Cris Williamson, Linda Tillery, Sweet Honey in the Rock; and Ron Sable, who ran for alderman as a gay man and later was diagnosed with AIDS – we worked together at Cook County Hospital with the AIDS service in 1987-89.

13) List organizations (GLBT or mainstream) you have been involved in:

Women in Crisis Can Act/WICCA (co-founder)
Mountain Moving Coffeehouse (co-founder)
Chicago Lesbian Liberation and Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (participant)
Lesbian Community Cancer Project/LCCP (volunteer,1990s)
Howard Brown Memorial Clinic (Susan McConnell and I conducted a Lesbian couples series, 1990s)
AIDS Alternative AIDS project (volunteer, late 1980s)
Human Rights Campaign/HRC (donor)
Crossroads (donor)
Thousand Waves (donor)

14) When you were coming out, what were your favorite GLBT bars?

The first bar I went to I think was called In-Between, in 1971. I was carded and quickly got out of there because I was 19 years old. UpNorth, Ms, Augie CKs, His ‘n Hers, Petunia’s, DejaVu. My social life included the bars through the ‘70s.

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

The issue that I remember in 1971-72 was just finding each other and looking for alternatives (CLL) to the bars, many of which were still connected with the Mafia. I guess I would say substance abuse was an issue, although most of us were not conscious of that until years later. Also, underlying tensions in the Women’s Liberation Movement (CWLU) between heterosexual and lesbian women. In the mid to late ‘70s “separatism” divided the lesbians from the gay men and divided lesbians from lesbians.

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

It appears as though GLBs are educating themselves about Ts. How open GLBs are is difficult for me to evaluate. I feel more out of the GLBT community in the last decade. In my youth, the lesbian community was at the center of my life. Over the years, my professional and spiritual communities have become more central.

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

My brother was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and died in 1994. My family of origin was impacted powerfully by the tragedy of my brother’s illness and death; he was 39 years old when he died. My brother was an AIDS activist and how he lived and died with AIDS was inspirational for my family and for me.

All the men and women I met through my social work position at Cook County Hospital AIDS Service were inspirational. Too many to name.

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

I can’t really say how the GLBT community is doing re: diversity. I think diversity in my life expresses itself in the variety of the groups I participate in my professional, social, and spiritual life. Within those groups there is gender, age, and class diversity but not so much racial diversity.

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

My political activism has slowed over the past decades. I do attend an anti-war or peace vigil from time to time. I donate money more than time to a variety of political organizations. I am more drawn to social activism; for example, I volunteered with the Red Cross in Mississippi after Katrina.

20) Additional comments and memories:

Listening to Laura Nyro’s song “Emmie” in my last year of high school gave me the courage to listen to the part of me that loved women. But it wasn’t until my college professor brought the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) to speak about about bisexuality that I found hope that I could share my feelings with others. The organizations I have been part of from Chicago Lesbian Liberation and CWLU and the ones I helped create, WICCA and Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, started me on a path and commitment to creating spaces for lesbians to be seen and heard. Today it is providing individual and couples therapy within the LGBT community that helps keep me on the path.

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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