Irwin Keller


Irwin E. Keller

1) Birthdate:


2) Birthplace:

Chicago, Illinois

3) Date you first mark as getting together w/partner:

My partner Oren Slozberg and I met on Passover, 1994

4) City/state where you live currently:

Penngrove, California

5) Education:

University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), AB, 1981
University of Chicago, JD, 1988

6) Careers:

Singer/comedian/writer [character of Winnie] with The Kinsey Sicks, America’s Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet.

Prior to that I was a lawyer, and was executive director of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel of the San Francisco Bay Area (ALRP).

7) Did you serve in the U.S. military; if so, what years?


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

I’m queer-identified and gay. Gender-wise I see myself as male, but not dogmatically so.

9) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?

My partner Oren and I co-parent two children with another queer couple. The children are both boys until they tell us otherwise.

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

I was aware of being different, of not fitting in at least from a gender perspective, from at least age five. In childhood play I gravitated in large part, but not exclusively, to dolls and to female role-play. I continued feeling different through childhood, and in high school became more aware of gayness as the probable source of that difference.

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

I first came out to my sister Lynn in 1979, before leaving for a year studying in Israel. We fretted together about what it would mean for our parents to learn that both their children were gay. So we made a decision that I shouldn’t come out to them.

Meanwhile I went to Jerusalem where I was convinced I was the only gay person in the country. I wanted to start officially being gay – which for me meant joining organizations – but I didn’t want my straight roommate to find out. So – get this – I joined La Internacia Ligo de Samseksamulaj Geesperantistoj – the International League of Gay Esperantists. I figured that I could get literature in the mail and there would be no chance of my roommate guessing at the content.

My next coming out was in 1980, to a friend, at the beginning of my last year of college in Urbana. I remember doing that over a long walk at night. I can still recall the overwhelming feeling of body terror that I experienced between the word “I’m” and the word “gay.”

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

I tended to be unapologetic, which fact usually inspired support. Most people in my life were supportive when I came out to them. I had jobs as a Jewish educator, and the school parents and other educators (and some students) knew I was gay and were supportive.

One of the toughest times I experienced was in the spate of harassment at the University of Chicago carried out by the “Great White Brotherhood of the Iron Fist” in the late 1980s. During that period I was frightened for my physical safety. Nonetheless, I received wide support from peers, professors, and professional colleagues.

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

I’d like to think I learned from many people. But certainly I learned a lot from Sarah Craig, Bill Williams, and Kit Duffy. Also Bob Peppard (now out here in the Bay Area) was someone I knew through the Lesbian & Gay Academics Union (I think that’s what it was called – monthly meetings to discuss topics) and from whom I learned a lot.

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

Kinsey Sicks (one of four primary performers)
Chicago Gay & Lesbian Town Meeting (charter member and volunteer)
Queer Nation/San Francisco (charter member and volunteer)
ACTION/A Committee to Impel Ordinances Now (charter member)
University of Chicago Gay & Lesbian Alliance/GALA (volunteer)
University of Chicago Gay & Lesbian Law Student Association (volunteer)
Illinois Gay & Lesbian Student Caucus (volunteer)
ACT UP/San Francisco (volunteer)
National Lawyers Guild/Bay Area (board member and volunteer)
Bar Association of San Francisco/Committee on Gay & Lesbian Issues (volunteer)
AIDS Legal Referral Panel/SF Bay Area (volunteer, staff, then executive director)
Advocates for Informed Choice (volunteer and grantwriter)
Numerous Jewish organizations (volunteer)
Donor to innumerable groups and causes

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

In the mid-1980s I remember liking to go to Carol’s Speakeasy. I also remember a place called (I think) Paradise that was cool. But I didn’t go out much.

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

In those days people still faced all sorts of backlash from coming out – losing their families and loved ones, their jobs, the homes, their communities – as well as facing a real threat of unchecked physical violence. Gay sex was illegal in half the U.S., which, even when not enforced, set the tone of the legal and social environment. (“Why give rights to people whose organizing principle is the commission of indecent and illegal acts?”)

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

We’ve achieved some things faster than I’d ever dreamed (for instance marriage – a battle I would never have chosen to fight), and some things much slower (for instance the overturning of sodomy laws which seemed like a constitutional no-brainer even in 1986).

As more of us have families, we are fighting to stop homophobia in schools, and we do so on behalf of queer youth and youth growing up in our queer families. We have much work to do on the federal front, in terms of marriage and immigration.

But we also have our own community work to do. For instance, figuring out what makes us community as some of the obvious oppression dissipates. Figuring out what role our changing understanding of gender plays in the arguments we make for gay rights. Figuring out what it means to be this far into the history of our movement and not see the level of feminist discourse or understanding of racism, sexism, looksism, etc., that I’d always imagined we’d develop together.

What does gay culture mean in this era? As we mainstream, how do we teach our lessons to the mainstream instead of adopting the mainstream’s values? How can we support/keep our queer coalition dynamic, for instance learning about and supporting the struggles of intersex people for physical autonomy?

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

Like all gay men of my generation, AIDS accelerated and radicalized my activism. Desperation is a mighty tool. In some ways I was lucky – I didn’t lose any close friends to AIDS until well into the epidemic, although I lost many acquaintances and heroes whom I’d admired.

My lover was diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma in 1985 or 1986, and was given an AIDS diagnosis based on his demographic, but without an HIV test result. We lived with the shock and fear of what was then a grim and intractable prognosis. Some time later, in an effort to enroll in a drug study, a pro forma HIV test was performed, and came back negative. Eventually it was discovered that he was part of a small cohort of men who had been exposed to a viral agent causing KS, but (somewhat miraculously) had not been exposed to HIV. Eventually the KS went into remission, and our personal life returned to a bizarre imitation of normalcy.

It was unclear whether, as activists, we could speak from that first-person experience or not, since the outcome was so unlike those of our peers. However it nonetheless injected a tremendous burst of energy into our activism. We operated a “guerilla clinic” out of our apartment, supplying a chemical called DNCB to men with KS around the Midwest. I worked to organize AIDS-related protests, just before the dawn of ACT UP.

This experience also intensified our involvement in the push for Chicago’s Human Rights Ordinance in a way that might not have happened had we not faced this very primal fear firsthand.

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

I’ve been gone from Chicago for close to 20 years. I do feel strongly that the lines of race, gender, and class in the LGBT community are just as sharply drawn in San Francisco now as they ever were.

The only place I feel that perhaps there is some good progress is in inclusion around age. Queer youth organizations are making it possible for young people to come out earlier and become activists in their schools; also the AIDS epidemic has made us, I think and hope, more aware of the presence of our elders – perhaps because of the absence of so many who should have now been our elders. So I’m sensing a delicate but hopeful embrace of both ends of the age spectrum that pleases me.

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

My activism has always been political, but not always electoral. My work around the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance [lead author of the legislation] was landmark for me, but in some ways an isolated activity.

My activism in the 1990s was more radical and more theatrical – with Queer Nation and ACT UP as the models. In those years we addressed injustice through vivid street theatre, and left the lobbying to the professionals, letting them play good cop to our bad.

In my work with AIDS Legal Referral Panel, I was once again playing good cop. But in my work with the Kinsey Sicks, my activism is more insidious. I use theatrical devices, primarily satire, to deliver essentially political messages to audiences of potential activists.

Some messages are critiques of the LGBT community itself; most are critiques of the culture’s sexism or racism or homophobia or complacency; or our news media’s preference for what sells over what’s important; or our government’s cynical use of shifting terms like “freedom” and “democracy” to undermine civil liberties and justify profit-motivated war-mongering. But when we talk about that stuff in four-part harmony, with high heels and high hair, it really sounds so much better.

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

I’d like to think I had some role in the establishment of equal rights for LGBT people in Chicago through my work on the Human Rights Ordinance. I was the lead author of the legislation, and tend to get that credit, although I worked alongside fellow legal activists Kit McPheeters and Gail Schiesser, and had the support of University of Chicago Law School professors Jim Holzhauer and Cass Sunstein, as well as Lambda Legal’s Executive Director Tom Stoddard.

The truth is, though, that if I hadn’t been there to write it, someone else would have. It might have been different, but it would have been just as good, and just as meaningful to the community.

Where I think I might have had a particular skill was as a morale observer and preserver during some of the hard days of Town Meeting’s work. So many of us shared a vision, but then also had different paths toward it, making the work sometimes very delicate and very tense. And we faced real setbacks from the outside, and harsh, harsh language of hate from aldermen and religious leaders who, in those days, were not required even to pretend not to be homophobic.

By taking risks, by demanding our rights, we made ourselves vulnerable in new ways. And we were a grassroots group, not all hard-boiled activists experienced in letting such things roll off. It was in those times that I think I had something to contribute – some humor, some big picture, a sense of our role in history, an idea of what we all meant and could mean to each other. That was almost always what I would try to convey at those meetings, and I think that was my calling in the Ordinance effort, more than any drafting of legislation.

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

Certainly one of the proudest elements in my life is watching my parents go from the mystified progenitors of an exclusively gay brood to eloquent and sensitive leaders in PFLAG, paving the way for families across Chicagoland to find ways to keep loving each other.

But life is full of defining moments. Who and what kind of activist would I be if I hadn’t met Jonathan Katz and been partners with him through all of those tumultuous years? What would our lives have been like if [Mayor] Harold Washington’s heart hadn’t failed him? If I had come out of the closet by club-hopping instead of by joining the most unspeakably geeky organizations, would I be alive now? And what would life be like now if we hadn’t lost hundreds of friends, but also hadn’t achieved what our anger at losing them brought about?

Every moment is a challenge and a loss and a deep blessing. As we get older, perhaps our job is to hold the awareness of this tension close to us in everything we do.

28) Additional comments and memories.

The list of people I want to remember begins with those who died before their time. I will always think about Sarah Craig’s call to action at Gay Pride one year, and know that it was a big part of what made me an activist at that time.

I remember and admired Chris Cothran. And David Bell. And Harold Washington. I miss Rabbi Danny Leifer, who supported gay organizing at University of Chicago at not inconsiderable risk to his career and reputation.

I admire and remember my father who, with a joke, could both name and ease the awkwardness of any situation, including the discomfort of a parent who just found out their child was queer.

And I miss my dear friend Scott LaFrance, curator at the Chicago Historical Society [now called the Chicago History Museum], who was delighted when I started doing politics in a wig instead of a tie.

Among the living, I admire Kit Duffy and Bill Williams and Rick Garcia. I admire my mother’s continuing work with PFLAG parents.

And of course my ex, Jonathan Katz. He was (and still is as far as I can tell) a complicated and sometimes difficult person – but brilliant and driven and blessed (or burdened) with a deep sense of justice. We are all, to some degree, indebted to his sheer relentlessness.

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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