Kristin Lems


1) Birthdate:


2) Birthplace:

Evanston, Illinois

3) City/state where you live currently:

Evanston, Illinois

4) Career:

I sing professionally part-time around Chicagoland, while also serving as a tenured professor in ESL/Bilingual Education at National-Louis University. I have released six CDs of original songs.

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

Heterosexual female.

6) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?

I have two teenagers: Karima, 19 (girl) and Kennan, 16 (boy).

7) Describe how you came to be an ally of the GLBT community:

Friendships and feminism. As I got more involved in feminism and political activism in the 1970s, I naturally came in contact with many lesbian feminists. When I organized a "womenfolks festival" in the fall of 1973 in Champaign-Urbana, moreso. When I founded the National Women's Music Festival (NWMF) in 1974, lesbians attended in large numbers. Then as a professional performer for women's rights, I was alongside many lesbians.

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

Marge Summit's warmth and welcoming to my performing partner (heterosexual male) Tim Vear and myself, when we played at her unique bar, His ‘n Hers, was very reinforcing. That resulted in the wonderful record album from Marge's club called Gay and Straight Together, which later was picked up and distributed by Rounder Records. My song "How Nice," which I believe is the first recorded song calling for gay marriage (1979), was on that album.

Ginni Clemmens, for whom there was not just a big tent to include all, but "no tent," was very important in building bridges between gay and lesbian musicians and "allies" through folk music and sing-alongs.

Toni Armstrong Jr.'s infectious enthusiasm for the LGBT community over the years has always been inspiring and inviting too.

Joy Rosenblatt, may she rest in peace, was always incredibly supportive and welcoming to me at the NWMF and other places. I had a standing offer to do a night at Mountain Moving any time, and Joy knew I was opposed to a public space that barred one gender, so I couldn't do it. But her support for my music never flagged for a second. She always bought my albums, she gave me t-shirts to say "thank you," and she stayed in touch.

When things were touch-and-go in the women's community over the issue of separatism, Joy made sure to let me know I was still loved and still a part of it. She looked a little "scary" with her butch coif and large size, and I was so glad to get to a deeper level with her and see how much love she had for women and the whole culture we were growing. I had that same experience with Maxine Feldman, who was always incredibly warm and appreciative of my role in the women's music movement... even though she was formidable to behold!)

9) List organizations you have been involved in:

National Women's Music Festival/NWMF (founder, 1974). I worked on NWMF for five years, then moved away from it. But it still exists and is "in its 30s!" It has had five homes [Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin in various years], always at college campuses whose resources we use during the semester breaks. A great idea! We had festival t-shirts, annual festival highlight tapes, a benefit concert for a women's organization as part of every festival, an all night jam room for women who didn't have access to electronics, open mics, home stays for people who couldn't afford a hotel, and a pick-up orchestra that did a classical concert at the end of the festival week.

We had numerous famous professional women elders perform – Victoria Spivey (first black woman with her own record label, Original Spivey Productions); Bessie Burkes (from the Georgia Sea Islands); The Thunderbird Sisters (Mohawk musicians from New York); Suni Paz (the famous Puerto Rican songwriter); Malvina Reynolds (mainstream-famous political songwriter); Maestra Antonia Brico (the esteemed conductor who was Judy Collins' piano teacher and couldn't find an orchestra because of sexism); and so many, many more.

The national venue of the festival helped give birth to all the record labels and production companies and distributors and bookstores and festivals and radio shows that built an infrastructure for lesbian and feminist musicians to make careers. I am very proud of that.

I also donate to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

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

A number of male gay friends of mine have died of AIDS. I was moved to write my song "Someone's Missing" about gay artists lost to AIDS in the early 1980's. It was performed by Fest City Singers, a gay male chorus in Milwaukee, who then came down and recorded it with me for my album Upbeat. It is a haunting song often played on the radio on December 1, the "Day without Art."

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

I am most vocal about peace and related issues – but I always mention gay rights and the right to marry in concert when I sing my song "How Nice," and I know I have changed many attitudes on this subject. I have been told this repeatedly.

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

I have contributed on the culture front: Singing feminist songs of my own and by others all over town, bravely, for many years, and to positive response. I believe my singing career has helped open doors for women to express themselves forthrightly and raised consciousness on many of the issues we care about.

The founding of the National Women's Music Festival – see #9 above.

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

My mom, a musician and single mother raising us, was told by her employer that it was always an "understanding" they had at the school that women would be paid less. She sued, lost the job, and we went through seven years of hell. She finally won a settlement, which was a moral victory. That cemented my feminism. I cheered her on all the way!

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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