Michael Leppen

Transcript of Interview: Date of interview: 2007-07-07 Interviewer: Tracy Baim

July 7, 2007 interview by Tracy Baim with Michael Leppen.
The questions in this interview have been removed.

Michael Leppen 7/7/07

00:38- 01:40
[ I was born in ] Waukegan, Illinois, October 25, 1952. I grew up in Waukegan with a family with 4 brothers, my parents and 2 dogs and 2 cats and lived in a great neighborhood, went to the local elementary school, the local public high school, had a very good life. It was lower middle class. Both parents worked. We all had our summer jobs. We had to mow lawns, rake leaves, babysit, do whatever we could to so we could buy our pool pass and go to the local neighborhood pool to swim. I participated in playing baseball, football, basketball, doing all the sports that everyone else does, just had a great life. There was never a moment during my life that I didn’t enjoy it. We grew up with a very strict family in the sense of my mother sort of ruled the roost with a wooden paddle. It was good. It was basically a very good life.

I believe I started struggling with who I was when I was in junior high, what my sexuality was. Throughout junior high and high school, I never really dated. I really didn’t know what was wrong with me, why I was attracted to more boys than I was to girls. And because of the religious upbringing we came up with our family and everything else we heard throughout the morals of society at that time, we sort of kept it very suppressed.

I graduated in 1970 from Waukegan Township High School and I went to college from the years 1970 to 1974, to at that point, it was National College of Education in Evanston, now National Lewis University. During that time I was at that school I was studying to be an elementary educational teacher. During that time my sexuality was still a very hidden issue with me. I dated women at that time but there never really was an interest in dating women at that point. I had a lot of great male friends but I never really acted on what my sexual preference was at that time. I think probably by in my senior year in college was the first time I ever had a sexual experience with a man. And I probably realized at that point that I was much happier than I was with the girls I had dated before.

My first experience of going out in the Chicago community was probably in 1975, 1976, going to Carol’s over on Wells. It was a great bar. We’d always go there on Friday night. The music was great. The dancing was great, could go in the backroom for videos. I suppose those were great, too. But what was wonderful about it was I was with my friends. We were all alike. We were all in the same boat and we enjoyed being together. It was a great time. In Chicago there was other places you could go to but Carol’s seemed to be the hotspot for us on Friday. On Saturday night we all went to Christopher Street on Halsted and enjoyed going there also. I think during those years I had already started teaching school. I realized how much I really truly enjoyed being in the gay community but yet still I had not come out of the closet. Still I had not really had any dating experience or sexual experience since the one in college. And I was still very, very extremely closeted. I think part of my being closeted was the fact that I was teaching school and was very much afraid to, as they say, step out of the closet in fear of losing my job. I had major college loans to pay off, car to pay off, an apartment to pay for. And at that point teachers were paid peanuts. And yet to buy a piece of steak, you’d have to work much harder.

I came out to my friends as I started going out more and more [ in ] downtown Chicago. I was living in the suburbs. This is in the 70s. I came out to my friends. I mean they knew I was gay but they knew also I was very closeted. At work I never came out to them. I stayed very closeted throughout the entire time I taught school until the very end. And again, that was out of fear, fear of losing my job, fearing of who was going to support me. How would I get by with all of this. I finally came out to my family when I was turning 30. It was towards the end of my teaching career. I had decided that I couldn’t live this life anymore. I was tired of being alone all the time. I was tired to pretending to be something that I’m not. And so I tried, the Christmas of that year, to tell my family that I was gay, this is who I am. Then I was going on with my life.
It was not an easy decision to make. I thought long and hard about it. I had made a choice that if they could not accept me I would move on without them. I honestly would have to move on without them because I could no longer live this life where I couldn’t be me. I tried so hard during Christmas to get them all together but that just never worked, cuz when you have 4 brothers with their own children, their own wife, my mother going one direction, they’re going another, I never could sit them down. So finally I realized I was going out of the country for a business trip and I needed to get this done and move on with my life. So I wrote a letter. I wrote a letter to my mother and made copies of it for each of my brothers and their wives, and I addressed the issue. In the letter I addressed the issue of who I was—that they were bringing Betty and Susie home to meet me and it should be Bob and Billy. I basically told them that I was gay, was very happy being gay, and I was not about to change my lifestyle. I also made it quite clear to them that if they couldn’t accept it I would move on without them, that they either accepted me wholly and my friends totally or there could be nothing left to our relationship. It was not an easy decision to make. It was a very painful decision to make but I was willing to do that.
Unfortunately I also wrote in the letter, I talked about the fact that should something happen to me, these were my funeral plans, this was dut dah dah and sent the letter off. I remember going to the post office with my good friend Robert and I sent it FedEx to each of them. He kept saying, “Aren’t you nervous?” I said, “No, I’m sort of relieved. It’s finally over and let the chips fall where they may.” Well I didn’t hear from anyone right away. I went off and went cross country skiing that day and ended up scratching my cornea. So on Saturday I was at the eye doctor, had spent quite a bit of time there which he said it would be a quick appointment, which it wasn’t. Got home, so I was a little frazzled. And the phone rang and I realized it was my one brother. And I was like, “Okay, here we go.” I was ready for the worst. I painted an awful picture in my mind of what was going to happen. It was wonderful. He basically told me, my oldest brother told me him and his wife accepted me wholly. They loved me. They felt they wanted to wait to tell the boys, they felt they were a little bit young. I said, “That’s your choice. You most certainly can.” And throughout the rest of the afternoon I heard from each of my brothers and it was the same response. “We love you. We sort of thought. We weren’t sure.” I said, “You could have told me that you knew it and it could have been much easier.” But it was great conversations with all of them.
But I hadn’t heard from my mother. So I went to bed that night. Sunday, I got up. No call from my mother. At this point I started panicking. I thought, “My God, I’ve killed the woman. She’s probably dead on the floor.” So I sent my oldest brother to her house cuz he lived in the same town. So he went over there and he came back and said, “She’s not home. I don’t know where she’s at.” So Saturday, Sunday, I still didn’t hear. Monday I get a phone call. I’m in the office. It’s my mother. She’s, “Well I got your letter.” I said, “Where have you been?” She said, “Oh, well I was out of town.” She said, “It’s not what I would have chosen for you. But you’re my son and I love you.” I said, “Well, mom, it’s got to be more than that. You have to love me. You have to love my partner. You have to accept and love my friends.” She goes, “Michael, just give me time.” She said, “I am proud of you. I have always loved you. I just have to learn to understand it and accept it.” I said, “That is fine.”
So from that point it went on and it was good. … It was a great experience with them. I came out to my friend that I taught school with, my best friend and she said, “Well, I thought you would never tell me.” I said, “You know, I love the way you all just say you thought I would never tell anyone, but why couldn’t you have just asked me? It would have made it much easier.” And it went fine. There was times still, in the next year or 2 or 3 that I had to, as they say, throw a hissy fit because I’d sit at dinner and we would hear about everyone else’s family and their children and their life. No one would ever ask about my life. No one would ever ask if I was dating. So finally I threw a little temper tantrum, as my brother says, and he said, “Now what’s wrong?” And I told him my feelings. My youngest brother was probably the greatest one. He said, “You’re right. We never ask.” And he said, “And it’s wrong.” He said, “We should be knowing about your life, too, just as much as you know about ours.” So from that point it’s gotten better.
I think the best story always, though, after I had come out and my mother knew and I came up north and of course there was always the big issue, “Please don’t tell the family. I don’t want the relatives to know.” And I kept threatening to put a billboard up “xx up has a gay son.” I got up north and I came with my best friend, Joey. We got up there and Joe was a former student of mine. He was my best friend. We always traveled a lot, did a lot together. We got up there and I walked to my mother’s house and she said, “You can have the bedroom at the top of the stairs.” I go, “Really? Joe, why don’t you have a cup of coffee with my mother?” and I ran upstairs and I got there and looked. It’s my mother’s bedroom with her bed, this queen size bed. So I called down, I said, “Mom, could you come upstairs for a minute?” So she came upstairs. I said, “Mom, it’s a queen size bed.” She goes, “I thought you wanted to sleep together.” I said, “He’s not gay. He’s straight. I’m the one that’s gay.” She said, “Well, how am I supposed to know?” I said, “Trust me. I’ll let you know when I want that queen size bed.”

In 1985 I had started attending Northwestern University, working on my Master’s. At that point I was doing a Master’s in administration. I switched to counseling, couldn’t make up my mind and my advisor made me finish/complete both master’s. So I finally finished both, but during that time was an emotional upheaval for me. I was going out in the gay community but yet still very closeted at work. I was just not a very happy camper. I wanted to be me. At that point also, my uncle who I was very close to passed away. And then my father passed away less than a year later. It was a very tough time for me emotionally. I had decided when I no longer gave the children I taught my full attention and my emotional support, my full energy, then I didn’t belong in the position anymore. So at that point, 1987, I left teaching. It was a hard decision to make. It was the field that I truly loved and enjoyed. But it was also at a point that I needed something else in my life. So I left it. I was offered a great job, a great opportunity to work for my aunt for running the Hoover Estate and Hoover Management Company, and I took that job. It gave me a much bigger salary which was lovely. It gave me the opportunity to travel and it also gave me what I wanted more than anything, to be me, to be openly gay, to do the things I wanted to do and not be ashamed anymore.

In the mid 1980s when I was coming out, as they say, and I was sort of out and then not out. It was not a great time in Chicago. You still couldn’t walk down the street and hold your boyfriend’s hand. You didn’t dare go to a restaurant and walk out and kiss your friend goodbye. You went to bars that had blackened windows and no one could see in. No one could see out, or be down in a basement. But yet there was a strong sense of community in Chicago. Your friends were your friends and they were there for you. Your straight allies who knew you were gay, they were there for you. I think it’s probably why I’ve always stayed in Chicago. It’s such a strong sense of community here. At that point during the 80s when I came out, things didn’t change a lot. I mean there was a more scarier side of our world and that was the sense of this unknown illness that was taking lives and a lack of support. There was a big lack of support in the city and in the state, probably even throughout this country, for our community. So it was a very dark time for us. We loved being together and we lived “the gay life” behind closed doors and darkened windows. But that would all change in time.

I became more aware of AIDS as I started losing friends. Good friends would pass away … [ it ] became a very painful experience for me to have to go to the hospitals and see nurses and doctors wrapped up with shrouds on … to come into the room, huge plastic gloves and masks and hats. It was just a very tough time. I remember one good friend, as he was dying. It was hard enough for him to realize that we couldn’t find the answer to help stabilize him. But to watch the way he was treated as a non-human being in a hospital setting, locked into a ward where no one would come near him, and then the heartbreak to see his family come and not realize what to do and how to embrace him. I remember one conversation I had with his father after he’d been in the room to see him. He said, “I just don’t know what to do.” I said, “Go into that room. Crawl in that bed and hold your son. Let him know that you love him because that’s what he needs more than anything right now.” It was a real awful time. The gay community stepped up and took over taking care of individuals, whether you were gay, straight or indifferent, if you had AIDS, and making sure that you were taken care of and that you had death with dignity. It was a long haul. I lost many, many good friends and one of my best friends and soul mate. He eventually died in the 90s of AIDS. It was a tough time and it’s still a tough time to deal with it every day. That made me realize that I have to do more than just sitting in the background and coming with flowers to the hospital and playing cards and watching soap operas and comforting the family. There was a lot more that had to be out there and at that point I started getting much more involved. I got involved with AmFAR [ the American Foundation for AIDS Research ] and with Bonaventure House and the various hospices that were being formed in the city to provide what I call decent care for these individuals.

I met a great friend, a person who became a great friend, Amy Maggio. I had quietly sort of been giving my gifts on the sideline, sending donations in, making sure that whatever I could do to help I would do it. But I would just do it very quietly. Another friend, Danny Kopelson had said, “You need to meet this Michael Leppen. He keeps sending all these checks. We don’t know who he is.” So we had lunch and what a lunch it was. They were courting me at that time to be their Co-Chairman for their benefit for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Amy and I met. It was a friendship for life at that point. She has been my mentor, my good friend, my counselor. Together we have fought a lot of battles together, not against each other, sometimes occasionally, but more against what doesn’t get done in this community. At that point I probably stepped more into the limelight than I wanted to and got more and more involved. It’s been an ongoing battle. It’s gotten better. But there’s still a lot within this community that we need to do. I find the hardest thing for me to accept is the divisiveness between our own groups. I have said over and over again, if the GLBT community would come together once, and work as an entire group, once, what clout they would have. But instead we have each person with their own agenda, their own opinion, all running amok and it divides and subdivides what we’re trying to accomplish. With Amy at my side and many other friends I made through Amy, we’ve done a lot and there’s still a lot to do. My goal always in philanthropy was not, it wasn’t about recognizing me and what I did. It was about making a difference. I’d like to know that I’ve achieved something by the end of my life where I’ve made a difference that some young man or woman who’s growing up, or child is growing up and comes to his mother or father and says, “Mom, I think I’m gay.” It’s not a issue. “Well that’s fine. So now we know who you’re going to bring home to the dinner table.” Not, will we still have children thrown out on the street. Not, where we have children being abused because of their sexuality. Not, where we have parents sending their children to have shock therapy to make their gay genes go away. That’s the changes I’d like to see. I don’t really care whether my name’s on it or not. But I’ve known if I’m part of the group that did it and I’m part of the group that made this community come together and realize that by working together within our own ranks and also with our straight allies, we can make a difference in the world, not just on GLBT issues but on every issue.

As a philanthropist, I’ve never really had one set organization or one set social service thing that I needed to deal with. I felt that it’s the human race I’m dealing with. I look at xx humanity as all one. It doesn’t matter what your skin color is, what your sexuality is, whether you’re short, tall, fat, indifferent. It’s that you’re part of the human race. So I’ve been involved in lots of things. It’s not just the gay community. I’m involved in a lot of social service activities. I’m involved with a lot of grassroots organizations that try to make a difference. Sure, I can honestly give lots of money to museums and art museums and theaters and ballets, but they have hefty endowments. They get good support. And I do give my gifts there. But I think it’s much more important to deal with the human condition. And that’s what I deal with more and more. I find it very frustrating for me in the GLBT community that if all of the sudden the issue is blue-eared women, every organization steps up their own avenue and says they’re going to do that and they want that dollar. That’s my argument. Don’t do that. I was very proud of 2 years ago when we had the marriage initiative trying to put on the state legislature to ban marriage, to put in the constitution, that Lambda Legal and Equality Illinois and the ACLU came together and called me and asked to get together with me and they were going to create the marriage initiative. They were going to work together as a group, the 3 of them, take the money that was given to them and use it solely for this project. And what a difference they made. They defeated it. They worked together and they showed our community that this can be done. But sometimes when we get that far advanced, we still take steps backwards, and we have a long way to go.

I’ve been actively involved in the youth in our community, the GLBT community. One is the About Face Theater Youth Group Project. I had a young man who ran About Fact Theater here in Chicago come to me to talk to me about a project. What they were going to do was work with high school students, bringing together high school students, whether GLBT or questioning or their straight allies, do a social service community workshop with them, work with them and out of their suggestions and their stories, create a play. I did support them. I have supported them for years, been one of the major donors at. It’s been an incredible project because what it’s accomplished, not only for this youth but for the people who come and see this play, making us aware of the situation that is still out there that sometimes, especially in our community, gay members of the GLBT community, we sort of turn a deaf ear to. “Well, you know, I went through that already. I don’t need to worry about it. “Yes, you do need to worry about it. Nobody should have to go through that. In California where I have a home I spend a lot of time involved in a lot of things and I worked with one of the founders with an organization called Gay Associated Youth. You may ask me what it is. It is providing an outlet source for the GLBT youth. It’s a resource center. It is a youth drop-in center and what we do again, is provide for GLBT youth and their straight allies, a place to come, more for the GLBT youth. It was an interesting concept because when we came together, the founders to create this and we talked with the city and we talked with the aldermen, so on and so on, they point blank said, “Well there isn’t any gay youth in Palm Springs.” And we all just started laughing. I said,” Oh, you’ve got a lot to learn.” It’s been a great project. It’s done well and now they’re looking to do their center, in California. Youth is a very important issue for me. Maybe it comes from the years I taught school.

The media, I’ve been involved with an organization called In The Life Media out of New York. I’ve been involved with them for over 12 years I’ve been a major supporter for GLAAD [ the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ] . Both organizations are important. … In The Life is what I call the Gay 60 Minutes. It basically de-myths the stories that go around. If you went to the Pride Parades years ago, of course, the newspapers, the only thing they would photograph is the transvestites, the drag queens, the ones in leather, but they sort of missed the bulk of the community. And yes, that is part of our community. That’s not the entire community. And even if there’s a drag queen going down the street and she looks fabulous, if they got to know the person she’s probably a marvelous lawyer or marvelous doctor or whatever. So with In The Life Media what we did is we took stories, vignettes and stories and situations and we presented it. We have always shown it on public television. PBS was great about taking our shows and showing them but we had to fight long and hard to get it across the country. And we still have areas of this country that do not show it. One of the advantages to showing it on public television, because we’ve had the argument in the past 2 years, 3 years, that we should sell it Logo or all the gay networks, is the fact that not everyone can afford Logo. Not everyone can afford Bravo. So by having it on public television, we reach out to a community of our peers who say, ”Thank you, because at least I know what’s going on.” We reach out to questioning youth who look and say, “Thank you because now I know who to contact.” We reach out to our straight allies who said, “I just never knew.” And that’s important. I now have been recently involved in a new project that my good friend Danny Carslake is doing called, For the Bible Tells Me So, an incredible documentary that will be released this fall [ 2007 ] and it’s good. It’s a film that needs to be in the theaters. It, what I call de-mystifies the “Bible text” of condemning homosexuality. If you look, and I’m a spiritualist, that Christ’s only message was to Love One Another. That is the message through this movie. Daniel does a great job with 4 vignettes that will render the story the way it should be told.

I got involved with the Gay Games [ in Chicago in 2006 ] . I met with my good friend, Tracy Baim, who didn’t even twist my arm. We had a long talk about it. It’s something that I do believe in. It’s an outlet for us. It is a way to present ourself to the world. It unifies the GLBT community across this world. It brings them together and it gives us a chance to play together, work together, get to know each other, and realize we’re there for each other. It also sends a message to the state, to this country, to this world, that we’re here. We’re queer. We’re going to stay. And we’re good people. So I did get involved with it and very proud of what they accomplished here in Chicago. It was a lot of work. It was done in a short amount of time. Unfortunately I was laid up with a health issue and didn’t get to go but loved watching it on the DVD. It was fabulous.

In the City of Chicago, I’m very proud of what we have accomplished, The Center on Halsted. Patrick Sheahan and Martin Gapshis came to me years ago to talk to me about the center we’re going to create, talked to me about the space we’re going to be given by Mayor Daley who I think probably was the most influential person in getting me involved with this, because if he believed in us then how could I not believe in ourselves? We were given the space. Then in the 5 to 6 years I went on working with them. I didn’t join the board. I worked more as an advisor on the outside, doing fundraisers with them, dragging in friends, and saying, “Wake up. Pay attention to what you got to look at.” It was not an easy ride during that time. Again, as I stated earlier is that we have a lot of divisive people in our community and would go out of their way to try to undermine the project. There was fiscal mismanagement. There was this. There was that. And we fought it all along the way. There wasn’t any of that. It was a group that got together, pulled together, not only from the GLBT, but the straight community, raised over $20 million and have built this incredible space. I hosted the first dinner for Mayor Daley and for the guests at the University Club. Everyone spoke and I remember that when I got up to speak, the one thing I talked about was that, I said that I was taught by my mother, there’s no such thing as a free dinner. There’s no such thing as a free ride. You have to put in your time and your energy, your money. And the point of it was that night was if you couldn’t give money, give time and energy. Give contacts. Give something. But do something towards this project. Most people did that night. As we went on we did several dinners at The Millennium Park on the stage. One night I spoke again about giving. I told them the story. I said “You look at the diagram on this building. It isn’t built yet. It’s all glass. You’re looking outside, letting the sun in. There’s no darkened windows. There’s nothing you’re hiding behind. We’re not ashamed to put the name on the building what it is. You look out the stage and you’re looking at this beautiful city that has a mayor who has supported us, believes in us,” I said, “and you’re seeing for the first time as an individual, what it’s like to be totally free.” I made it quite clear, when I was growing up I went to all those places, darkened windows, places I had to be ashamed of who I was. I could be open and free once I walked in. When I walked back out I had to put on a new mask. And I wouldn’t do it anymore because I am proud to be a member of the GLBT community. I made it quite clear to them. “If you’re not, it’s a damned shame.”

In 2005 we started doing dinners at Millennium Park, on the stage, where we invited people we thought should be involved in this project at different levels. At that evening I spoke, I talked about our vision for the Center on Halsted. I also gave sort of an analogy that night because we were in the World Series at that point in Chicago, which was very exciting. I said, “You’re the batter. You’re up to bat. The score is tied. This is the final decision. What will it be? Will you give a gift? Will you tell us honestly you can’t afford to do it, but you want to be involved? Will you just walk away and say, ‘I don’t want any part of it.’ You’re the batter. Swing.”

In 2007 was the first time I got to see the completed Center on Halsted. It was a very moving experience. I’d gone in as they were doing the final work on it. I got to see the lobby that I gave in honor of my friend, Amy Maggio. I was taken upstairs to see the office spaces, the incredible office spaces, the incredible computer lab done in the memory of my good friend, David Lochman. And then I got to see a theater that was given in honor of me by my aunt, named the Hoover-Leppen Theater. It was a very, very moving experience to realize that we have accomplished something. We came together as a group of individuals in the city of Chicago. We held onto our vision. We worked hard at it and we made it become a reality. Later in May [ 2007 ] we did the dedication of the Hoover-Leppen Theater at the Center on Halsted. It was the first event to be held in that building. We did cocktails in the Amy Ann Maggio lobby. We took the elevators upstairs, had an incredible performance, first performance in the Hoover-Leppen Theater with Ann Hampton Calloway and Liz Calloway, and then had a sit-down dinner done by J & L Catering outside, and then desserts on the Mayor Daley Roof Garden. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to realize that we finished it. We really did it and it has become the beacon light for other communities in other cities and states. I had friends who came in from California to see The Center On Halsted and fell in love with it and now are interested in making sure they get something in their community similar to it. We should be very proud in this city of what we’ve accomplished. We still have a long way to go. There are many other things we’re not done dealing with.

I work for the Hoover Management Company. My aunt is the president of it. I’m the vice-president of it. My aunt has been a great supporter, Miriam Hoover, great supporter of everything I do, great believer in the GLBT community. She’s never understood the situation of why it has to be an issue, just because you’re gay. She’s a firm believer like I am that you don’t need to wear your sexuality on your back. You just have to be a human being with a heart and a soul. At the point that I was working with the Center on Halsted, they wanted to court her. I said, “You’re welcome to court her. I will not be involved in it. This is her personal decision.” And the group came up. Patrick Sheahan, Robbin Burr and Jose Lazarro came up to meet with her and talk with her. I was in my office working. She walked in and she said, “I just want you to know I gave my gift.” And they’re all standing there. I said, “Well that’s nice.” I said, “Good.” She said, “I want you to know how much I gave.” I said, “Well OK. Why don’t you tell me?” She said, “I want to give $1 million in honor of you and what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished and what you’ve done for me.” It was a very emotional point. I didn’t want to break down and cry in front of everyone so I just sort of looked at her and says, “So does this mean it’s coming out of my inheritance and would I be working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life? Just kidding, Miriam.” It was a wonderful gift and Miriam has been a true supporter of the GLBT community. She’s been a great supporter of the Center on Halsted. At 93 years old, or 92 years old when she gave the gift, she sets the example and mark for everyone else, that it’s not about who you think you are. It’s about what you can do. It doesn’t matter whether you have $1 million. If you only have $10 and you give that $10, you’ve done what you had to do.

There are moments that I do get burnt out and frustrated and jaded by everything that goes on in the community and sometimes it would just be easier to say, “I’m taking my marbles and going home.” And there have been moments that I have become very subdued, very quiet and sort of avoid the phone calls and the emails because I need to take a breath and step back. But then there’s every day that I read the paper and I see that nothing has changed and there’s still the need to be out there. Every day I have a cocktail with a friend, or a drink with a friend or a cup of tea and I hear about other situations that we’re still not dealing with in the GLBT community, and every day I have to look myself in the mirror and realize that it’s not about me and I‘d better get over myself and realize that time is marked. I need to do what I need to do before my time is up, so I know that I did the best I could.

Four years ago I had a health scare. I had a heart attack and had to have some surgery, and got through it, and probably still didn’t take good care of myself. I sort of thought, “I’m a survivor. I can move on.” Then last year I had the big scare. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and it was a whirlwind tour. Within 4 weeks I was diagnosed, biopsied and I had surgery. Luckily I was fortunate that it was contained and at this point, so far cancer free and I’m happy. But it forced me to sit back and look at my own life. One good friend at church, when he came up to me, said point blank, “You’ve had 2 marks against you already. When do you stop?” and I asked him, “What do you mean, stop?” He said, “When do you take time and look at yourself?” He said, “If you want to make that difference, you have to be here to make that difference.” And it has slowed me down. Last year was very tough after going through the cancer surgery, I worked hard with the Gay Games and then I ended up having to watch the parade pass me by outside my window. But it was OK because friends would stop in to see me and tell me all the excitement, what was going on in the city. I was grateful. It wasn’t about me being there. It was about the fact that we did it. So I do step back a lot of times and reassess because of health issues. I know that I have to take better care of myself and spend a little bit more time on myself so that I have enough strength and energy to accomplish all those goals that are still out there, all those tasks that have to be achieved.

In November of 2006 I co-chaired with my good friend, Amy Maggio who I coerced into the job, an event for PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. I had decided to step up and do this event with Amy after I had said over and over again I was not going to co-chair any more events cuz I was tired of being the party planner. But PFLAG’s an incredible organization. I got involved with them many, many years ago, but I was very proud of them 3 years ago when we were down at the State of Illinois fighting for our rights, the rights of GLBT citizens in this state. I had worked hard with Equality Illinois on this and met with many people, met with Human Rights Campaign, met with GLAAD, met with all these different organizations and we would talk about it. And yet we still hadn’t achieved it. I remember having a conversation with a person here in Chicago who I’ve known for many, many years and the comment to me was made, “Well, in the city of Chicago, we have our rights. … Mayor Daley gave us our rights.” And I had to be real honest. I looked at her and said, “No, you don’t, because if you go to the restaurant with your girlfriend and you get thrown out on the street and you get hurt because you were holding hands with her, the city of Chicago can do a verbal slap. You could try to sue, but it’ll be thrown out of the courts because there’s nothing on the state legislature that will protect you.” So at that point, we started pushing hard with Equality Illinois going downstate to work on getting it passed. PFLAG, if I had to pick a hero, it would be the organization, PFLAG. PFLAG was down there with us. We were down there for a week, fighting to get this bill through. We didn’t know if it was going to pass the Senate. We sat there. It passed by 1 to 2 votes, and we cried. We knew the final project was getting it through the House. PFLAG, the group from PFLAG had parents down there that courted, walked in, met with representatives, made it quite clear how they felt about the state not providing us our rights, and the blessing came. It passed. We got our rights and the governor signed the bill.

So PFLAG, to help them out, we did their national dinner. We entitled it, You Are My Heart, because they were our heart. They wear our heart on their sleeves. So in the Fall [ 2006 ] we did a major event for them. They had their conference here. We did a major event so we took them from what I call the spaghetti and meatball dinner to a more elaborate dinner at the Hilton. It was a lovely event. It was over 1200 people attending, and it made a difference, I hope, for them.

The issues in the gay community then, were one person accepting himself, and then others accepting you. Has it changed? No. It’s still the same issue today. We have individuals who still have not fully accepted themselves. They’re their own worst enemy. And we still have organizations and groups and individuals who don’t fully accept us. We have still 30 states in this country that have not provided rights for our peers and brothers and sisters. We have religious organizations that are still tearing us asunder. And we have our own community working against itself instead of working together, sitting down and having a roundtable discussion, saying, “Look, let’s put all the ideas out there. Hear my viewpoint. Hear your viewpoint. Let’s come together and let’s move forward and do something.” We don’t do it. Until we do that we have a major battle still in front of us.

In early 1990, late 1980s I received a very nice award from the Human Rights Campaign as a community service award and I invited my family to come to the dinner. It was interesting because I never realized my family never really realized what I do and how I’ve been involved, so it was a moving experience for them. In my speech I think I pretty much said how I truly believe I’m really nothing. What makes me is the people, my family, my friends, my peers who surround me, who encourage me, who discipline me and show me that there’s another way to go, or here’s the path I should be on. I’m very grateful for my family. I’m grateful that my family has always been there to love me and support me. I’m grateful for the friends who have loved and supported me and for the peers I work with. That’s who makes Michael Leppen. It’s not the money. It’s not the pretty shirt. It’s not the martini on the table. It’s the people who have embraced me and accept me as the person I am. I’m proud to be who I am. And I’m grateful to my friends for being there.

I grew up in Waukegan, lower middle class. Both parents had to work. We didn’t have silver spoons on the table. If we had eggs and toast for dinner we were happy. We learned to accept everything at face value and be grateful, grateful that we were together as a group, as an entity. Throughout life I have always had to work hard. I worked 2 or 3 jobs to get myself through college, paid for my college, had college loans like everyone else, car payments, struggled. But I always knew I had me and I had family and I had friends and I had life. And I’ve always been grateful for life. As my position changed and I took a new job and started making much more money than I ever thought I would ever have, I still realized that I’m very grateful because I am still who I am. I have me. I have family. I have friends. It became a little bit difficult because I would always take my friends with me. I’d say, “Well, let me take you to Chez Paul for dinner.” “Wow, what can we do for you?” I said, “Just be my friend.” It was more difficult for them, I think, than me because I would always look at it and say, “I don’t want to do the experience without you. I want to do the experience with you. I want you to say, ‘Oh my god I had the greatest foie gras’,” oops, not in the city of Chicago right now. And we share that experience. Has it changed me? I think it jaded me a little bit but then my friends and my family and my peers did the slap upside the head and said, “Hey, you know. Don’t ever forget who you are.” My philosophy has always been I am grateful for every moment in this life. When I go to bed at night I do meditate and pray. I find that one thing that I focus on and hang onto, maybe it was a great cup of coffee with my friend, Tracy. Maybe it was seeing a beautiful sunset. And I’m grateful for that. I let go. I go to sleep and if I wake up tomorrow, I’m grateful to have my eyes open. All I ask for is direction to show me what do I need to accomplish next so I’ve done it right.

What would be my view of Chicago in 20 years? I would view it as the city that still has a great sense of pride, a great sense of kinship, a great sense of being, where it doesn’t matter what member of what group, what class, what sexual orientation you are. It’s that you’re a Chicagoan and that you’re working together. What I would hope to see is that our organizations that we have are still in existence but not having to do the bittersweet work that we’re doing to secure rights for a lesbian couple to have their children, for a gay couple to have their children, for a couple to be married, but instead, working on human rights issues for all groups that involves not only the GLBT community, but every community. In 20 years, what would I like to see? That we don’t have the title, the GLBT community—We have the title, The Human Community. And we are all one.

I love Chicago. I’ve had many opportunities to work all over the world, to leave this area, to be somewhere else, but I just can’t leave this city. It’s not just the beauty of the lake and the great buildings. It’s the heart of the city and the heart of the city is the people that live here. We’ve been very blessed to have a mayor who has embraced us. Mayor Richard Daley has been an incredible friend and ally to this community, but not only just to this community, to the city. This city has a heart and soul and if you’re lucky to be part of it, you’re embraced by the heart of soul and you never really want to pack your purse and leave.

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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