Unlike some other cities, the GLBT scene in Chicago is vital and active. Is it the case in every Chicago neighborhood? No. But in Chicago neighborhoods such as Lakeview, Wicker Park and Andersonville it’s, you can say, okay to be gay. The Edgewater neighborhood offers a gem for the GLBT community. Gerber/Hart Library was founded in 1981 and is “a depository for the records of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) individuals and organizations, and for other resources bearing upon their lives and experiences in American society.” Gerber/Hart Library is the largest GLBT circulating library in the Midwest.
Gerber/Hart’s Owen Keehnen is a gay writer. I met Owen at a reading at Gerber/Hart, and I was interested in learning more about the library, one of the most important GLBT resources in Chicago, and his association with it.
Jolie du Pre: Tell us a bit about yourself. What brought you to Gerber/Hart Library?
Owen Keehnen: I have been freelancing and working in this industry for over 25 years. I worked for 16 years as a bookseller at Unabridged Bookstore and through connections there I began interviewing LGBTQ writers and celebrities for a syndicate of newspapers nationwide. I’ve had a lot of my fiction, erotica, poetry, you name it – published. I got involved in Gerber/Hart because my focus has always been on literature and history and preserving voices. I think I had a natural bent that way and that was my focus in school. That formal training was really brought into play with being gay and especially living through the darkest years of the AIDS crisis when so many were being silenced and so many were virtually disappearing. They were here one day and gone the next with almost no record of their lives. I hated the thought of that happening. It broke my heart again and again. So many amazing people and all they loved and stood for and did were being lost. I became really focused on helping to preserve those voices and our history in general. Gerber/Hart Library is all about that. It was a really good fit for that very real passion of mine.
Jolie du Pre: When I read at Gerber/Hart I was impressed by the large amount of materials on the shelves. What is the best part about working for a GLBT resource?
Owen Keehnen: Education. I was born into a family of teachers and although I am not a teacher by profession – that endeavor to educate and preserve and chronicle was always ingrained in me as a noble undertaking. I love and draw energy from the knowledge that what I’m doing or helping to do is going to benefit and educate some LGBTQ kid today or even years from now. We are our history – it’s that simple – on an individual as well as on a community level. I think that maybe having Gerber/Hart as a resource will make coming out and dealing with one’s sexuality more grounding…meaning that there is a history, a legacy. That there is a connection and that you don’t stand alone. On the flip side of the issue I think Gerber/Hart can help educate others about having a gay son or daughter or sibling or whatever. I am a firm believer that bigotry is rooted in ignorance so the best part of my involvement with Gerber/Hart is hopefully bringing a little light and understanding to people.
Jolie du Pre: Gerber/Hart has “over 14,000 volumes, 800 periodical titles, and 100 archival collections.” But the library is more than that. I participated in a reading, and I’m impressed at the substantial amount of activities offered for GLBT members and friends. Describe some of the activities that Gerber/Hart sponsors.
Owen Keehnen: We have reading groups (both men’s and women’s), we are a resource for research as well as reading LGBTQ literature just for the sheer joy of it. We are also very involved as a hosting venue for community events. We have a reading series which I head as the Programming Director. We are a part of the One Book One Chicago program. We are the meeting place for Gender Queer Chicago as well as the New Town Writers. It’s all about people coming together. Meet, bond, grow – it’s all good stuff.
Jolie du Pre: Lots of upcoming events always seem to be posted at the Gerber/Hart website. What are some of those?
Owen Keehnen: We have a reading with author Will (Farm Boys) Fellows who is a great gay social and cultural historian coming up on Sunday, November 14th. His new book is Gay Bar: The Fabulous True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s. There’s the new book discussion for One Book One Chicago which is Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. We have a two day extravaganza coming up on November 17th and 18th to celebrate what would have been the 35th anniversary of the Mountain Moving Coffee House here in Chicago which was a crucial component in lesbian and women’s history – a “woman only space” coffee house which had poetry readings, musicians, dancing, etc. I thought it was a great idea to pay homage to that part of our legacy by bringing it all back for a special two day engagement. I would love if it sparked a Mountain Moving Coffee House Renaissance. Actually, we’re winding down programming wise with the end of the year – in the past few months we’ve had some LGBT History Month readings, a Breast Cancer Poetry Slammogram, Pride Readings, a Birthday Party for the late great African-American lesbian playwright Lorraine Hansberry, a reading in honor of Banned Books Week, etc. This year we’ve had over 25 events overall, so we’ve been busy. This coming year I am completely psyched about having an event for Gertrude Stein’s Birthday in February as well…but otherwise our events during the winter tend to be fewer, since winters in Chicago can be “unpredictable” to put it mildly.
Jolie du Pre: There have been some strides in the advancement of equal rights for gays and lesbians, but there’s still a long way to go. Do you believe the day will come when full and equal rights for the GLBT community is a reality?
Owen Keehnen: I remember studying Gertrude Stein and Walt Whitman in school and having it never even mentioned that they were gay. I remember what a BIG deal it was when Soap came out with a gay character. We’ve moved beyond a lot of the silence on that level – but I don’t think we should forget where we’ve come and we should definitely not forget that all the benefits we have today were paid for by the LGBTQ folks who came before and who fought and sacrificed so we could live these freer lives today. There has been enormous progress – but there is still a long way to go as evidenced by the recent bullying atrocities – which I may add are nothing new whatsoever, but at least for once they are being thought of and considered atrocious acts and vile behavior rather than “just the way things are.” As I said before, I think that people fear what they don’t know. I think as more people come out, as there is more visibility, being gay or lesbian or bi or transgendered or whatever will be less of a big deal. I really do believe it’s all about education and people tend to fear or be against things they don’t know. Hopefully Gerber/Hart Library is a way to bring a little more awareness and hopefully acceptance to people about the diversity in the world.
1127 West Granville Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60660