ROGERS PARK — When Jen Dentel started volunteering for the LGBTQ-focused Gerber/Hart Library and Archives in 2014, one of her first tasks was to unbox and preserve hundreds of photos of Chicago drag queen Miss Tillie spanning from the ’40s through the ’90s.
The photos tell the story of Tillie, affectionately known as “The Dirty Old Lady of Chicago.” She was one of the early performers at the Chesterfield, a now-closed drag bar at 2831 N. Clark St., where she was arrested during several bar raids in the early ’60s. Tillie died in 2005.
“We had just gotten the donation, so I had to take these photos out of the albums and put them into acid-free paper so they don’t degrade, and it was the best experience,” Dentel said. “What I really love about the collection is you see this beautiful picture of queer joy, parties and friendships rather than getting stuck on the tragedies of queer history like the bar raids and the AIDS crisis.”
The story of Miss Tillie is the subject of the first episode of “Unboxing Queer History,” a new podcast by Gerber/Hart, 6500 N. Clark St., that offers deep dives into collections from its archives to tell the stories of queer people throughout Chicago history.
The podcast, which debuted Feb. 1, is co-created by Dentel, programming and social media coordinator at Gerber/Hart; audio producer Ariel Mejia; and Gerber/Hart volunteer Erin Bell. Mejia and sound designer Hannah Viti serve as the podcast’s producers.
The eight-episode project, which is funded by a “My Library Is” grant from Reaching Across Illinois Library System, drops episodes on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. The second installment, which focuses on Gerber/Hart’s history and the importance of queer archives, comes out Tuesday.
Creating the podcast has taught Mejia the importance of documenting and archiving her life as a queer Chicagoan, she said. Mejia also hopes the project inspires others to hold onto their queer memorabilia for future generations to learn from.
“The podcast is also like a callout for people to keep their stuff,” Mejia said. “These are time capsules, and without documentation of our lives and history, it’s like they didn’t exist.”
The first episode touches on the importance of holding onto these kinds of photos by telling the story of how Gerber/Hart acquired the Tillie collection.
“We had just reopened after moving to our current location, and it was really cold, so we we weren’t sure who was going to find us,” said Carrie Barnett, former president of Gerber/Hart’s board of directors. “And this woman just wandered in and said, ‘I’m on my way out of town because I’m moving, and I was friends with this drag queen. I have all her photos. Do you want them?’
“… She said, ‘I’m really glad you’re here because I felt like it was something that someone might want to look at,'” Barnett said. “We were so grateful that she thought of us and that she had the presence of mind to understand the importance of this first-person perspective.”
Barnett is featured in the Miss Tillie episode and an upcoming one on People Like Us Books, an exclusively LGBTQ bookstore that Barnett co-founded. It was open 1988-1997.
The photos showed Tillie in various settings — private house parties, photo studios and drag bars — giving a glimpse into what drag looked like in an earlier era.
“They tell the story of drag history in a way that you couldn’t even imagine finding in one place,” Barnett said. “And the fact that it’s so longitudinal, spanning decades, gives this grand perspective on the development of drag that also parallels the development of the LGBTQ community.”
In another upcoming episode, the podcast hosts interview Evette Cardona and Mona Noriega, co-founders of Amigas Latinas, a group that started monthly meetings for LGBTQ Latinas in the late ’90s.
“They created a space where you could be gay and Latina and talk about it,” Mejia said. “They’d invite family members, come out, talk about being parents and just exist in that intersection of identity, which is so important with race and sexuality being a difficult intersection, particularly for the Latina community.”
Learning about Amigas Latinas taught Mejia about her “queer lineage” and gave her a sense of empowerment, she said.
“To me, it’s not wild to talk about being Latina and a dyke because of these things like Amigas Latinas that existed,” Mejia said. “And that’s why having this history is so important. It’s given me a deeper understanding of my queer lineage, teaching me I’m not the first person to inhabit this body and this identity in this way. That’s very liberating because those who came before me made so much more possible for my life.”
Other episodes touch on Transgenesis, an organization founded by Lorrainne Sade Baskerville in 1995 to serve the needs of the city’s transgender community; GALS, a lesbian fishing group that formed in the ’90s; and Bill Kelley, a gay activist and lawyer from Chicago who has dozens of boxes of documents in the Gerber/Hart archives.
“I hope people learn from the podcast that Chicago is really rich with queer history,” Dentel said. “And that this history continues, it’s for you and it’s important.”
The Gerber/Hart Library and Archives is open 6-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, noon-4 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: