March is Women’s History Month, and I can’t say I’ve ever celebrated this particular attempt at cultural and historical recovery. I don’t generally like carve-outs; they feel like tokenism. Also, “history months” focus more on individual historical figures and less on the movements that have brought true change to society.
Caveats aside, I went to tell you about a truly great woman I once knew. Her name was Renee Hanover. She pronounced her name Ree-Nee, instead of Ren-AY. She was in her eighties when I met her. Renee had a long and storied life; our connection was law. I was in law school, working for a couple activist organizations. Renee was the first out lesbian lawyer in Chicago. While most professional gay men she knew had spent the fifties and sixties meeting secretly in the Mattachine Society, she openly helped desegregate Chicago’s beaches, and fought laws designed to criminalize homosexuality.
Because of Renee, more than two men are allowed to ride in the back seat of a car together, and people can wear more than one item of clothing that is typically worn by the opposite sex. Sounds stupid, but these were the pretenses for arresting LGBTQ people fifty years ago.
She blacklisted for supporting Communism and got kicked out of law school in the early sixties because she was a lesbian. Wikipedia can tell you all this. What it doesn’t tell you is the difficulty of being a single mother (although her ex-husband remained a friend) whose lover was dying at the same time, kicked out of law school, unable to get a job because she was out and a former Communist.
Renee was a witness to history and a force of change in this world. She encouraged me and talked to me as a legal peer. She warned me that old people could be very boring (her perspective living in a senior high rise), and counseled me to avoid what I already know, and go after what I needed to learn, no matter how I old I get. At the end of one of my visits, she was headed off to learn Mah-Jongg from a group of women who had met in a Japanese internment camp and reunited years later in Chicago. Renee loved to listen to their stories.
I wish I had stayed in touch with Renee after I left Chicago. She died in 2011. Renee was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame before I met her, but I don’t like to think of her as history. She isn’t the past; she was the future. On the International Women’s Day, I will be thinking about how I can become part of the future too.