The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

The Chains We Break

LGBTQ activist Art Johnston is Thoreau Speaker for Junior class
Photo credit: Nick Saracino
LGBTQ activist Art Johnston speaks to juniors in the library.

Every year at Francis Parker, a Thoreau Speaker visits the junior class, but this guest isn’t like most at a normal Morning Exercise. The Thoreau Speaker must have been imprisoned at some point in their life. 

On Wednesday, November 29,11/29, juniors were able to hear what it really means to “disobey,” when LGBTQ activist Art Johnston shared his incredible life story with the class. “The speeches are what makes activism three-dimensional for students,” said Upper School history teacher Jeanne Barr. 

The speaker series is named after Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century American thinker who coined the term of “civil disobedience,” which is the act of disobeying the law as a form of peaceful protest. 

“The tuition we pay for living on this earth is to make it better for the folks around us,”  Johnston said. During his talk, Johnston took juniors through his life, explaining the achievements that he shared with his partner, Pepe Peña. Johnston began with the story of his partner. He explained how he would tell the story from the “I” perspective as if he were Peña.

“I grew up with activism and political involvement in my family,” Johnston said. Peña grew up in Cuba, where his father ran for mayor before Castro’s revolution, which “changed everything.” Afterward, his mother became involved in the underground movement to oppose Castro. “There was a room in our house that we kids were never allowed to open the door to because my mother was sneaking people out of the country,” Johnston said.

Johnston explained how Peña found his way out of Cuba to the United States and eventually to Chicago, where he fell in love with the city. “Soon I found myself working at a gay bar in Lakeview,” Johnston said. “In those days gay bars were the only places gay people could get together, and even then we were raided and arrested.” 

At the time, despite animosity toward queer people among police officers and government officials, the bars were able to stay open. This was largely thanks to the Chicago mafia who “knew who to pay off in the police department.”

After his time working as a bartender, Peña learned the workings of a bar. After meeting Art Johnston, his future lifelong partner, the two decided to create their own gay bar. They named it “Sidetrack.”

One night at the bar, two customers began to fight with pool cues. “We finally called the police. The police station was four blocks away, but they never arrived.” Coincidentally and unrelated to the phone call, an undercover cop happened to drive by. Seeing the commotion, he confronted Johnston, asking him whether he was the owner of the bar. Johnston recounted how the cop used homophobic slurs when referring to him, and said angrily that there were “too many queer people in Chicago.” Then he said to them, “I’m gonna close down your bar and put you in jail.”

Johnston and Peña were indeed taken to jail and released two days later. Johnston said that this very jail where they were held is now an affordable living for the queer community.

In retaliation for the many injustices like those experienced by Johnston and Peña, activists organized a rally in downtown Chicago. LGBTQ leaders at the time debated with each other about how to get the most people to come to the rally. 

“This Idea came to my head and I didn’t know where it came from,” Johnston said. “The idea was to have the bar owners donate money in order to rent buses. People could come to the bar, we’d pick them up in CTA buses and drive them to the rally.”  This idea worked beautifully, and the rally was the largest gathering of queer people since a protest against the “Save Our Children” campaign of 1977. “The symbolism of us renting CTA buses sent a strong message to the outside world, that it’s our city too.”

Johnston’s stories of queer activism in Chicago moved both students and faculty. Jeanne Barr explained why Johnston is such an important activist. “It’s not about disrupting for the sake of disrupting,” she said. “It’s about disrupting to make people see, and that’s very profound.”

“The Thoreau Speaker taught me that the only way to make things better is to actively change them yourself,” junior Ty Donath said.

Johnston left the audience with a quote to remember: “You don’t realize you have chains on yourself until you get the sense of what it might be like to not have chains.”

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About the Contributor
Teddy McGuire, Enterprise Editor
Teddy McGuire is a junior and the inaugural enterprise editor on “The Weekly.” Teddy loves to write but outside of the newspaper, Teddy is a member of the varsity soccer and tennis teams. He is also one of the heads of the Ping Pong Club. As a sophomore, Teddy was a brief writer but now he is excited to have an editing role on the newspaper!