This piece originally appeared in the Windy City Times.
Dawn Clark Netsch has been a fierce advocate for the LGBT population before it included powerful fundraising dollars, significant election votes or even safety. Netsch pushed for a non-discrimination law a full 20 years before it passed, and has been ahead of the trend on most other issues.
The former Illinois senator and comptroller celebrated her 85th birthday Sept. 16. Windy City Times sat down with her in her longtime Northwestern University office. ( She is a professor at the university’s law school. )
As the interview started, Netsch was sifting through old campaign materials. Among them was one of her newsletters from her time in the state legislature. The piece—dating back to the early ’80s, when she was a state lawmaker—mentions her endorsement by the Greater Chicago Gay and Lesbian Democrats. Her acknowledgment of the group’s support was among the first such instances for an LGBT political group. Netsch didn’t think anything of it—they were supporting her, after all.
Through the interview, Netsch discusses her strong past as a politician and ally; her continued recognition in the gay community by young and old alike; and what’s next.
Windy City Times: You graduated from Northwestern back in 1952. What was the campus environment like back then?
Dawn Clark Netsch: It was male. Law was basically not for women at that time. I was actually the only woman in my part of the graduating class in June ’52. I still have the picture; I love it.
As we used to fondly say, there were only two faces that stood out: Harold Washington and mine. He was the only Black, I was the only female.
I didn’t take any guff from anyone, obviously. Once the guys got used to me, they thought I was strange, at first. Not just because I was female, but they all thought I had a funny accent, a phony British accent. I don’t know where they got that.
I was not at all timid about speaking up in class, which women still are to some extent. I lecture them if I hear about any of the women being timid about participating. After a while, we all sort of got used to one another and, as they used to charmingly say, Netsch is just one of the boys.
So, we all got along fine. At least, I think we did.
WCT: At what point in your life did you become an advocate for the LGBT population?
Netsch: Well certainly by the time I had started to run for office, but it had to be a few years before that.
I guess it was probably a combination of things. Number one, I think both Walter, my husband, and I had friends that were gay. Sometimes openly so, other times not, but it was sort of known—and they were friends.
Combined with that, I was always a very passionate civil libertarian, and the idea of discriminating against someone or writing them off because, in this case, sexual orientation, was just anathema to me. I would simply not have considered that proper.
A lot of it really was having friends. They were our friends, it was not a big deal in that sense.
I had reason to speak of it openly when I began to run for office. The question didn’t come up quite so much, I mean, we were still fighting the Equal Rights Amendment at that time. But it would sometimes come up.
WCT: What led you to a political career?
Netsch: I can remember when I was in high school, when asked, “what do you want to do when you grow up,” I started with wanting to be a member of the United States Senate, and after a while I went on to president of the United States. Literally. And I wasn’t just being silly; that was sort of the ultimate of what I wanted to do.
I find it more interesting, I find it important, it’s a way to have impact on issues and, indirectly, then on people. It’s just a much more interesting way to make a living in a sense, with all of its frustrations, which are huge and enormous and continuous.
WCT: You mentioned this a little bit, but how does it feel to be an icon to an entire population? That must be the neatest thing.
Netsch: I sort of don’t go around say, “Oh, I’m an icon!” I am aware of the fact that I am very warmly received in that community. I see it not only in the gay-pride parade, but also at Equality Illinois’ pass-through when we all march across the stage and at a variety of other things.
So I’m not unaware of that. It feels good, of course, and what really to me is most interesting about it is that I’ve been out of office for fifteen or sixteen years now. We didn’t even get the non-discrimination act passed when I was there!
But there’s something that just carries through in that community and it’s very touching for me that I’m still very warmly received and I think a lot of it does have to do with the fact that somehow they know that I’ve been there for a long time.
What’s particularly nice is just how far things have changed. I’m sure you don’t really appreciate that. I’m still alive, and when I started in politics this was basically a toxic issue.
With all the ugliness and recriminations and all the other stuff that’s going on in politics right now, to realize that there is a community there which really does stand by someone that they think stood by them, that is a very good feeling.
WCT: You’ve talked a lot about how far we’ve come. Even in my life, it has been beautiful. I never thought I would see Illinois have civil unions.
Netsch: I don’t think most of us did!
WCT: How much further do you think we have to go towards equality?
Netsch: We will reach a point where I think marriage is not prohibited anywhere. That’s not going to happen quite in my lifetime. I think we’ll add a few more states in my life, but it’s going to take a while. But this is going back to the fact that this has moved unbelievably fast, given how deeply held these feelings were.
I think it’s all going in that direction, there’s no question about that. One of those things, of course, is generational. There’s no question that people in your age group [ mid-20s ] , for a lot of them, they don’t care. There’s the huge element of that that has helped to change minds.
I don’t think it’s going to go backward. There’s no question about that.
WCT: How does turning 85 feel?
Netsch: Old. Actually, I was in pretty good shape until the last year. Before that I don’t think I felt or acted 85, I don’t think.
Well, you realize there’s not much time left. It’s terribly important to get more things done, and I feel a little frustrated because I don’t have quite the full-steam-ahead energy level I guess I’ve always had. And yet there are so many things still to be done. You’re a little more conscious of that, I think.
WCT: As an elder, you have a lot of experience. For younger activists who are just putting their feelers out, who might be entering politics or studying law, do you have any advice?
Netsch: A couple things. Number one: You have to decide for yourself where you want your life to go. You shouldn’t be pushed in a direction that you’re not comfortable with, no matter who’s doing the pushing, whether it’s family or friends or whatever. You want to enjoy what you’re doing with your life.
Never, ever compromise your basic integrity.
WCT: Now, on a lighter note, is it true that you’ve never learned how to drive? My best friend still hasn’t learned how to drive and she’s convinced that she’ll be able to live her whole life without a license.
Netsch: That’s correct. I must admit, sometimes my husband would—I hope lovingly—call me a parasite, because I was always looking for someone to get me to a place or give me a ride home. I’ve got a couple of friends who are almost always on the spot for that.
But I have managed. It helps if you live in the city, and it does help if you have friends who are willing to give you rides. There are times when it’s a problem, but you can survive! I hate automobiles!