Gay 1995 Heat Wave

Posted by Madam Bubby


25 years ago, Chicago experienced a deadly heat wave; 739 heat-related deaths occurred in Chicago over a period of five days. Most of the victims of were elderly, poor, and parallel to the demographic of the victims of coronavirus death toll, people of color, who could not afford air conditioning and did not open windows or sleep outside for fear of crime.

The hottest day was July 13, where the temperature soared to 106 °F (41 °C). The weather had been exceptionally hot and humid for some days before. At that point, I was working in an air conditioned office in at a low-level law firm support staff job.

I was also in the primal, exciting throes of my first major BDSM relationship (in fact, relationship of any kind), albeit a long-distance one (he lived in New York). Essentially, I was expending my energy on living LGBTQ rather than a career.

I had bought a condo. It was not air conditioned. I could not afford at that point to purchase and install the special air conditioner needed for a casement window.


Sweaty guy


After another boring day at the office, I figured I would take cold showers and sleep my way through it. If it got really bad, I was going to see If my brother would perhaps let me stay with him and his family (I was not counting on that option; family support was generally limited in scope during that period).

I got home. The electricity went out.

I called an elderly neighbor, one half of a gay couple in the building I was very good friends with. He said he was fine, and he was waiting for his partner to get home.

Then I remembered: a former friend of mine and I were scheduled to see a performance by a lesbian called The One-Woman Sound of Music.

He showed up at my place, and we were thinking, go to the play, which was in an air conditioned building with functioning electricity, come back to my place, and see what happens.

The play was literally a scream (her imitation of the Mother Superior saying “The borders have closed” especially), though the overly lecherous captain impersonation (too many jokes about “teddies”) was a bit coarse. Still, I was impressed with her energy and commitment.


The Sound of Music


Anyway, we got back to my place. No electricity.

We talked to my next door neighbors, who were fleeing down the staircase with luggage to find a motel.

My friend said, “You can’t stay here.” I fumbled for underwear, socks, and a shirt in the darkness, and we went to his place, a condo he shared with his somewhat … er … “older” partner.

I spent the night, the partner made frittatas in the morning, and by the afternoon I was back at my place. The lights were on. The humidity had decreased, I was getting a lake breeze, and I relaxed.

I called my partner/Sir in New York City, who told me to thank my friend. I called my elderly neighbor. He told me he was able to fall asleep, waking up only briefly bathed in sweat.

Meanwhile, an apocalyptic scenario was occurring. Just a couple blocks south of me, people had been trapped in elevators. Even in the gentrifying and gentrified north side of Chicago, swaths of neighborhoods were without electricity for a couple weeks. People slept outside and at the lake (according to my grandmother, a common occurrence in her life when air conditioning was primarily limited to movie theaters). Food rotted in refrigerators. People fled the city.

And people died. So many people in areas that I still have never visited.


Chicago Sun Times article on the heat wave

Source: National Weather Association


A couple weeks after the event, I wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune, which was published. I claimed a “hot but cold” Midwestern culture of not knowing one’s neighbors and racial segregation was responsible. An anonymous person mailed me a piece of paper with Nazi symbols on it.

It’s almost become a cliché to talk about LGBTQ persons choosing a family, having to choose and build one because of familial and social rejection. I think the story reveals that like blood family, the “gay family” looks out for each other.

Compared to so many people who suffered in that heat wave, I lived a life of comparative privilege. What’s really tragic is that many who died couldn’t or even, in some cases, wouldn’t get help from not just their blood families, but from a human being. For them, the borders were indeed closed, and for many like them, they still are.

Recommended reading: Klinenberg, Eric (2002). Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

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