'Be open and proud': Tom Tunney, 1st openly gay Chicago alderman reflects on 20 years of service

44th Ward alderman spoke exclusively with ABC7 ahead of his retirement

Jason Knowles Image
Monday, October 17, 2022
1st openly gay Chicago alderman reflects on 20 years of service
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When is LGBTQ History Month 2022? Alderman Tom Tunney, the first openly gay Chicago City Council member, reflected on his 20 years of service.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- October is LGBTQ+ History Month, a time to reflect on the community's past and the fight for gay and civil rights.

ABC7 Reporter Jason Knowles sat down exclusively with Chicago's first openly gay alderman, Tom Tunney, who recently announced his retirement from the city council at the end of his upcoming term.

On Monday, Tunney looked back at his career impact and legacy. In his City Hall zoning committee office is a green screen background for Zoom meetings, a symbol of present-day, and vintage furniture, a homage to the past.

"All this furniture is left over from my predecessor," Tunney said. "Well, here's what I say: 'Be the best of what you are, and be open and proud.'"

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Some may call it a brave move, being a gay alderman in the early 2000s. But, Tunney said being out wasn't a question when he was appointed 44th Ward alderman in 2002. Then, he won his first election in 2003.

When asked if he was scared to be out in Chicago politics, Tunney said, "No, no. Again, I had been involved with the Daley administration on a civic level. I am a native Chicagoan."

"I think of it as a gift," he added. "We're all given gifts. What do you do with the gifts? You know, yes, there's prejudice in society, but maybe that makes you more competitive. Don't take sympathy. Just say, 'This is who I am.'"

In fact, he was most concerned about people he represented thinking he would only care about gay issues.

"That was the perception, is that all Tunney is going to care about LGBT issues. I said, 'No, I have had a record of working with senior issues, business issues.'"

Tunney owns the Ann Sather restaurants, which he ran well before becoming alderman. He said that helped him relate to other small business owners.

"Somebody told me when I first ran, said, 'you know, Tom, we think you would be a really good alderman. Just don't change who you are. Put your imprint on the system, because the system is an amalgam of ideas and, and moving our city forward.' So I just think that that's worked for me. I tried to lead by example. So far, it's been it's been successful, but a lot of sacrifice," Tunney said.

Tunney said he thinks the Center on Halsted is probably his biggest accomplishment. He also helped with the development of a new nearby police station and most recently, the Aids Garden and park near Belmont and the lakefront.

His desire to serve came long before he took office. In the 1980s, he helped with food deliveries and other charity for those dying of AIDS.

"As long as it stayed in the community what's the problem? It was kind of that ignorance and phobia associated with it. It was really devastating," Tunney said.

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After 20 years of service, he looked back at how others described him as "genuine."

"'This is Tom Tunney, we know who he is, yeah he's gay and that's great for some people.' Other people said, 'Alright, we know who he is,'" Tunney said.

Tunney is also vice mayor of the city and chairman of the zoning committee.

Tunney will retire at the end of his term as alderman in May 2023.