Katherine "Kit" Duffy was the city of Chicago's first liaison to the gay and lesbian community and played a key role in the successful push for a gay rights ordinance in the late 1980s.
Duffy, 71, died Dec. 22 of complications following heart surgery at Stroger Hospital, according to friend and veteran LGBT rights activist William Greaves.
"She was a wonderful, wonderful person. And smart. Oh, God, was she smart," Greaves said. "And she knew how to analyze problems, how to analyze issues and how to organize people to get those issues addressed. She was generous with her time and her abilities, and she would help anyone. She reached out to so many people and helped them."
A Maryland native, Duffy had lived in Chicago since the 1960s. Mayor Harold Washington appointed her as liaison to the gay and lesbian community, a newly created post, in 1984. Greaves said Duffy, who was straight, "literally threw open the doors" of City Hall to the gay community by setting up meetings between department heads and residents.
"At the time she had it, it was really about opening city resources to the community and making the city accountable to the community," said Greaves, who held the liaison position under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. "The city should function for them, and at that point it didn't. The community was really dependent on favors from politicians or self-appointed 'leaders' in the community … who were well-connected."
In the 1980s, Duffy was among those who advocated for a local measure to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. The ordinance, first introduced in the 1970s, was criticized by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and failed to move forward multiple times. But the City Council finally passed a human rights ordinance including protections for gay people in 1988.
"Kit was the kind of person who just gave her all, you know, as much as she had to give until there was nothing left," said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis.
Twenty years after the gay rights ordinance was passed , Duffy was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame "for her advocacy for LGBT rights."
Duffy was also the first executive director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and in the early 90s helped establish the Illinois Federation for Human Rights, today known as Equality Illinois. She formed a committee on gay and lesbian issues in the '80s, which later became the Advisory Council on LGBT Issues, in the hopes of maintaining services and communication with the gay community, Greaves said.
Longtime LGBT rights activist Rick Garcia said Duffy was the reason he remained in Chicago after visiting the city in the '80s. He said Duffy "empowered gay people to speak for ourselves," and brought together the city's diverse communities "with style and grace."
"I call her the midwife or the godmother of the modern gay rights movement in Chicago," Garcia said. "Her fingerprints are on every success that this community has had."
As activists continued to lobby for gay rights on the county and state level, Garcia said Duffy helped strategize behind the scenes, offering advice, ideas or the chance to set up meetings.
"She challenged me and criticized me a couple of times, which is no easy thing to do," Garcia said. "She was always on the mark and knew what needed to be done and how to get it done."
Duffy also pushed for more funding for HIV education and prevention, Garcia said. Last year, she supported Jesus "Chuy" Garcia's campaign for mayor.
In the months before she died, Duffy was encouraging Rick Garcia to cultivate young leaders in the gay community, he said.
Duffy, who was divorced, leaves no immediate survivors.
A celebration of her life is set for 3 to 6 p.m. Jan. 31 at Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted St.