James A. "Jim" Bussen spent his formative years in the small towns of downstate Illinois, after which he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a double major in philosophy and communication, from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Bussen arrived in Chicago in 1973, a time when Chicago's gay and lesbian community was emerging from the shadows of invisibility. Bussen's flamboyant personality, gift for humor, and sense of fairness made him a welcome addition to the organizations and groups whose work helped to shape the political success that was finally achieved more than a decade later. These included the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago, the Gay and Lesbian Pride Committee, Dignity/Chicago, and the Gay Rights Task Force of the Alliance To End Repression. Among the activities in which he participated were the rally and demonstration at Medinah Temple that were organized in response to an appearance there by Anita Bryant, and Orange Balls I and II which were held to raise funds to counter the singer's homophobic political activities across the country.
Bussen was among the Chicagoans who, under the sponsorship of Dignity/Chicago, traveled to Wichita, Kansas, to leaflet churches prior to Wichita's vote on the repeal of its gay rights ordinance, an action arising from Bryant's campaign of intolerance.
Bussen was also a part of the first organized contingent of Chicago gay men and lesbians who journeyed to Springfield when gay rights legislation was initially introduced. In addition to the legislators who represented his home district in Chicago, Bussen made a special effort to lobby others from downstate, enlisting his parents to accompany him on these visits.
Over the course of his political involvement, Bussen worked with the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
Bussen found his own special niche in his work with Dignity/Chicago, the local affiliate of a national organization founded to meet the needs of gay and lesbian Roman Catholics. Starting as a member of the group's local board of directors, Bussen became Dignity/USA's volunteer regional director and was seated on its national board. Between 1985 and 1989, he served two terms as Dignity/USA's national president.
During Bussen's tenure with DignityUSA, the group's House of Delegates passed the "Miami resolution," which stated in part: "We believe that gay men and lesbian women can express their sexuality in a manner which is consonant with Christ's teaching. We believe that all sexuality should be exercised in an ethically responsible and unselfish way. We are committed to work for the development of the church's sexual theology. Therefore, in this capacity, we affirm that gay and lesbian people can express their sexuality physically in a unitive manner that is loving, life-giving and life-affirming."
Also under Bussen's leadership Dignity/USA became the first national gay/lesbian organization to purchase a full-page, full-circulation advertisement in a major weekly news magazine (Newsweek, in April 1987) to increase gay/lesbian visibility to mainstream America. Bussen also takes special pride in having been named by Pope John Paul II as one of nine Americans the pontiff would refuse to see during his 1987 visit here.
Bussen was inducted into Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1994.
John Chester, an activist colleague of Bussen's, said he met Bussen in the mid-1970s at a meeting of the Gay Rights Task Force of the Alliance To End Repression (the precursor to the Illinois Gay Task Force). "Jim was very able to rebut all the so-called theological and scriptural issues offered by the church with scripture and theology that he had learned. He had a very public and heated exchange with the Bishop of Belleville about us," Chester recalled. "Jim followed politics very closely and very passionately and was a very progressive Democrat. His concerns were very Christ like. … He was concerned with the poor and those needed care and support."
Bussen moved back to southern Illinois around 2005 after his retirement from the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board. A few years later he was diagnosed with cancer and spent three years in treatment to deal with the diease. He died on July 6, 2013, in Glen Carbon, Illinois, surrounded by family.
His death occurred during Dignity's national convention in Minneapolis, where Jim was mourned and remembered by many persons present there: http://www.dignityusa.org/content/dignityusa-mourns-passing-past-president-james-bussen
Bussen's friend Pat Roche, who was his successor as national president of DignityUSA, stated: "I believe that Jim's prophetic leadership in getting the 'Miami Resolution' passed was the most important event in Dignity's 44 year history (1969-2013). It spoke truth to power by strongly affirming Dignity's belief in the life affirming, life giving nature of our relationships. It eventually led to the eviction of all Dignity chapters from Catholic Church property … but left Dignity and our members with the knowledge that we had spoken with complete, unadorned integrity and honesty … no matter what the cost. I remember one delegate saying: 'If we won't stand up and affirm the goodness and holiness of our relationships, who will?'"
Roche continued: "Jim may have been in People Magazine as 'One of the people the Pope wouldn't be visiting on his trip to the United States' but he should also be remembered as a 'Faithful Dissenter' because he truly did 'love' and 'change' our Church. Because of his efforts … and those of so many others ... polls repeatedly show that the majority of Catholics in the pews now support marriage equality … . Despite the ongoing resistance of Popes and Cardinals and Bishops. Jim was my spiritual mentor and close friend for 30 years. Someone once said that for Catholics, the faith is always in us, even if we aren't always officially in the faith. In the end, Jim always believed 'We (the people not the hierarchy) are the Church' ... and he turned there in all of life's challenges. At the end, he received last rites and, I believe, died with a peace that sometimes eluded him in his decades long struggle with the Church hierarchy."
Here are excerpts from an interview with Bussen by John J. Accrocco, published the October 12, 2011 issue of Windy City Times, part of its AIDS @ 30 series.
"My life has been exciting beyond my wildest dreams," said Jim Bussen, who attended seminary school in Omaha after high school, but quickly found the limitations of the Midwestern city.
"This was the early 1970s and there really wasn't anywhere to go, there were only two gay bars in all of Omaha. Omaha is a very Catholic city," Bussen said. "What we needed was a discussion group. A few of us would get together and just talk about the articles in The Advocate and eventually we held Omaha's first gay dinner-dance in a hotel." In 1973 Bussen was motivated to leave the staunchly Catholic community and the seminary by accepting a position with the U.S. Railroad retirement board as a claims examiner in Chicago.
Bussen found Chicago's chapter of the gay Catholic group Dignity the very first Sunday of his new life in Chicago. Though the big city was progressive enough for the Catholic gay prayer circle, Chicago was only slightly less conservative than the Omaha Bussen left.
"Life was barely more out than the closeted '50s: bars, bookstores, baths were the gathering places," he said. "Dignity and MCC [the Metropolitan Community Church] were the two biggest organizations then until the Lincoln Park Lagooners started, which became huge. Back then only first names were used by the vast majority, only a brave few used full, real names. One can't dismiss the sexual boom of the baths and the entertainment there (ala Bette Midler) as the start of a real social scene, then separating from the sexual which lead to all the variety of clubs and organizations. I joined Dignity because it felt nice to meet other gay Catholics."
About his years of activism, Bussen said: "Who would have guessed to move to the big city, get a great job, a chance to travel (not only to almost every state but also to Europe!), and from the very innocent act of going to Dignity's mass the very first Sunday after arriving in Chicago I would meet involved and challenging people, who themselves were engaged politically, and I learned from them, and would become life-long friends.
"Then in some way [I would] offer my services to accept the challenge of being part of the national movement. I always wanted what was right and fair. And as part of that, to participate in confronting the Bishops face-to-face, to speak on behalf of Catholic GLBT folk, to channel anger and outrage, what an exhilarating, exhausting and rewarding experience. And hey, not too shabby to appear in People magazine as 'one of nine Americans the Pope won't meet, and why!' Now that is a hoot!"
Like so many other activists of Bussen's generation, he remembered the tragic onset of the AIDS crisis. "It was a real push to come out and then the real explosion of the volunteer groups and the gay cultural scene," he said. "It changed everything overnight. AIDS became a catalyst and a sadness. … We had to step up to the plate and stand up for our rights. The losses were very dramatic but look how many changes it brought about, especially concerning gay marriage and the idea of being able see your partner in the hospital etc. It forced us all out into the open. I look at it as the closet-door movement in the gay community.
"As far as Dignity Chicago goes, we established a committee to help raise funds for housing needs for those early years. Out of which grew Chicago House and several of Dignity's first board members then served as Chicago House board presidents."
Bussen said he felt that it was only a matter of time before Illinois would follow New York's success in legalizing same-sex marriage. "I think it will be relatively soon too because of all the lobbying," he said. "It's kind of odd to have civil unions and not expect marriage rights. It's a good enough step but it's only a matter of containment. The church is always going to believe something and religion can't interfere with government. Gay marriage is inevitable."
(This biographical profile compiled from Bussen's entry in the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame http://www.glhalloffame.org/index.pl?item=53&todo=view_item and an obituary by Tracy Baim published in the Windy City Times on July 6, 2013 http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/PASSAGES-James-A-Bussen-dies/43607.html.
Photo from Windy City Media Group.)
Biography Date: August, 2014