Paulette Curkin has been called a “champion” of the LGBTQ community in Southern Illinois. While she may be retired, the impact she has made throughout the region has been long-lasting.
Curkin, who is a lesbian, said she knew about her sexuality early in her life and despite “hating sports,” she went on to receive her undergraduate degree in physical education. “At that time I thought, well I knew I was lesbian, so I thought I had to be a gym teacher,” she said.
When looking at attending Southern Illinois University Carbondale for graduate school, Curkin said she didn’t think “there was going to be” much of a gay and lesbian community because the rural school seemed more “Southern-oriented” than where she grew up on the East Coast.
Shortly after arriving in Carbondale in the early ‘70s, Curkin pulled a professor aside and told him: ”I’m gay, but that’s not a problem. My problem is — where do I find my people?” Her assumptions about a thin lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and questioning community were quickly broken. She found there “was a very strong community” and activism amid the women’s liberation movement — a social movement that sought equal rights, opportunities and greater personal freedom for women.
After being put in touch with another lesbian woman, she was invited to a house party with members of the LGBTQ community. At the time, there wasn’t a gay bar or other local way to socialize with the queer community aside from those social gatherings. “That’s where I first met other gay people in Southern Illinois,” she said.
SIU approved the first gay and lesbian student organization in April 1971 — the Gay Liberation Organization — and while the group has evolved through the years, it remains one of the oldest gay and lesbian student groups in the country.
After graduating with her master’s degree in higher education, Curkin went back to Connecticut, but had a difficult time finding a job. She knew she wanted to come back to Carbondale as quickly as she could. “Who would’ve thought coming from New England that I would fall in love with Southern Illinois,” she said in a July 2020 interview.
Curkin was hired by her mentor in New Haven as the associate director of housing at Southern Connecticut State University, but picked up some experience working at new lesbian bar in New Haven. “I started out as a bouncer and I was good because I’m Jewish and I’m really good at guilt,” she said.
During her stint at the bar, Curkin learned how to serve and bartend. She eventually decided to return to Carbondale. While pursuing a doctoral degree at SIU, she decided to drop out of the program and start a new chapter. “I couldn’t find a job, so I created my own — I opened a gay bar,” she said.
In 1982, Curkin and her business partner, Paul, bought a bar in town that had fallen on tough times and turned it into Mainstreet East. She admits they didn’t know what they were doing when they opened it, but were lucky there was an abundance of community support.
Billy Rogers worked as a bartender at Mainstreet East and said he remembers the day the bar opened, they didn’t have their liquor license, which could’ve caused delays. He said he jumped in Curkin’s yellow Datsun station wagon and drove to Springfield to get the license, then drove to Belleville to be able to buy the alcohol for the bar.
“I remember loading the back of that little station wagon and just going pedal to the metal, getting to the bar, unloading and getting dressed — it was just amazing,” he said. “That night was just purely magical.”
Despite the time crunch, Mainstreet East opened as planned and hundreds packed into the bar on East Main Street in Carbondale. “Once we got the liquor and we opened the doors, everything just became magic from that moment on,” Rogers said.
Curkin added that when they opened the bar, she and Paul “had about $800 left” in their bank account and “found it cost $3,500 a week to operate,” but the pair was successful. “It was a good bar, I think people felt comfortable there — people felt welcome,” she said.
The work at the bar came naturally to Curkin — especially through her background in working with students in the world of higher education. “What it seemed to me ... was that I was doing student personnel work with a liquor license,” she said.
While Carbondale boasted a robust activist community, the gay community has trekked a tumultuous road — both in Southern Illinois and throughout the country — as the LGBTQ community searched for equality and acceptance.
Curkin said during the 1980s “you could be fired for being gay” and “the police would cruise the parking lot (of the bar) and write down people’s licenses. People were afraid that they would contact their employers and get them fired.” She added there were a number of her customers who were local business professionals and would call her to be let in through the back door to avoid the possibility of being identified going into the bar.
Reminiscing on the times, Blanche DuBois, who has been a female impersonator for over 30 years and who performed at Mainstreet East, said she remembered similar scenarios. “I can remember people parking in the main parking lot and hiding in the bushes until traffic stopped so they could run in (to the bar) because it was a taboo thing — you hid,” she said. “You couldn’t be gay because it was looked down upon. I always said that's the thing now that I like, because they're going to be teaching that in schools. You’re treated better now than you were years ago."
Navigating the landscape of the times wasn’t always an easy task, but Curkin said they did so through building relationships with the city and police department. She said she remembers a time when there was a problem with cars being broken into. Curkin allowed the police to use the bar’s second floor for surveillance.
“I would bring them sodas and stuff like that so we created a nice relationship,” Curkin said.”When you create familiarity, it’s harder for them to hate you.”
Curkin said there was a lack of understanding in Southern Illinois about the gay community. In response to the gruesome murder of a gay man from Murphysboro in the late ‘80s, local law enforcement questioned Curkin, and while looking for suspects in the gay community, asked if there “could’ve been some kind of satanic ritual” associated with the death.
The bar occasionally saw protestors picketing outside around the time of the “rise of the Christian right,” Curkin said, but she said her tactic in combating their rhetoric was “sending the drag queens out” to talk to them. “Blanche (DuBois) went out there and said ‘girl, you’re working my corner’ and they got so scared, they left,” she said.
DuBois said Curkin has always been a leader within the community. “She was always there for us and the gay bar gave us a place to be ourselves when years ago we weren’t accepted,” she said. “Being a leader and opening a gay establishment was a great feeling — we had a place to do our art and our craft.”
Rogers said it is hard to sum up Curkin’s contributions, career and character in one word other than being a “heroine,” and while she is well-known for running Mainstreet East, she is more than a bar owner. “It was about community, in every sense of the word,” he said. “It was for the LGBTQ community and anyone that supported it.”
Curkin’s bar branched out to serve more than just the LGBTQ community through events like their “new wave” music night and through their drag shows, which brought people of all genders and sexual orientations to the venue. Curkin then co-sponsored drag shows on campus alongside the SIU Student Center, and said the event grew to be “the largest program on campus other than a sporting event.”
After five and a half years at the bar, in 1987, Curkin decided to step away because “the cost of the bar against the income was getting really bad” due to increasing costs, she said. An opportunity to work in housing opened up at SIU, and she went for it. While at the university, she was an advocate for solutions for LGBTQ disparities and increased education.
“Paulette was the ... most influential LGBTQ early leader who, up until retirement and beyond, helped the university and the Carbondale community,” said Carmen Suarez, former coordinator of diversity and equity at SIU. She said Curkin embodies the characteristics of a “servant leader” and “saw the need to work through and make sure services were provided to the LGBTQ community.”
Curkin became the adviser for the gay student group — which later became the Saluki Rainbow Network — and became a mentor to countless students on campus, helping them with advice and support when it was needed. Through the student group, a faculty and community group — the Triangle Coalition — was formed to recruit diverse staff to SIU and give additional support to LGBTQ faculty and staff at the university.
Rogers said hospitality was regularly extended to those within the community, whether through introductory picnics or happy hour events at The Grotto in Carbondale. “She just has a way of bringing everybody together and anybody that supported the community,” he said.
The faculty and staff group fought for improved work benefits for the LGBTQ community, such as improved health care and recognition of domestic partners. The group was able to secure the recognition of domestic partners in the early ‘90s, but attempts to obtain health insurance for same-sex couples clashed with the ideologies of former SIU Carbondale Chancellor Walter Wendler.
In 2004, Wendler publicly criticized a decision by the SIU Board of Trustees to extend partial health benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees working for SIU. Wendler, quoted in a July 2004 article of The Southern Illinoisan, said he opposed the policy because it was "encouraging sinful behavior."
The university launched a campus climate survey following the incident with Wendler and eventually created the first-ever LGBTQ Resource Center in 2007 — nearly 20 years after Curkin started working at the university. She was named director of the center after its opening, but retired shortly after, having served the university for 21 years.
The impact Curkin has made for the LGBTQ community has been resounding, but she said she is “standing on the shoulders of the people that came before” her. Her career did not come without recognition. Curkin received the 2002 Lindell W. Sturgis Memorial Public Service Award, given annually by the SIU Board of Trustees. The award recognizes university employees for public service outside of their jobs.
Curkin also received SIU’s Administrative/Professional Staff Outstanding Service Award for 2005-2006 and earned a Gold Award designation within the diversity category from the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators for her student leadership program “What I Want You to Know About Me.”
In the nomination for the AP staff recognition, Suarez wrote that Curkin has served the university in many key capacities beyond her assigned duties through the years. She also noted Curkin’s work in the community through her service with the Carbondale Women’s Center Board, the Carbondale Liquor Advisory Board and the local American Cancer Society Regional Board of Directors. To this day, Curkin continues to serve the community — she currently is on the Jackson County Board of Review, which oversees the review of local property taxes.
Throughout her career, Curkin has had a robust interest in the community and has had a “significant and substantial” impact within Carbondale while making change in very “tangible ways,” Suarez said. “She really is a legend and (just) a really nice and kind person.”
When reflecting on her career, Curkin said she has always taken pride in working toward goals in her career, but the thing she is proudest of is her work with students. “The thing I’m the proudest of are the students that I worked with, and those were gay students and straight students,” she said. “Just being open and out and hopefully impacting their lives in a positive way.”
Many have described Curkin as a “bridge-builder” and have commended the seeds of progress she has sown at the university and in the community. She said she wouldn’t have been able to succeed in her endeavors without the support of the community and countless friends.
Since her time at university, the landscape of the LGBTQ community has changed drastically throughout the state and country — a new Illinois law requires schools to teach about the contributions of LGBTQ+ pioneers, gay marriage was legalized across the country in 2015, and national discrimination protections now include gay and transgender people. The progress throughout the country has made Curkin feel “hopeful” for the future, and the overarching effort to “(break) through biases (and) stereotypes.”
In retirement, Curkin continues living life to the fullest at her lakefront home in Murphysboro alongside her 11-year-old chocolate lab, Sadie. She continues to host her weekly poker night with friends, which has been running for over 30 years, but the “greasy food and alcohol has turned into water and fresh fruit.”
On Twitter: @brianmmunoz
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