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Black History Month: Robert Ford

Written by Tony Hobday

Robert Ford was a freelance journalist, publisher, and activist born and raised in Chicago. His groundbreaking African-American-focused AIDS column ran in Pulse magazine until the time of his death. 

Ford also collaborated with Trent Adkins and Laurence Warren to found Think Ink, an arts magazine that was, “very Black, not very gay but queer-friendly.” The publishing trio unleashed Thing into the world shortly after that. Running from 1989–1993, Thing — with “She Knows Who She Is” tagline — became legendary in ‘zine communities, and Ford described it as a “black gay and lesbian underground arts journal and magazine kind of thing.”

Published “capriciously”— typically every three or four months — Thing featured original interviews, writing, and photographs by artists, musicians, writers, activists, and performers from queer scenes across the U.S., including figures such as Vaginal Davis, RuPaul, Joan Jett Blakk, Lady Bunny, Willi Ninja, Dorian Corey, Essex Hemphill, and many others.

Thing’s title was in part a reference to self-organized, DIY culture, as in “do your own thing”; it sought in particular to build networks of “things” within and among underground cultures in Chicago and beyond. Ford described wanting to create alternative familial ties, inspired by the support he received from his family after he came out as gay. “As I look back on the projects which were my work,” he once wrote, “they existed not only as magazines to inform the general public but as structures to assemble a very special creative queer family.”

In 1991, at “SPEW: The Homographic Convergence”— a showcase of queer magazines, T-shirts, videotapes, and performance that took place in Chicago — Ford said, “We wanted to make a magazine that would be a way of documenting our existence and contribution to society. Our idea was not so much [to] radicalize or subvert the idea of magazines as to make one from our point of view.” It was a necessary intervention because there was “so little of us in ‘mainstream media.’”

Ford announced the final Thing after the publication of the 10th issue in 1993, in order to focus on freelance writing projects, as well as because of his declining health as a result of AIDS. He died later that same year, at age 31.

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Tony Hobday

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