Chicago's community saw its largest growth during the post-Stonewall 1970s
Chicago's gay community burst wide open in the 1970s. Building on the 1960s movement created by organizations like Mattachine Midwest, and emboldened by a new generation of college-age activists, the explosion out of the closets was unprecedented. The bar raids and Democratic National Convention riots, combined with the civil rights and women's movements, fostered the creation of radical and more conservative gay groups.
From the formation of Gay Liberation in 1969 at the University of Chicago came the splinter group Chicago Gay Alliance (CGA) in 1970. Both organizations wanted gay rights; they just represented different paths to achieve success. This would parallel similar schisms in the community that still exist in 2008. Then, as now, some splits were based on conservative vs. liberal philosophies, others on personality and style.
Many lesbians, disappointed with the sexism they perceived in gay groups, formed their own organizations and publications. Gays of color also created their own groups, including Third World Gay Revolutionaries. Gay organizations, including the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, sprouted from mainstream progressive organizations, and activists trained in the ways of civil disobedience from the Vietnam War used their skills in new gay and lesbian groups.
CGA and others started working on political issues, and began asking candidates their positions on gay issues and lobbying for city and state protections for gay people. But social events were also important, and Gay Liberation sponsored the first citywide dance at the South Side's Coliseum April 18, 1970, with 2,000 gays and lesbians in attendance. The ACLU worked with activists to make sure police knew that same-sex dancing was not illegal in Illinois. Even some gay bars believed this to be the case, and at least one was picketed until it allowed same-sex partners to dance there.
Chicago's first major gay political actions happened in 1970, less than a year after the Stonewall riots in New York City. On Feb. 25, gays protested the appearance of anti-gay police officer John Manley at a Women's Bar Association luncheon. In April 1970, on tax day (April 15), about 100 gays and lesbians marched with other non-gay Moratorium Week activists down State Street to the Federal Building to protest the use of tax dollars in Vietnam. On April 16, about 250 people gathered in Grant Park for Gay Liberation Day, which was also being celebrated in other U.S. cities. Activist Step May had the Student Mobilization Committee designate the day, and despite not having a permit, Gay Liberation held the event.
That summer, Chicago's first commemoration of the Stonewall riots was held. There were several social and political events, and on June 27 there was a rally at Bughouse Square downtown. More than 150 people attended the event, which ended with a march to the Civic Center Plaza (now the Daley Center Plaza). The Pride Parade has been held every June since; today, it attracts more than 400,000 spectators and participants.
In the early 1970s, Kathleen Thompson started Pride & Prejudice, the city's first feminist bookstore, at 3322 N. Halsted St. It later became The Women's Center, and in 1974 it was renamed the Lesbian Feminist Center (and Bookstore) and moved to a new location, 3523 N. Halsted St.
In early 1971, Chicago boasted its first gay community center. A Chicago Gay Alliance (CGA) member leased a two-story brick building at 171 W. Elm St. After renovations, the space housed CGA and was open to others to host meetings, rap groups and other events.
Beckman House, a community center, opened in early 1974 at 35191/2 N. Halsted St. The center was named for lesbian activist Barbara Beckman, who died in a car crash in 1972. The Tavern Guild of Chicago, which started in the 1970s, created the Rodde Fund in 1977 to found the city's next community center. The Rodde Center operated at 3225 N. Sheffield Ave. for several years, but funds from the sale of that property were squandered on rents during a failed several years of fundraising to start a new center. Chicago would not get a community center for nearly two more decades; eventually, Horizons changed its name to Center on Halsted, opening a massive new building in 2007.
While the passage of city and state gay rights legislation was years away, Chicago did see some important changes in the 1970s. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its categories of illness in 1973. In that same year, Pearl Hart and Renee Hanover successfully challenged the city's law against cross- dressing (until that point you could be arrested if you were not wearing at least three items of clothing considered appropriate to your gender).
A coalition of Chicago gay and lesbian groups was created out of anger at two women who, the groups felt, had tried to “exploit the issue of gay marriage in a publicity stunt.” In October 1975 Nancy Davis and Toby Schneiter tried to get a marriage license at the Cook County Clerk's office. The newly formed Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago included representatives of most major community groups, businesses and publications, including the Illinois Gay Rights Task Force, The Chicago Gay Crusader, Gender Services of Chicago, Dignity/Chicago, Mattachine Midwest and Gay Horizons, and opposed the women's action. The coalition felt the illprepared attempt would hurt efforts to pass the city's gay-rights bill.
Chicagoans were very connected to other regions and helped raise funds for the battle against the California Briggs Initiative; the survivors of a devastating fire at a New Orleans gay bar; and the quests of Leonard Matlovich and Miriam Ben-Shalom to stay in the U.S. military. In March 1977, Chicago's William B. Kelley was among a select group of 14 gays and lesbians who attended the first-ever gay meeting in the White House.
When Anita Bryant, pop-singer-turnedconservative-crusader, helped roll back gay rights in Dade County, Fla., Chicagoans quickly reacted. During her appearance at the Medinah Temple on June 14, 1977, several thousand people surrounded the building in what became a huge spark for the Chicago gay movement. Thirty years later, activists who attended that protest say it was among the most important events in Chicago's gay history.
Gay, lesbian and feminist media played a critical role in the community's growth in the 1970s. Dozens of newsletters and newspapers were started. Some lasted a short time, some lasted into the 1980s, and one founded at that time still publishes in 2008: Gay Chicago Magazine. For about a decade, Gay Chicago also hosted popular awards programs for the community, piggybacking on its Mr. Windy City pageant. The community's media publishers and reporters often pushed an activist agenda, editorializing for gay-rights bills and demonstrations and providing a critical analysis of difficult issues facing the community. The mainstream media continued their tainted coverage of the community, but there were exceptions, as some print and broadcast journalists tried to cover the community in a more balanced way. Gay groups protested mainstream media outlets, and gays working inside those companies tried to change things from within.
There were scandals in the 1970s, but none more difficult for the community than the case of John Wayne Gacy. The media frenzy around Gacy, who was convicted and executed for killing 33 young men and boys, threatened to destroy progress on gay issues. Gay people were quick to recognize that despite the slogan “Gay Is Good,” not all gay people are good. Acknowledging this fact was key to the maturing of the movement. There were other hate crimes in the 1970s, and killings by lovers and ex-lovers. There were also tragic suicides, some for personal reasons, and others for political causes.
Family of Woman, the first out lesbian rock band in the country, was started in Chicago in the early 1970s. Singer Linda Shear was out and proud in the media, speaking about her bandmates and their impact on the community. The women's festival and music movement was just beginning, and many Chicagoans were part of the national push to secure more roles for women in the music industry. Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, Women in Crisis Can Act, women's shelters, Artemis Singers and numerous other organizations started in the 1970s, and many carried on well into the 1990s and even 2000s. While the feminist Jane Addams Bookstore did not survive past the mid-1980s, Women & Children First Books, which started in the late 1970s, still is open in 2008.
Women were finding their voices in literature as well, and Marie J. Kuda hosted several important Lesbian Writers' Conferences in the 1970s. She and others, such as Metis Press and the Women's Graphics Collective, were also part of a critical national Women in Print movement. Chicago also hosted the American Library Association's annual meetings several times and frequently hosted the ALA's Gay Liberation Task Force book awards.
The fight for Illinois to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment was pushed by many lesbians, and some gay men joined the cause as well. But Illinois-based anti-gay activist Phyllis Schlafly's campaign against the measure was successful, and Illinois was unable to join other states in an effort to put the measure over the top. The ERA never passed as a constitutional amendment.
On the social scene, disco was the name of the game. Many dance clubs sprouted up, some fueled by liberal drug use and drinking in the community. Some gay and lesbian bars that opened in the 1960s were still around, but a new wave of bars opened in the 1970s, some of which are still open in 2008. With the rise of disco also came the rise of the dance-music disc jockey as celebrity, and Chicago's Frankie Knuckles, credited with being the founder of house music, still is among the hottest DJs in the world.
In the 1970s, Jim Flint's Baton Show Lounge, which started in 1969, built a loyal following among gays and straights who wanted to see the female impersonators; Chilli Pepper was just starting her 30+-year career as a female performer, winning the title of Miss Gay Chicago 1974.
Gay bars were often not gay-owned, however, and the mafia's control was stifling, to say the least. The police collected payoffs to prevent bar raids, but they often raided them anyway, especially close to election time. Jim Flint was among those who helped break up the payoff schemes, risking a lot by testifying in court.
Unfortunately, the racial divisions in Chicago were (and are still) visible within the gay and lesbian community. Some gay bars were accused of excessive demands for identification from African- American patrons. Patricia McCombs was so upset by the extra carding at one lesbian bar that she worked with attorney Renee Hanover to fight the bar's liquor license. McCombs was joined by dozens picketing the bar, and other efforts were made to protest similar carding at gay clubs around the city. The Black gay community was beginning to create separate spaces for pride as well. The “Rocks” along the lake near Belmont Avenue became the site of an annual Black gay pride celebration; it later moved to the lakefront at Montrose Drive.
Religious gay groups were also growing strong, including Dignity/Chicago for Roman Catholics, Congregation Or Chadash for Jews, and the congregations of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, for those seeking another way to worship.
Chuck Renslow's leather and business empire expanded in 1979 with the founding of the International Mr. Leather contest. In 2008, the contest will celebrate its 30th titleholder, attracting contestants and spectators from around the world.
While lesbians and gay men played sports in city leagues and even had all-gay teams in the 1960s in straight bowling and softball leagues, Lincoln Park Lagooners was Chicago's first gay sport and social group, incorporated in 1977. By 1978, the Gay Athletic Association (later the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association) was formed to host 16-inch softball leagues for men and women. The growth of sports teams and leagues soon took off, including the Windy City Athletic Association, the Women's Sports Association and individual gay teams in straight leagues. Eventually, Chicago's gay sports infrastructure was strong enough to host Gay Games VII in 2006.
The issue of parents' and families' supporting their gay and lesbian children also began to be addressed in the 1970s. Gay activist Guy Warner was looking for support for his mother, and when he found nothing he started his own group. Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) did not exist yet, so he worked with Mattachine Midwest to start Parents of Gays in March 1977. PFLAG's Chicago chapter later grew out of this organization. Lionheart Theatre also began in the 1970s, creating groundbreaking works and fostering the work of gay and lesbian playwrights into the 1990s. The work of Jeff Hagedorn (who wrote One, the first play about AIDS in the United States), Nick Patricca, Rick Paul and many others was featured.
The people of Lionheart and other activists and cultural pioneers were inspired by an event that ended the 1970s with a bang: the Oct. 14, 1979, National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. An estimated 100,000 people attended that first of several similar Washington, D.C.—based national marches. Chicagoans who drove, took the train or flew to D.C. for the weekend's events came back forever changed. That renewed energy was needed, because the movement was about to face a new and terrifying opponent: AIDS.
From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.