Whose Gay History?

Chicago went from raiding gay nightclubs to painting rainbows all over its streets. But queer history is more complicated than the standard progressive fable…

olin

When 38-year-old Ron Huberman landed the coveted job as head of the country’s third-largest school system in Chicago, he did so with absolutely no background in education. But Chicago was ruled by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J., who continued a proud dynastic tradition of political appointments. Huberman had formerly been appointed president of the Chicago Transit Authority (by Daley) and before that, was Daley’s Chief of Staff and, before that, Executive Director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (also appointed by Daley). By Daley standards, he was a perfect fit for the job.

But the news of Huberman’s appointment in 2009 was soon dwarfed by his apparent revelation to the Chicago Sun-Times: that he was gay. Huberman’s coming out left many in Chicago’s influential gay community bemused; he had already been out for a long time. He had a partner with whom he openly attended social and workplace events in gay bars and establishments all over town, and he had been out to his parents since the age of 15. In effect, Huberman re-emerged from a closet that he had thrown wide open many years ago.

Daley and his administration always had a tight grip on what kind of stories accompanied news of appointments, so the coming out story was clearly no accident. It was meant to deflect attention away from both Huberman’s lack of qualifications and the controversies surrounding CPS at the time. Daley had just announced the closure and reorganization of 22 schools and everywhere parents and students were agitating against the slashing of funds to the beleaguered system. Daley himself was not doing well in polls, facing widespread criticism for having ceded too much on a citywide parking meter contract which quadrupled residents’ parking costs. He would eventually decide to not run for re-election and Huberman, who began his CPS term promising to stay in for the long haul, would hand in his own resignation soon after Daley’s announcement.

But in retrospect, the Huberman appointment was a novel new kind of political scheme. Got a school district to kill? Hire the gay guy, have him “come out” to the press, and continue your decimation of schools while everyone is even momentarily distracted. 

To be gay in Chicago was once a potential source of shame and stigma, especially in the senior Daley’s administration. On April 25, 1964, police carried out an early morning raid on a nightclub called the Fun Lounge, to which the city’s gays flocked to mix and mingle. As John D. Poling writes in Out and Proud in Chicago, Cook County Sheriff Richard Ogilvie had placed the club under surveillance, describing its activities as “too loathsome to describe.” The raid resulted in the arrests of 109 people. The Chicago Tribune reported the names of eight teachers and four municipal employees in the paper, ruining their and several other lives in the process.

The Chicago of today is almost unrecognizably different. The city has become a hospitable landscape for gays, especially the wealthy and powerful sort. Chicago is now home to numerous gay nonprofits and swarms with gay politicians, activists, and officials.  It is home to gay men like Chuck Renslow, the founder of International Mr. Leather, a long-standing (since 1979) annual conference and contest for leathermen. It is also home to wealthy gay men like Fred Eychaner, one of the most powerful and influential men in the country, ranked as the sixth highest contributor to the Democratic National Committee. In 1998, Daley renovated, with great fanfare, the predominantly gay Lakeview neighborhood popularly known as Boystown. The $3.2 million facelift came with giant, phallic rainbow pylons that marked the area’s limits and was the ultimate sign that the city of Chicago loves its gays, at least of a certain type.

Within people’s lifetimes, then, Chicago went from police raids on gay lounges to taxpayer-funded rainbow streetscapes. All of which raises a baffling question: how did the city get from there to here?

It’s the question examined by historian Timothy Stewart-Winter’s new book Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics, which looks at Chicago in the post-war years in an attempt to identify just how these dramatic changes came about.

For the most part, gay history has focused on the coasts. It is widely and in some sense accurately assumed that those fleeing the repression of the heartland inevitably departed for the east or the west. But there have always been gays in the Midwest, and their story is only beginning to be told. Chicago is, as Stewart-Winter rightly points out, “a major transportation hub and one of the nation’s largest cities, and it drew gay migrants from across the Midwest.” It is also an international city, home to several immigrant communities, and historically a bastion of left-wing organizing (we gave the world the eight-hour week, and you’re very welcome).

Chicago has a long and storied history, having been home to several such political and social movements. Give this complexity, it makes sense that Stewart-Winter focuses on a particular period of gay history, and how it unfolded within the context of the growing civil rights movement.

Sensibly, he also emphasizes the local aspect, and the importance of state laws. State and municipal politics and law have always had a large effect on the lives of  gay people. It was, after all, local laws and policing practices that first made life hell for gays and then eased the restrictions on them.

And the state government has constantly been of major import. For example, in 1961, the Illinois legislature passed two laws which almost contradicted each other. The first decriminalized gay sex by repealing the Illinois “crime against nature” statute. But the second “altered liquor regulations in a way that gave the city of Chicago more power to keep gay bars closed after a raid.” This, Stewart-Winter points out, had a negative effect on gays as individuals and as a group: “Chicago’s experience thus revealed that legalizing intimate acts was not enough to make gay people feel safe when they gathered.”

But who were these “gay people?” They were a far more diverse group, economically and racially, than is traditionally acknowledged. One of the contributions of Stewart-Winter’s book is to examine how the struggles of gay people were fought in tandem with those of African Americans.

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Great Migration, and Chicago was one of the cities to which African Americans moved from the south. The city’s racial history has been a troubling one, marked more by hostility, stigma, and exclusion than by acceptance, and the urban segregation and division between whites and blacks can also be seen in its gay community. Queer Clout examines the rise of gay power in the unavoidable context of black-white relations. Stewart-Winter posits that gay activists employed the tactics of the civil rights movement and even briefly worked with its leaders. Today’s gay movement is largely cynical in its use and appropriation of civil rights history and rhetoric: gay marriage activists have repeatedly and troublingly likened themselves to Rosa Parks. But at least for a brief period of time in Chicago, the alliance between white gays and African American civil rights activists was more palpable and genuine.

Early in the morning of December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and deputy chair of the national BPP, was murdered by police during a raid, while he lay sleeping. Also killed was Mark Clark, the Black Panther member on security duty at the time. The killings incited explosive responses amongst blacks and whites, with support or denunciation falling along mostly predictable racial lines. Stewart-Winter writes that the incident would “cement the fragile black-gay alliance in Chicago” when the leaders of the Mattachine Midwest, the leading gay organization at the time, were taken on a tour of the apartment in which the two men were killed, the walls still riddled with bullets. Shortly after, Mattachine Midwest and Chicago Gay Liberation, another new and more radical group, issued a joint statement supporting the Panthers in challenging the police version of the raid.

Equally fascinating is the political history of Chicago’s black politicians and their efforts on behalf of the gay community. Gays fighting against restrictive laws found allies in men like Alderman Clifford Kelley and Harold Washington, Chicago’s first and so far only black mayor.  Such alliances were not entirely outside of traditional Machine politics—Washington, for instance, was innately progressive in his sympathies, but his stance came just as much from political necessity: he needed gay white progressive votes to combat the racist vote-gathering of white politicians opposed to him. Ultimately, though, neither the alliances between activists nor the ones between politicians and activists would last very long. This was because, as Stewart-Winter writes, “…ironically, in the very years when policing and punishment in black neighborhoods began to increase, the policing of predominantly white gay establishments and neighborhoods became far less systematic.” As the gay rights movement scored victories, and the police raids finally stopped, the experiences of black and gay people were no longer as obviously comparable. The gay rights movement would go on to score several victories, and police raids on mainstream (white) bars finally stopped. But this came at the same time as deepening poverty and more police surveillance on the south and west sides where blacks and an increasing Latino population resided. Eventually, the racial rifts between white gays and the rest of the city widened again, as the differing populations dealt with more or less a sense of security and safety from the state.

Over the course of detailing such shifts and changes, Queer Clout introduces hitherto relatively unknown Chicago activists like Pearl Hart, a Jewish lesbian lawyer who defended prostitutes and left-wing activists, and Ron Sable, a gay physician and activist who would be instrumental in developing gay-focused health care resources in the city. And it reveals interesting details about those who have since gone on to rosy careers as established progressives. For instance: Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, a Latino member of the Chicago Board of Commissioners, became famous in 2015 for nearly ousting incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In a city famous for its allegiance to the Machine, and for only having elected one non-white mayor (Washington), Garcia was lauded as the lefty-progressive alternative to Emanuel, who has long been seen as one of the more conventional liberals of the Democratic party. But in Queer Clout, we learn that Garcia, had to be “hauled in and sort of beaten” by union people when he attempted to wiggle out of supporting a gay ordinance in the late ‘80s, according to writer Achy Obejas.

Queer Clout gives us many such tantalizing glimpses into Chicago political life, though it sometimes feels discordant and episodic as it tries to mold several stories and a wide range of characters into a larger, coherent narrative. The book will become a resource for those curious about gay history outside the coasts, and could easily have been at least twice its size.

In his most lucid chapter, “Lesbian Survival School,” Stewart-Winter paints a comprehensive and poignant picture of the challenges facing Chicago’s lesbian community as it worked on developing what was often a radical feminist agenda and also dealt with the complexities of race and ethnicity. Chicago was “the epicenter of the socialist feminist union movement that spread to more than a dozen cities in the 1970s,” Stewart-Winter points out. “Since the emergence of gay liberation,” he notes, “lesbian politics has been far more inflected by radicalism than has gay male politics.” As women, lesbians needed to pay more attention to matters like workplace harassment, equal pay, and abortion and reproductive rights. As feminists, they were more inclined to resist the pathway of marriage towards respectability.

But lesbians are not a homogeneous block, and there have been racial divisions from the beginning. Early lesbian feminism was imbued with the politics of separatism, something that black lesbians, who have historically needed and wanted to be part of their families and communities, have not always aligned with. In addition, white lesbians have historically tended to work on the assumption that queer=white.

As nearly anyone with the most casual understanding of the city knows, race continues to centrally define Chicago life and politics. In 2009, reporting on Chicago being ranked the most segregated city (it has recently moved down to third place), the Chicago Tribune interviewed several residents, asking why they chose to live in segregated neighborhoods. Not once did the paper even use the word “racism.” It concluded the piece by quoting a black woman: “There is a comfort level being among people of your own race…I don’t think that there was any intention of segregation behind that.”

But segregation in this city is not some genteel agreement between the races and ethnicities to quietly live away from each other. Rather, the segregation that is starkly evident to anyone who travels beyond the city’s justly celebrated downtown landscape is marked by economic devastation on the south side and much of the west. Everywhere on the south side, school buildings are shuttered, grocery stores are scarce, and large patches of neighborhoods are simply boarded up. Nearly all of this has been the result of many decades of brutally enforced, plantation-style racist and economic policies and actions. As recently as 1975, the Chicago Reporter sent a black journalist, Stephan Garnett, to Marquette Park, located in a white neighborhood, to report on its facilities. He was set upon by nearly 20 white men, had a beer bottle broken on his head, and his car set on fire. In 2011, mostly white and gay residents of Boystown, insisting that black youth coming to the area’s social service agencies were committing crimes in their neighborhood, declared that they would create dog squads to patrol in the evenings.

All of this is to say: the alliances between black and white gays and lesbians were doomed to fail in a city whose racism survives in its most unmediated, primal form and which serves as its living, breathing, heart. Stewart-Winter does not quite name racism as a motivation but does point to the ways in which these racial inequalities reinforce other kinds. Quoting a 1993 report by the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago, he writes about how the concentration of gay organizations in (mostly white) Lake View compels queers of color who live elsewhere to travel long distances for basic services.

Yet when it comes to the racial schism in Chicago, Stewart-Winter’s own analysis echoes the very problems that he attributes to queer activism. Given his attention to race, it’s surprising that Stewart-Winter often falls into the familiar trap of distinguishing between gay activists and black activists, thereby erasing the group of people who are both gay and black. We learn little about Chicago’s queer of color activist community or how it has been nourished in its historic spaces, like the famed Bronzeville, home to Chicago Jazz and Blues. The city’s black queer scene was for years celebrated even in the 1920s by Chicago Defender, black America’s paper of record. In more recent times, black queer life has been sustained by both groups and individuals. Affinity, a nonprofit group, has worked to provide resources for social services and support. The poet and organizer C.C. Carter organized Pow-Wow, a performance space that, for years, often showcased black queer talent. Academics like Cathy Cohen and Beth Richie have served as mentors to more radical groups like Black Youth Project. BYP, along with Assata’s Daughters, has worked with the local chapter of Black Lives Matter and others to defeat State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in her recent re-election bid. Alvarez was notorious for not immediately investigating the killing of Laquan McDonald, the black youth who was killed with 16 shots fired by officer Jason Van Dyke.

Assata’s Daughters was founded by black queer women under 30, like Hannah Baptiste and Page May. The black prison abolitionist and activist Mariame Kaba has been the driving force behind an astonishingly large array of mostly queer black and youth-led radical organizing. Among Latinas, groups like the now dissolved Amigas Latinas survived for over two decades, bringing together lesbians and trans people in spaces that helped budding activists develop their own organizing talents. Many of them have gone on to work as immigration activists.

This kind of dynamic, activist fervor did not come out of the blue but has been decades in the making. Much of it has been slowly and carefully nurtured out of the limelight. In contrast, the white gay community has received far more city and community funding, and has, especially in recent years, been far more beholden to a mainstream national agenda which has included issues like gay marriage, hate crimes legislation, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

One of the few black activists discussed in the book is the late Vernita Gray, who died in March 2014 and who is acknowledged here as a primary source and mentor to the author. Her story becomes a way for Stewart-Winter to trace the lack of clout at the start of the book to its conclusion, where she becomes the symbol of the ultimate attainment of queer clout.

At the close of the book, Stewart-Winter proves that gay political success has been achieved by relating the tale of a wedding: the marriage of Gray, an out African American lesbian, to her white partner Patricia (Pat) Ewert. Gray was a longtime activist in the city, with a large part of her career devoted to working within the Chicago municipal machine. During the Daley administration, she worked in the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Dick Devine, for 18 years. Devine was first assistant to Richard M. Daley when he was the State’s Attorney, and both men have been publicly called out by police torture activists for not prosecuting police commander Jon Burge, finally convicted of torturing more than 100 black suspects. While she cannot be held responsible for these acts, Gray’s role in the office required her to frequently justify, defend and explain away the actions of Devine who was frequently accused by queer activists of engaging in police brutality (full disclosure: I was among the queers who protested against him).

Gray was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012. By then, she was already in a civil union partnership with Ewert. Gay marriage finally became legal in 2013 but was only scheduled to take effect in June 2014. Gray, fearing she would die before then, asked for and received, with the help of Lambda Legal, a waiver. On November 27, 2013, Gray and Ewert had a wedding ceremony in their home and were given a legal marriage certificate.

This intimate ceremony was widely covered world-wide, with write-ups in The Independent, the Chicago Tribune, The Guardian and the Daily Mail. The wedding was a brilliant framing of the poignancy of gay marriage: who but the most heartless monster could be critical of the cause after seeing a dying black woman unite with her white partner in holy matrimony?  It was a classic media moment. 

But concluding a book about queer clout in Chicago, one that claims to focus on local politics, with a gay marriage, makes no sense at all. Throughout, Stewart-Winter barely mentions the larger national battles like gay marriage. In fact, gay marriage was largely funded by and brought to local cities and towns by national organizations, and it was ultimately decided at the federal level, not the local one.

The concluding section on Gray’s wedding seems beautiful and innocuous. But it’s actually insidious, insofar as it makes gay marriage the center of gay politics. The message—and Stewart-Winter’s politics—are clear: Gay marriage constitutes the ultimate success of gays and lesbians. In a book that pays little attention to the vast richness of black queer life except as an accessory to white gay organizing, Gray (one of the few black lesbian activists mentioned a few times) becomes a tool for reconciling the deep racism that still exists in this city.

For many liberals and even progressives and leftists, gay marriage is seen as the pinnacle of achievement for the gay community, marking its entrance into a system of state-endowed rights and privileges not available to the unmarried. But looked at more critically, gay marriage is not an achievement for a community; rather, it shows the deep division in that community’s priorities.

In the early 1990s, the gay community, ravaged by the onset of AIDS, marched on behalf of Haitian immigrants who were being rounded up and placed in camps as suspected carriers of the HIV virus.  Collectively, they demanded an end to the discrimination that also kept HIV-positive gays out of hospitals and the institution of universal healthcare. Today, most wealthy and well-off white gays can afford HIV-medications while the more vulnerable, mostly poor, mostly women, and mostly people of color have to struggle for access to resources to which they must travel long distances. Stewart-Winter himself points out that the majority of social service and healthcare resources in Chicago are on the north side, compelling black and other queers of color to travel long distances to gain access to them.

A better postscript, then, would have continued Stewart-Winter’s documentation of the inequality in resources, and the continuing challenges facing queers of color in a city marked by an intense rise in violence and brutality towards immigrants and black and brown people. A key problem with Stewart-Winter’s book is that its focus on the development of clout leads him away from a fuller consideration of the power behind it. In the end, he attempts to paint a happy portrait of reconciliation—a black-white wedding, the national triumph of gay marriage. But power is at work behind clout, and power ultimately defines who lives or dies, who gets funding for HIV resources and who doesn’t.

When it comes to queer clout, it is simply not enough to note how it came about but to ask the bigger question: What is clout used for?

Photograph courtesy of Margaret Olin.

Author: Yasmin Nair

is a writer, academic, and activist in Chicago. She is a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the Volunteer Policy Director of Gender JUST.