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Sailors dancing. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Many Chicago lesbians were among those fighting for women’s right to vote in the United States, which finally happened with the 19th Amendment in 1920. The battle was echoed in the 1970s when the Equal Rights Amendment was working its way through the states. Despite strong activism from lesbians and gay men and a very committed women’s movement, the state’s conservatives, including Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime anti-gay and anti-feminist activist, prevailed. She had said the ERA would lead to, among other things, gay marriage. Ironically, years later, Schlafly’s son John would be outed as gay. Photo of suffragist Mabel Vernon in Chicago, June 16,1916. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

The Chicago Fire of 1871 had a devastating—and renewing— impact on the city. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

The Transformation of Denial Into Hope

Generations of Chicago gays and lesbians have grown up deprived of their evidence in history, denied role models and reinforcement for a positive self-image. Unfortunately, much of our early history has been buried in the police reports, the medical logs or the more sensational newspaper accounts of previous generations. Anthropologists, explorers and missionaries have left some records, but these are filtered through their personal prejudices and racial and sexual biases. Few of our kind have left us diaries or letters, an occasional photograph, preserved moments in fiction, or the rare autobiography.

Particularly difficult to uncover are the pre-1950 years, because most of the people are gone, and the evidence is buried with them.

Someday, perhaps, students at the Von Steuben and Cather schools will be told the sexual orientation of their school namesakes and how that affected their contribution to our common culture. There is no way to assess the positive effects on African-American students when poems or plays by Langston Hughes or Chicagoan Lorraine Hansberry were first presented to them as by Black writers in their classrooms. But now those names, as well as others like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, are commonplace when literary history is taught. Why would it not be an equally positive experience to note that these gifted writers also loved members of their own sex, and to examine how that translated into their creative efforts?

Gregory A. Sprague, who in the 1970s initiated the Gay and Lesbian History Project and what would later become the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, also wrote articles on Chicago gay male history for GayLife and The Advocate. Several of his slide shows and his research archives are on deposit at the Chicago History Museum, as are many of the papers of attorney Pearl Hart and Thing 'zine founder Robert Ford. Jonathan Ned Katz preserved documents from many sources in his monumental resource guides Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: A Documentary ( Crowell, 1976 ) and Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary ( Harper, 1983 ) . Without the guideposts these volumes offered, research would have been exceedingly more difficult.

The wider culture has grounded “gay” and “lesbian” in a sexual/genital definition that, while valid for a certain element, fails to consider love. Documentary reports and brief biographies can only show a sliver of the community, but they do give evidence for our existence and hint at the ordinary men and women in Chicago who chose to love their own kind and lead quiet and unremarkable lives. Until such time as the history of all our people can be told without the exclusion of any group for reason of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, it falls to gays and lesbians in Chicago to preserve and disseminate our own record.

Parts of this chapter have been adapted and updated from a 1994 article by Marie J. Kuda in Outlines newspaper. Kuda and others give us in-depth looks at a few of the key players, news and events of this period in Chicago, from the Civil War and the 1893 World's Fair to the Vice Commission and World War II. Jonathan Ned Katz's investigation into the work of Henry Gerber is an astonishing look at the first known gay organization in the United States. Lucinda Fleeson takes us back to the “pansy craze” of the 1930s in Chicago.

While the pre-1950 years were difficult, the next decade in Chicago would not be easy—McCarthyism was on the horizon, and machine politics were more firmly entrenched than ever. Roaring ‘20s mobsters were replaced by a more subtle underground that would extend its control into gay clubs, bars and bathhouses. But for most of us World War II ended on a note of hope. We may have been different, but now we knew we were not alone.

From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.

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