From McCarthy and the Closet to Civil-Rights Demos and the Democratic Riots

It would be difficult to find any two decades more different than the 1950s and the 1960s in the United States. The post war 1950s represented a repressive time for most Americans. Racial segregation, the return of Rosie the Riveter to the kitchen, the witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the heavy-handed and homophobic tactics of J. Edgar Hoover, and the push toward a cookie-cutter suburban life all meant that life continued to be difficult for most gay Americans. The 1960s turned the previous, rigid decade on its head, but homophobia was slow to reverse, still deeply wounding gay lives.

In Chicago, the 1955—77 reign of Richard J. Daley was marked by aggressive police tactics, raids on gay bars and a generally difficult time for those seeking reform of any kind. Yet there were already signs of change in the wind. Dr. Alfred Kinsey's sexuality books showed many people that they were not alone in their feelings. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male came out in 1948, followed in 1953 by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Oak Park native Jeannette Howard Foster contributed to the research for his work on women, and the Indiana-based Kinsey and his investigators came to nearby Chicago for some of their research.

Beat generation gay writer Allen Ginsberg premiered his poem Howl in San Francisco in 1955. Meanwhile, Chicago-born playwright Lorraine Hansberry was writing anonymous letters to the national Daughters of Bilitis publication The Ladder in 1957, telling them she was “glad as heck that you exist,” according to Jonathan Ned Katz's book Gay American History.

The Mattachine Society was starting nationally, and Chicago's first Mattachine also began in the mid-1950s. After it folded in 1957, a new chapter was formed two years later, but it, too, was short-lived. Eventually a strong Mattachine Midwest was created, with its first meeting in 1965.

The 1950s also saw the thriving of gay bars, including Tiny and Ruby's Gay Spot on the South Side and Chuck Renslow's Gold Coast, the first known leather bar in the country. While Hugh Hefner was building his Playboy empire out of the Windy City, Renslow began his men's physique magazines out of Kris Studios with his partner Dom Orejudos.

Chicago writers Valerie Taylor and Sam Steward wrote gay “pulp” novels in the 1950s. Drag balls continued to be popular, including those organized in the name of Finnie's Club. Female impersonator Tony Midnite booked the famous Jewel Box Revue.

The 1960s brought the impact of shattering national events to Chicago. The shooting of three “kings” ( President John F. Kennedy, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. ) devastated and demoralized many. MLK had marched in Chicago to attack the entrenched racial segregation here, and his assassination caused riots in Chicago and elsewhere. His widow Coretta Scott King would come to Chicago in later decades and proclaim not only that she wasin favor of gay rights, but that her husband would also have been. Gay pioneer Bayard Rustin, a key player behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, visited Chicago numerous times to promote civil rights.

The mainstream media portrayals of our community did not improve significantly. Even late-1960s articles were full of stereotypes and gay shame. Some gays would only appear anonymously, but a few brave people did allow their images and words to be used, in news papers and also in broadcast media. The Mattachine Midwest Newsletter was a key to “for us, by us” communication and laid the foundation for a boom in gay and lesbian media in the 1970s. William B. Kelley and Marie J. Kuda both contributed immensely to this documentation of gay issues and to the push for better portrayals in the mainstream media.

While Illinois was the first state to remove sodomy from its list of barred acts, in 1961, it would still take many years of work by activists to change the police's and society's view of homosexuals. The 1960s witnessed many major police raids on gay bars,and newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune would print the names of those arrested. This resulted in lost jobs, broken families and, in some cases, suicide. Mattachine Midwest and Chicago chapters of the Daughters of Bilitis and of ONE Inc. all mobilized to fight against such harassment. Their small cadre of activists worked on a variety of issues, not just the police, and the all-volunteer efforts were draining. The organizations,and many of those arrested in bar raids or entrapped by police in cruising areas, were assisted by attorneys including Pearl Hart, Renee Hanover, Paul Goldman, Ralla Klepak and Todd Lyster.

Chicagoans were also tied into the greater U.S. gay movement and hosted the 1968 national meeting of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations ( NACHO ) , held just before the Democratic National Convention. The DNC riots, and the raid on The Trip bar in 1968, were among the sparks of Chicago's own “Stonewall,” creating radicalizing moments for local activists. Some NACHO delegates participated in the DNC protests and were connected to anti-war and civil rights movements. The oral histories of many gays and lesbians active in the 1960s show that they were not single-issue- focused—they connected the struggles of many communities together.

One such activist was Henry Wiemhoff, who had marched in Selma, Ala., for racial equality. He had been a student at the University of Chicago and was tired of homophobic roommates. In 1969 he placed an ad in the school's Chicago Maroon newspaper fora gay roommate; among others, lesbian Michal Brody answered the ad. The University of Chicago Gay Liberation group formed out of this chance meeting and living situation. Thus, as the 1970s approached,Chicago was on the precipice, poised to enter a brave new world of gay rights.

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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