A Generation Responds to AIDS by Acting Up and Fighting Back

The 1980s came in with a thud—the ominous election of a former actor to be the president of the United States. Ronald Reagan's administration was marked by arrogance and ignorance, denial and destruction. His refusal for many years to even say the word “AIDS,” and his inaction in the early years of the crisis, can be morally linked to the deaths of tens of thousands, if not millions.

On July 3, 1981, buried in the back of their news sections, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times both carried articles about strange cases of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and Kaposi's sarcoma in gay men. Many gay men today recall reading The New York Times story and feeling a sense of doom. It was just the beginning of the plague years, a war with an invisible enemy that was aided by homophobia.

The response to what was eventually called AIDS was not swift, even within all of the gay community. But by 1984—86, communities in cities nationwide, including Chicago, were witnessing the wide path of destruction. Some people lost hundreds of friends within a few short years. Some people died within days or weeks of diagnosis, while others hung on for a few years. It took years for medications to come onto the scene, and even those were often toxic and high-priced. A generation of major community leaders was lost to AIDS—thousands of Chicago men in their prime, invaluable to our movement's political, cultural and social future.

The resulting lack of help, combined with draconian legislation, sparked the rise of ACT UP chapters in various cities, including Chicago. AIDS created new leaders: angry, mostly younger people who wanted to take control of their health care and force society to deal with them equally. The ACT UP demonstrations against Cook County Hospital, the federal government, pharmaceutical companies, the Chicago Transit Authority and other institutions are legendary in the Chicago community.

The growth of AIDS also resulted in the formation of numerous AIDS service and support organizations, many of them still operating in 2008. These include AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Chicago House, AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, Test Positive Aware Network, Project Vida, and Open Hand/Vital Bridges. In addition, existing institutions such as Howard Brown Memorial Clinic (now Howard Brown Health Center), Horizons (now Center on Halsted) and others incorporated the fight against AIDS into their missions. Howard Brown became one of the most important research centers for the epidemic because it already had been collecting samples from gay men for earlier disease research. A NAMES Project quilt display in 1988 created a somber, reflective time for those fighting on the front lines.

Parallel to the fight against HIV and AIDS, the community was also maturing its “suit-and-tie” activism. There were two complementary approaches taken to getting our rights—those of the street activists and those of others who were willing to sit down with influential, powerful officeholders like Mayor Harold Washington and Gov. James R. Thompson. In addition, some wanted to take a seat at the table as elected officials, and a strong movement was behind the candidacy of Cook County Hospital physician Ron Sable for alderman. He came within a few votes of defeating then-incumbent 44th Ward Ald. Bernard Hansen, and his race served as a training ground for future political candidates.

Lobbying also continued in earnest for both city and state gay-rights laws. The Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force worked tirelessly on the statewide gay bill, including the organizing of lobby days in the capital, but it would take many more years, and a new organization, to eventually win gay rights legislation in Illinois. In Chicago, activists pushed for a defining vote on the gay bill in 1986, to find out who was truly with us and who was truly against us. The anger that sprang from that bill's defeat caused a new wave of protests, starting with the singing of “We Shall Overcome” in the City Council chambers and at a Daley Center rally. After Mayor Washington died in office, new Mayor Eugene Sawyer was at first slow to act for his gay constituents. Eventually, however, he supported the bill. And after one more defeat, in September 1988, that was fueled by opposition from the Roman Catholic archdiocese, the bill did pass in December of that year.

Formal gay political groups were also taking shape, including the first gay political action committee, OPEN/PAC (followed in the late 1980s by IMPACT), the Prairie State Democratic Club, the Chicago Area Republican Gay Organization, the Lesbian and Gay Progressive Democratic Organization, and gay leadership in the Independent Voters of Illinois—Independent Precinct Organization and the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Some of the spark for late-1980s activism came from a second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, held Oct. 11, 1987, on what would later become known as National Coming Out Day. There was a massive display of the NAMES Project Quilt, and there were arrests at the U.S. Supreme Court. Chicago had a well-organized contingent in that march and at its related events, and thousands of activists returned to the Windy City newly invigorated for the fight against AIDS and for gay rights.

Lesbians were a strong part of ACT UP, but they also started to create energized action groups of their own, including the Lesbian Avengers and Women's Action Coalition. The Chicago Women's Health Center helped provide artificial insemination for lesbians wanting to build families, and Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, Women & Children First Bookstore, and social organizations helped provide support for lesbians. Paris Dance and Suzi B's were popular women's bars, and Lost & Found continued its reign as the oldest lesbian bar in town (it was still operating in 2008, but was expected to change owners soon).

HOT WIRE, a women's music journal, started in Chicago, joining a burgeoning gay and lesbian media scene. GayLife did not last the decade, giving way to Windy City Times, from which sprang Outlines. Gay Chicago Magazine lost one of its founders to AIDS in 1989 but continued strong as a bar guide to Chicago. The 10% Show brought gays to cable television in town, while the mainstream media were still slow to learn how to cover the community. They assigned gay “beat” reporters at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, but it was still difficult to keep homophobia out of the media coverage, especially around the topic of AIDS.

One group was created to keep the media on its toes: the Coalition Against Media/Marketing Prejudice (CAMMP), formed in 1988 soon after the originally New York-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). CAMMP started with a push against the bias at Stroh Brewery Co. and moved on to the Kellogg Co. to attack homophobic ads for its Nut & Honey breakfast cereal.

Bar raids continued into the 1980s, but a major raid at Carol's Speakeasy was nearly the final blow in that war of law enforcement officers against gays. Soon, lesbian and gay police officers started to change the system from within, while gay activists pushed for reform from the outside through forums and political clout.

A new form of corporate and business activism was also springing up. In the 1970s, the Tavern Guild of Chicago was a lobbying group for bar personnel. Later came the Metropolitan Business Association in the 1980s, and the Chicago Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in the next decade. Starting in the 1980s, the trend for gay employee groups pushing for rights inside companies was strong, and two bar owners in Chicago started a Gay Dollars campaign that revealed the economic clout of the gay community.

People of color were creating safer spaces, whether in social or cultural groups or around political issues. Latino, African-American and Asian groups provided support and a training ground for future leaders. Youth groups at Horizons and other agencies also played an important role for those facing bias at home and in school.

Sports organizations experienced their biggest growth in the 1980s, with the boom in gay-specific leagues for softball, football, basketball, volleyball and bowling, and the creation of individual sport support, including groups for running and swimming. These sports organizations also provided a great base for fundraising against AIDS, with such events as Strike Against AIDS and Proud to Run raising much-needed dollars. The clubs were also an important partner for AIDS groups, with bars such as Little Jim's, Berlin, Sidetrack, His'n Hers, Opal Station and others offering space for benefits.

At the same time the community fell prey to the nightmare of AIDS, there was another awareness that brought people together in new, healthy ways: the idea that something more than oppression united them. The question was being asked with some urgency: Is there another definition for gay people, other than the sexual?

Many cultural groups sprang up in the 1980s out of a yearning for more than a sexual connection, and this yearning was a strong motivating force for cultural growth in various segments of the community. New bands, choral groups, theaters, festivals, films and writers were emerging. Gay and lesbian culture was gaining momentum, creating new art, showcasing new talents, and building intergenerational and cross-gender friendships through cultural activities. The community was developing confidence that it had actual substance beyond sexuality, and that gay people could depend on each other.

The cultural scene saw the start of Reeling, the lesbian and gay film festival, still going strong in 2008. Writers such as Achy Obejas, Lola Lai Jong, Vernita Gray and Mark Richard Zubro were making their mark in Chicago, part of a national trend of openly gay authors. Literary Exchange began in the 1980s to support African-American women writers. The creation of new music, art, dance, drama, nonfiction, poetry, comedy and connections with each other all became our allies in the battle for our lives against the silence that equals death.

In part because of HIV and AIDS, the community was becoming stronger, more sophisticated and experienced. Those skills made for better fundraising, more clout in the political and corporate spheres, and eventually resulted in quicker access to experimental AIDS medications. By 1990, the community was founding new organizations almost weekly, dealing with a wider array of issues including violence, cancer, custody, gender identity and student issues. While burnout and death caused some organizations such as ACT UP to implode, they were replaced by new leaders and organizations taking up the call for gay rights, health care and equality.

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

Chicago Gay History
© COPYRIGHT 2023 Chicago Gay History
Powered by LoveYourWebsite.com