Gay Men and Lesbians Take Office; People of Color Create Spaces of Their Own

As the decade dawned, AIDS continued its deadly grip on Chicago and the world. AIDS activism and institutions changed shape and became more sophisticated, and there was more hope as the administration of Bill Clinton took over the White House in 1992.

Queer Nation's short but inspirational reign also was beginning locally and nationally, as activists sought to reclaim the word “queer,” turning it from a slur into a call to arms. They expanded on the media-savvy tactics of ACT UP, fighting against a wide range of enemies.

In 1990, lesbians were also starting to feel the impact of cancer, seeing some of their sisters dying without proper care and resources. The Lesbian Community Cancer Project was formed that year out of a meeting at The Womyn's Gym to fill a critical role for support and visibility, eventually renaming itself as the Lesbian Community Care Project and merging in 2007 with Howard Brown Health Center.

People-of-color organizations were thriving in the 1990s, including Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays, Affinity, Khuli Zaban, Amigas Latinas, Association of Latin Men in Action and Yahimba. As a response to racism within some businesses and organizations, a group called The Color Triangle was formed, bringing together people of color with whites to discuss the hard issues of changing institutions and people. While it lasted just a few years, The Color Triangle brought together some of the community's best leaders to listen and learn.

As a response to increasing violence against the gay community, former Mr. Windy City Alyn Toler formed the Pink Angels in Chicago, a street patrol group modeled after the Guardian Angels. They patrolled heavily gay areas, empowering gay people to take control of the streets. Formal lobbying also took on the need for hate-crimes protections, and the attacks and violent deaths of numerous gay, lesbian and transgender people in the 1990s, including Matthew Shepard in 1998, gave rise to more anti-violence marches and laws. Trans groups in particular focused on the disturbingly high rate of attacks on their community, and community groups educated the public about same-sex domestic violence and police harassment.

The 1990s also saw great progress in the courts locally, including custody and adoption rulings, and support for gays marching in the South Side's Bud Billiken Parade. Chicago attorneys also played roles in critical Midwest and U.S. legal battles, and the opening of a Chicago office of the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund provided an important tool for local legal efforts. In addition to work by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, Lambda Legal has been both a visible and supportive partner to individuals and groups in Chicago on AIDS and general gay issues.

The community's groundwork in the 1970s and 1980s, including the races of openly gay candidates, laid a solid foundation for the successful 1990s campaigns of Thomas R. Chiola and Sebastian T. Patti, and created the open atmosphere to allow for later appointments and elections of openly gay and lesbian judges. Larry McKeon also broke new ground when he became the first openly gay person to be an Illinois state representative, and Joanne Trapani crashed the mayoral ceiling, becoming village president of suburban Oak Park. Gays used their clout to defeat anti-gay pols, like Penny Pullen, and a Black drag queen (Joan Jett Blakk) even ran for mayor and then president.

The Illinois Federation for Human Rights (now Equality Illinois) tried valiantly to pass a state gay rights bill, but with the state mostly under Republican control, it took years for the bill to get the votes needed to send it to the governor. Cook County made progress on gay rights.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley's first term in office was rocky, especially as it related to AIDS issues. He was protested against and screamed at by activists like Danny Sotomayor for not backing more AIDS funding. Eventually, Daley appointed gays to administration posts and overcame his earlier gaps, supporting the Center on Halsted and events such as the Gay Games. Daley backed the rainbow pylon streetscape program along North Halsted Street, supported his gay advisory council's creation of a Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, and hosts an annual Pride reception for hundreds of people in the community. He has come a long way on gay issues, in part because of his close friendships with some gay and lesbian people.

The media landscape continued to change in the 1990s. Windy City Times, Outlines, BLACKlines, En La Vida, Gay Chicago Magazine, LesBiGay Radio, Chicago Free Press and the Internet impacted how the community heard about the news. The mainstream media, helped along by newly out gay and lesbian reporters and editors (after much internal debate about objectivity), took a dramatically different perspective on covering the gay community.

On the youth front, a powerful new group came into play as the Chicago chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) helped teachers come out, helped students form gay groups in their high schools, and held a groundbreaking annual scholarship program to honor the next generation of leaders. One of the most powerful events of the 1990s occurred in 1998. The Rev. Greg Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church was suspended from his duties because he had dared to perform a union ceremony for two gay men. Dell and his wife Jade suffered through tough times, and on Nov. 22, 1998, the antigay Rev. Fred Phelps decided to picket the church, located in the heart of Chicago's significantly gay Lake View neighborhood. The gay and non-gay secular and religious community took this as a huge affront and made a major call for people to surround the church that day. Similar to the encirclement of Medinah Temple in 1977 against Anita Bryant's appearance there, more than 1,500 people created a safe zone around Dell and his church. Tears streamed down the cold cheeks of hundreds of people holding hands, making a chain of support.

But unlike in 1977, this 1998 action showed that the non-gay community, more than ever, was willing and able to come to the assistance of its gay friends and neighbors, its family members and colleagues. The world was changing, and with each “coming out,” new allies were born.

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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