by Ron Dorfman

There is hardly a clearer statement of bluenose frustration with life as it is lived than the lament of the 1911 Chicago Vice Commission, apportioning blame among officials and institutions for the prevalence of “the social evil”: “[T]he greatest criticism is due the citizens of Chicago, first, for the constant evasion of the problem, second, for their ignorance and indifference to the situation, and third, for their lack of united effort in demanding a change in the intolerable conditions as they now exist.”

The commission was especially vexed at the form of vice it called “sex perversion.” Estimates of its extent “seemed incredible before an investigator was put in the field” who found “whole groups and colonies” of perverts openly thumbing their powdered noses at social convention and being neither arrested by the police nor afflicted with deadly diseases. The commission urged enforcement of the law as it had stood in Illinois since 1845, providing severe penalties for “sodomy, or other crime against nature.”

It would take another 50 years, but the law came into sync with people's indifference in 1961 with the adoption of the Illinois Criminal Code, eliminating the crime of sodomy. The fact that Illinois was the first state to wipe sodomy laws off the books was an enormous progressive step forward for gay rights, yet it was of so little consequence to the general public that the Chicago Tribune failed to even mention it in contemporary recaps reporting changes in the law. Local ordinances such as those prohibiting samesex dancing and wearing gender-discordant clothing in public fell away as proper homosexuals transformed themselves into GLBT militants in the 1970s and savvy political infighters in the '80s and '90s. Ninety-four years after the Vice Commission, the Illinois legislature made it unlawful to discriminate against gay people, and straight guys were seeking the approbation of queer eyes—on national television. Out of the closet, indeed.

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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