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Since the 1920s, Chicago's lesbian and gay community has grown in size and political power. Chicago, in fact, is unique in that the first organization for homosexual rights in America was established here in 1924. Henry Gerber founded the "Society for Human Rights," modeling his organization on the homosexual rights movement in Germany. The "Society for Human Rights" focused on educating the heterosexual community about the nature of homosexuality and reforming the laws that criminalized homosexuality. However, after only a few months of meetings and the publication of two issues of the society's paper "Friendship and Freedom," Chicago authorities shut down Gerber's organization in 1924 because of the anti-homosexual sentiment of the time.

Although Gerber's "Society for Human Rights" was short-lived, lesbians and gay men were highly visible in 1920s Chicago, particularly in the bohemian world of Towertown, so-called because of its proximity to the Water Tower. Chicago, like many cities of the 1920s, had its Bohemian neighborhood where artists, poets, and lesbians and gay men lived and congregated. The visibility of lesbians and gay men in Towertown marks an important historical moment when there was an openness and acceptance of lesbians and gay men in certain artistic and bohemian worlds.

As with most American cities, the main struggle for lesbian and gay rights began after World War II, when lesbians and gay men followed the model of the black civil rights movement. World War II was important for bringing together lesbians and gay men in major cities because of the military mobilization for the war and employment in wartime industries. Many homosexuals forged strong friendships during this period, often meeting other gay people for the first time. After the war, a small number of lesbians and gay men began to slowly organize themselves across the country through a handful of homosexual rights organizations, such as the Mattachine Society.

Founded in Los Angeles in 1951, the Mattachine Society strove to to educate homosexuals and heterosexuals about homosexual culture and to unify homosexuals around the political fight against oppressive laws of the time. Chicago's chapter of the Mattachine Society was established in the early 1950s and is noted for putting together a vital handbook of gay and lesbian' legal rights. Pearl Hart, a Chicago lawyer, was instrumental in advising the Chicago chapter on this handbook. She was also one of a handful of lawyers who would take on lesbian and gay rights cases in the 1950s. Along with Henry Gerber, she is remembered and honored today in the organizational name of the Gerber Hart Gay and Lesbian Library.

Around the time of the New York Stonewall riots in 1969, lesbian and gay activists, like their counterparts in the anti-war and feminist movements, became more politically confrontational, dismissing the more diplomatic and less strident tactics of older organizations like the Mattachine Society. These new activists demanded that politicians, city administrations, the media, doctors, psychiatrists, and other individuals and organizations cease harassing and demonizing gay people. In Chicago at this time, Henry Wienhoff, who had attended the University of Chicago, and other gay activists founded the Chicago Gay Liberation. Among its many local political activities, the Chicago Gay Liberation is particularly infamous for its disruption of the 1970 Chicago meeting of the AMA (American Medical Association). At this meeting, Wienhoff and other activists distributed a ground breaking pamphlet which declared homosexuals "healthy" and challenged the then common believe among most doctors and psychiatrists that homosexuals were emotionally and psychologically ill and needed treatment. Actions like the Chicago Gay Liberation's disruption of the AMA eventually led to the de-stigmatization of lesbians and gay men by the AMA and other medical and psychiatric organizations like the APA (American Psychiatric Association).

Chicago Gay Liberation also hosted a momentous forum attended by a large number of gay rights organizations in 1972 to try and forge a national gay coalition. At this forum, discussions also centered on possible actions for gay activists during the 1972 presidential election. I

n the 1980s, Chicago's mainstream politicians and organizations became more open to lesbian and gay involvement. Openly gay candidate Ron Sable, for instance, ran for city council and almost won. Sable was also one of the founders of the Howard Brown Health Center, still an important AIDS service organization. Also lesbians and gay men were actively involved in the mayoral campaign and administration of Harold Washington. This political work of the 1980s established lesbians and gay men as key constituents and participants in Chicago politics which continues today. Mayor Daley and his administration have recently recognized the contribution of lesbians and gay men to Chicago life by the designation of a section of Halsted Street on the North Side as a gay neighborhood.

Bibliography

Clendinen, Dudley and Adam Nagourney. Out For Good. 1999.

D'Emilio John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. 1983.

Jay, Karla and Allen Young. Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation. 1972.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History. 1976.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay/Lesbian Almanac. 1983.

The Mattachine Review, selected issues from the 1950s.

Zorbaugh, Harvey. The Gold Coast and the Slum. 1929.

Places to do research on Lesbian and Gay History in Chicago

Gerber Hart Library
1127 W. Granville, Chicago 60660
tel. 773-381-8030

Chicago History Museum
North Avenue and Clark Street, Chicago 60614
312-642-5035, x356

Newberry Library
60 W. Walton Street, Chicago 60610
312-255-3506

Questions to consider for further research

I. Henry Gerber and the Society for Human Rights
· How was Gerber able to start such a group in 1920s Chicago? Why did he start it? II. Towertown
· Describe life in Towertown in the 1920s.
· How would you compare/contrast this area with the Gold Coast area today?

III. Mattachine Society
· Why did the Mattachine Society give way to more militant organizations?
· What did the Mattachine Society accomplish in the 1950s, and specifically, what were the accomplishments of the Chicago chapter?
· Does this organization still exist today?

IV. Chicago Gay Liberation
· Did the group include women?
· Did women form a separate group of their own? Why/why not?
· What were some of the other accomplishments of this group?
· Did members of this group often use direct action tactics? Why/why not? If they did often use direct action, describe other instances when they used this tactic--was the group successful using direct action?

V. Ron Sable/Harold Washington/1980s politics
· What were the implications of Ron Sable's campaign--what did it accomplish?
· Describe the climate in Chicago at the time that enabled Sable to run for Alderman.
· Why did he run for office? · What is his legacy and that of the Harold Washington years?

 

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