“Out of the Closets and Into the Streets”

2019-07-14T12:58:49+00:00June 28th, 2019|

An exhibit at the Gerber/Hart Library explores queer resistance in the late 1960s beyond Stonewall.

By Tanner Howard

In the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, sparking six days of protests during which patrons and neighborhood residents fought back—the culmination of years of cruelty and oppressive police tactics toward the city’s queer community. Fifty years later, the Stonewall rebellion remains at the center of popular understandings of the gay liberation movement’s beginnings. But, by focusing on that night as a singular site of historical action, many representations of queer history have ensured that New York City continues to hold an outsized role in popular narratives of gay liberation.

In reality, queer people everywhere were experiencing the kinds of repression that preceded the events of that June night, and Stonewall was just one example of their resistance. In 1964, for example, police carried out a raid at the Fun Lounge, a nightclub in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. The next day, the Chicago Tribune published the names of some of the more than one hundred arrested, including eight teachers, leading to at least one resignation. The raid sparked the formation of Mattachine Midwest, a branch of the nation’s largest “homophile” organization, which used assimilationist tactics to build support for gay rights.

While it doesn’t occupy the same mythic status as Stonewall—today a synecdoche for gay liberation writ large—the Fun Lounge raid, and subsequent organizing, helps reveal a more textured version of gay history than other, more popularized narratives. It’s one of many transformative moments documented in “Out of the Closets and into the Streets,” a new exhibit at Chicago’s Gerber/Hart Library, a longtime resource for queer history in the area. As the collection reveals, queer Midwestern communities were politically active, even participating in protests and direct action, in the pivotal years leading up to Stonewall.

The Gerber/Hart exhibit represents the broader context of repression and resistance in the years before Stonewall, including the prevalence of raids like the one at Fun House. A year before Stonewall, the police raided a downtown Chicago nightclub called the Trip, which served as an important gathering space for the gay community, and stripped the bar of its its liquor license—a common practice used to shutter gay-friendly bars throughout the city.

The Trip’s owners sued the License Appeal Commission of Chicago, eventually bringing the case to the Illinois Supreme Court. The court ultimately reversed the original police decision, reinstating the bar’s liquor license and ensuring the continued existence of a vital meeting place for the queer community. The Trip raid, which predated events in New York by a year and a half, would eventually become known as “Chicago’s Stonewall.”

The 1968 Democratic Convention, held in downtown Chicago, was another touchstone in the gay movement, both in the city and nationwide. Many of the protestors who descended upon the city found refuge in Lincoln Park, then one of the main gay neighborhoods in the city. Leo Laurence, a San Francisco-based journalist, entered the convention as a strait-laced, closeted gay man, but Laurence returned to the Bay Area with a newfound sense of indignation, and soon formed the Committee For Homosexual Freedom, which entered coalitions with the Black Panther Party and other radical groups.

Popularizations of queer history have frequently downplayed the work of people in non-coastal cities, often erasing the efforts of activists, politicians, and everyday queers in improving their circumstances. One telling example comes from Milk, the biopic of San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who became California’s first openly gay elected official in 1977. Early in the film, Milk counsels a young Minnesotan boy to catch a bus to California, leaving behind the desperate circumstances found in his home state. Later, viewers learn that the teenager, once suicidal and hopeless, has become a proud gay organizer in Los Angeles, a triumphant narrative of queer escape in the face of unkind circumstances.

But the realities of queer life in the Midwest are far more multifaceted than simplistic Hollywood tropes would suggest. For example, Kathy Kozachenko, elected to the Ann Arbor, Michigan city council in 1974, represented the first out elected official in the country, three years before Milk. Her political journey, and the story of the radical Human Rights Party, which launched her political career, has been preserved by the University of Michigan as testament to the political efforts made by radical communities as part of the broader gay liberation movement.

Meanwhile, other Midwestern communities have long seen queer people find and create a home, seeking the same kinds of legal, political, and economic advances that people have fought for elsewhere. “There were such well-developed queer communities in the Twin Cities that go way back to at least the early twentieth century,” said Kevin Murphy, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and co-editor of Queer Twin Cities. “[It had] a really complicated and sometimes radical politics that had some connection with movements elsewhere, including movements on the coasts, but was not dependent upon those movements.”

Beyond the symbolic advancement of queer life through elected officials and political action lie the lived experiences of people who found their identities in the Midwest cities they called home. Projects like the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Queer Appalachia Oral History Project at the University of Kentucky, and countless others, represent the frequently challenging, often banal, but fundamentally vital experiences of the queer people who have fought for their identities and desires wherever they called home.

Projects like these, and like the Gerber/Hart exhibit, are a necessary corrective to focusing too narrowly on one specific event, especially in a moment in which the queer movement is facing many of the same fissures that divided the community half a century ago. “A complicated history, one that’s intersectional and looks at race and class, helps to make the point that the various forms of oppression are interlinked, and therefore can resist the ways in which gay and lesbian identities may become complicit in other forms of oppression,” Murphy said.

 

Out of the Closets and Into the Streets” is a testament to the widespread nature of queer revolt in the late sixties. The proclamation, which appears throughout the exhibit on handwritten documents, posters, buttons, and newspapers, reveals an enduring moment of queer consciousness-raising, one in which gay people emerged out of hiding, locating themselves within into the broader spirit of protest permeating the period. It was an idea that transcended any particular political formation or geographic region, connecting people to a wider movement that changed how queer people were viewed by the rest of the world.

“It’s a powerful statement,” said St. Sukie De La Croix, author and historian of Chicago’s gay life. “There was always a theory that the most revolutionary thing you could do was come out, because for straight people in society at large, people are homophobic until a cousin or a neighbor comes out. That’s really when it turns around.”

While Stonewall will continue to stand as an important milestone in the history of queer resistance in the United States, the broader narrative—in the Stonewall era and beyond—is richer and more complex. It’s rooted not in a single story of protest, but in thousands of individual stories, in moments of change and revelation, large and small, occurring all across the country. “What happened at Stonewall was almost the end of something,” De La Croix said. “It became the beginning of something else, but it was just the breaking point that could have happened anywhere.” ■

 

 

Tanner Howard is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and masters student in urban planning and policy, with bylines in the Guardian, Citylab, Jacobin, Slate, and elsewhere. They can be found on Twitter @tanner_howard.

Cover image: A gay liberation rally in Chicago, 1970. Photo by Margaret Olin.

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