Credit: Chase Ollis

When the annual Pride Parade steps off from the intersection of Broadway and Montrose at noon on Sunday, June 30—with Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first openly gay mayor, serving as honorary grand marshal—it will represent a very different mind-set from the event that launched the pride parade tradition. This year’s parade is expected to draw more than a million participants and onlookers to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion of June 28 and 29, 1969. Thus the theme Stonewall 50: Millions of Moments of Pride.

I was a teenaged member of Chicago Gay Liberation, the loose-knit, short-lived group that organized the first pride parade on Saturday, June 27, 1970. Most of our group thought of ourselves, proudly if irreverently, as members of the “freaking fag revolution”—to borrow the phrase used by Thomas Aquinas Foran, the U.S. attorney who had prosecuted the so-called “Chicago Seven” anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot as a result of their protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The first parade wasn’t even a parade. It was a march, which meant we were allowed to walk on the sidewalks but not in the streets. There were no floats, no cars, no politicians, no crowds, no corporate sponsors pitching their brands to onlookers. The last thing on our minds was the possibility of any mayor, let alone an openly gay one, leading the way; we were happy the city’s then-mayor, “Boss” Richard J. Daley, didn’t set his cops on us.

The day began at noon with a rally in Washington Square Park across the street from the Newberry Library—known as “Bughouse Square” because of its storied history as a free-speech forum. From there we walked to the historic Water Tower at the intersection of Michigan and Chicago Avenues. Then, instead of dispersing as we had originally planned, we impulsively headed south on Michigan into the Loop, chanting “Out of the closets and into the streets!” as we wended our way through throngs of Mag Mile shoppers. The march ended with another rally in Civic Center Plaza (now Daley Plaza), where the event culminated in a joyous circle dance around the Picasso statue.

Between 150 and 300 people (depending on which account you read) showed up to celebrate what our flyer promoting the event declared (in all capital letters) was: “THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF GAY PEOPLE TELLING THE WARPED, SICK, MALADJUSTED, PURITAN AMERIKAN SOCIETY THAT THEY HAVE HAD ENOUGH SHIT.”

That flyer is on display as part of “Out of the Closets & Into the Streets: Power, Pride & Resistance in Chicago’s Gay Liberation Movement,” a new exhibit at Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, the midwest’s largest LGBTQ library and research center. Conceived by the library’s director, Wil Brant, and curated by a team of young volunteers including professional librarians Chase Ollis and James Conley and designer Kurt Conley, the display is drawn from Gerber/Hart’s extensive archival collection.

The march marked the first anniversary of a riot in New York City on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay nightclub in Greenwich Village owned by the Genovese crime family, reacted violently to what had begun as a routine police raid. That event, and the events leading up to and following it, are well covered in a new book, The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History by Marc Stein (NYU Press).

But that first Stonewall anniversary march wasn’t the first activity of Chicago Gay Liberation, which started up in fall 1969 after University of Chicago grad student Henry Wiemhoff placed an ad in the Chicago Maroon student newspaper seeking a gay roommate. Not only did he get a roommate—a female taxicab driver named Michal Brody—he got a discussion group. We met in Wiemhoff and Brody’s Hyde Park apartment and then, as our numbers grew, began to gather at the Blue Gargoyle, a community center and coffeehouse in the multicultural, nondenominational University Church on the University of Chicago campus.

Talking soon led to action. The first public Gay Lib event I participated in was a protest four months before the Stonewall march, on the snowy afternoon of Wednesday, February 25, 1970, outside the Loop headquarters of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois. The group was hosting a program on “Youthful Offenders” with a Chicago police officer, Sergeant John Manley, as guest speaker. But for us, the offender was Manley himself. The blond, muscular cop was notorious for entrapping gay men in Lincoln Park restrooms; wearing street clothes, he would pretend to solicit guys for sex and then arrest them if they responded to his invitation. Mattachine Midwest, an established “homophile” organization in town, published Manley’s picture in its mimeographed monthly newsletter and mockingly suggested Manley himself was a closet case: “If I were gay and I didn’t want anybody to know, and I felt very, very guilty, I think I might get a job where I could cruise in the public interest,” wrote David Stienecker, the newsletter’s editor. On February 7, 1970, Manley made an early morning appearance at Stienecker’s third-floor apartment to arrest him for criminal defamation.

“After I unsuccessfully attempted to make a phone call, Manley called for a police van and I was escorted from my apartment in handcuffs,” Stienecker now recalls. “Upon arriving at the precinct house, Manley suggested that if I just pleaded guilty the judge would only give me a slap on the wrist.” But Stienecker, represented by the diligent and fierce lesbian attorney Renee Hanover, fought the charges. After several court appearances, most of which Manley missed, the case was thrown out of court, but Stienecker lost his job as an editor at World Book Encyclopedia due to the ensuing publicity—there then being no legal protection against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Manley later rose to the rank of captain in the police force, but his career crashed and burned in the mid-1990s when he was fired for sexually harassing female officers under his supervision. Some 20 years later, his name popped up in the news again when he was ticketed for, of all things, impersonating a government official after he posed as a U.S. Maritime Service “special agent” to avoid a parking ticket. Stienecker, who went on to a successful career writing educational books for children, is credited as a program supporter of Gerber/Hart’s “Out of the Closets” exhibit.

In March 1970, we responded to the release of The Boys in the Band, the film version of the 1968 off-Broadway stage hit. Our aim was not to boycott the movie—which used waspish humor to illustrate the pathological, self-hating behavior of a group of gay New York men—but to use it as a teaching opportunity. We handed out flyers on the street outside the Carnegie Theatre on Rush Street (where Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse is now), which read in part: “The pain and cruelty typified by The Boys in the Band should be understood as the expression of human lives damaged by an environment of condemnation, suspicion, job discrimination, and legal harrassment [sic].”

Gay Liberation also organized dances, which drew large crowds from around the city. Though same-sex dancing wasn’t illegal, it was forbidden in the mob-owned gay bars in Boss Daley’s Chicago, where periodic police raids were a given. The first two Gay Lib dances were held in the protected environs of the University of Chicago campus. (It inspired other LGBTQ student groups to hold their own dances at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle—now UIC—and Northwestern University. At the latter, music was provided by the Siegel-Schwall Band, then one of Chicago’s hottest blues-rock bands. )

When the U. of C. demanded that CGL move its dances off campus because the crowds were getting too big, we booked the Coliseum, located on South Wabash between 14th and 16th Streets, a huge venue that had hosted several Republican presidential conventions, sports events, rock concerts, and, a few weeks previously, a congress of Black Muslims. As historian Timothy Stewart-Winter, author of Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press), recounts in a Slate article titled “Beyond Stonewall: How Gay History Looks Different From Chicago”:

“[T]here was a problem: The venue required an insurance policy, and every insurance agent the organizers approached said the risk was too great that the police would raid the dance, cart the attendees off to jail, and levy fines. Only on the day before the dance did the activists find a broker who’d sell them a policy—a black man whose company had insured the Nation of Islam’s annual convention at the same venue.”

About 2,000 people showed up at the Coliseum to dance for liberation on April 18, 1970. So did the police. But when the cops entered the hall and came face to face with a phalanx of attorneys—including the formidable Renee Hanover—primed to document any civil liberties violations, they shrugged and went away.

Memorabilia from the early days of the Chicago Gay Alliance on display at Gerber/Hart.Credit: Chase Ollis

The Gerber/Hart exhibit includes copies of the mimeographed newsletters that Gay Lib used to spread its message in those long-ago pre-Internet days. Also on display is a copy of the Chicago Seed, the city’s hippie/radical underground paper, which published an eight-page Gay Liberation supplement in one issue. There’s also a well-deserved tribute to the late Frank Robinson, who gave Chicago’s LGBTQ community the first professional- quality publications we could call our own. Robinson was a closeted middle-aged editor for Playboy magazine; unable to come out for our demonstrations, he devoted himself to behind-the-scenes messaging. After publishing a one time “Gay Pride” paper to promote the 1971 Pride Parade (which by then had been relocated to the Lincoln Park/Lakeview area on the north side), Robinson put out two editions of The Paper, a 1972 tabloid that covered local LGBTQ arts and politics. The Paper ran interviews with local counterculture celebrities such as painter Ed Paschke, lesbian singer-songwriter Linda Shear, female impersonators Roby Landers and Wanda Lust, and stage director Gary Tucker, aka “Eleven,” whose gender-bending Godzilla Rainbow Troupe was then running its hit production of Charles Ludlam and Bill Vehr’s outrageous Turds in Hell. A copy of The Paper on display at Gerber/Hart shows a photo from another landmark of Chicago’s fledgling off-Loop theater movement, the Organic Theater’s sci-fi epic Warp!, featuring André De Shields (who just won a Tony for his performance in the Broadway hit Hadestown) as Xander the Unconquerable. In 1973, Robinson had relocated to San Francisco, where he became the speechwriter for a camera store owner and activist with aspirations to a political career—Harvey Milk. But by then the city had its first (more or less) regularly published newspaper, the Chicago Gay Crusader, edited by activist Michael Bergeron with copy editing supervision by his lover Bill Kelley.

A dart board bearing the image of Anita Bryant’s face, sold in response to her anti-gay campaignCredit: Chase Ollis

The success of the June 1970 Stonewall anniversary march (no one got arrested!) encouraged members of Gay Liberation to start developing a larger agenda. Inevitably, there were conflicts. Some wanted to merge Gay Lib into a broader leftist coalition; others preferred to keep the focus on LGBTQ issues. GL’s women’s and Black caucuses went off in their own directions; the Black caucus turned into Third World Gay Revolutionaries, led by Ortez Alderson, who went to prison for destroying draft records in downstate Pontiac. And in September 1970, as reported in a CGL newsletter displayed in the Gerber/Hart exhibit, “Tensions that had been brewing for some weeks finally came to a head . . . with the result that the group suffered a schism and a large number of members announced they were forming a new group—not a new caucus—to be called ‘The Chicago Gay Alliance.’ . . . Though there . . . were moments of acrimony, the parting was amicable. . . . All present expressed a desire to avoid the infighting of competitive groups in other cities”—a reference to the internecine turf wars that tore at the fabric of New York’s gay community around the same time.

The debut issue of the CGA newsletter in November 1970 explained: “The Chicago Gay Alliance is actively interested in alleviating the ghetto (whether spiritual or physical) conditions of homosexuals, in dispelling the psychological and sociological mythology that has grown up about the subject of homosexuality, in providing referral services to homosexuals, in helping homosexuals ‘coming out’ develop a sense of pride in who they are and courage in facing the generally hostile outside world, to provide additional social outlets so that homosexuals can meet each other as human beings, to change repressive laws and end police and political harassment, and to improve communications between the homosexual and the heterosexual communities.”

In 1971 CGA gave Chicago its first LGBTQ community center, a ramshackle red-brick two-story rented house on an Old Town side street at 171 W. Elm. By 1973 the center had closed for lack of financial support, and CGA ceased operations. But the activism continued. A July 1973 issue of the Chicago Gay Crusader reported that 20th Ward alderman Cliff Kelley, working with a group called Illinois Gays for Legislative Action, had introduced legislation in the Chicago City Council to prohibit discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. It took 15 years for the City Council to finally vote an LGBTQ-inclusive Chicago Human Rights Ordinance into law on December 21, 1988.

The Old Town community center paved the way for today’s gleaming Center on Halsted. The Gay Crusader was succeeded by the weekly newspaper GayLife, founded in 1975 by the late Grant Ford, and then by Windy City Times, cofounded in 1985 by Tracy Baim, now publisher of the Reader, and still publishing in print and online 34 years later. (I served as editor of both GayLife and WCT in the ’80s.)

The Gerber/Hart exhibit’s narrative arc climaxes with a major event from 1977, chronicled in an issue of GayLife on display. On June 14 of that year, singer, orange-juice industry spokeswoman, and former Miss America Anita Bryant arrived in Chicago for a concert at the historic Medinah Temple at Wabash and Ohio (it’s now a Bloomingdale’s home furniture store). The concert had been booked before Bryant achieved national notoriety as leader of an anti-LGBTQ initiative in Dade County, Florida. LGBTQ activists, including me, picketed the Bryant concert in Chicago, despite being cautioned by gay establishment leaders that our action would be an embarrassing failure. By then, it was thought, the activist energy of the early 1970s had waned, and the only time queers turned out en masse was for the Pride Parade. But a spontaneous, unexpected turnout of 3,000 to 5,000 (depending on whom you ask) proved the naysayers wrong.

Chicago Gay Liberation, the Chicago Gay Alliance, and the other groups that sprang up in the wake of Stonewall ran out of steam by the end of the decade, but the sense of empowerment they gave the community—and the lessons we learned from their successes and setbacks—guided us into the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic and the struggle for civil rights at the city, county, and state level drove a new activist spirit. “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” notes Gerber/Hart’s James Conley. “As transformative as those groups were, they were temporary. But the impact they had in their short span of existence was monumental and lasting.”   v

Special thanks to Amber Lewis at Columbia College Chicago

Correction: This article has been revised to reflect that the Siegel-Schwall Band played at a dance held on the campus of Northwestern University, not that of the University of Chicago.