A young, conservative homosexual from the northwest suburbs was cruising in Lincoln Park in the summer of 1968. “I loved cruising,” says Gary Chichester, the cofounder of the Chicago Gay Alliance and a longtime activist, in June 2020. “It comes natural, that process. The subtle eyes, the contact, the different ways of approaching somebody was really a lot of fun.” The ritual was interrupted on this particular night as young Chichester saw buses filled with helmeted police officers heading south toward the Democratic National Convention. The Sunday before, August 25, Allen Ginsberg and other gays were peacefully meditating in this park after the 11 PM curfew when the police came swinging batons. Chichester decided to follow these buses out of curiosity. “After seeing what happened in Lincoln Park, I knew that [police brutality] was going to be an issue.” Chichester would soon stand among the beaten protesters, watching police yank film from cameras and antagonize activists.
“There was another demonstration that was on Michigan Avenue,” Chichester recalls. “Dick Gregory, the comic and activist, invited everyone to his south-side home for a barbecue, so thousands of people started marching down. Slowly as we approached 18th Street, people started leaving the march. And next thing I knew, a conservative kid from the northwest suburbs is face-to-face with a line of jeeps with barbed wire fixed to the front of them. I thought ‘Oh my god, I’m right up front here.’ Next thing I knew I get hit by a tear gas canister. So that really changes your mind a bit.”
Chichester was radicalized. He spent the rest of the week protesting, which he says made him political. “That was really the first time I’d ever even thought about being an activist. Being a privileged white male, you don’t really think you’re gonna be in protests. I said, ‘This is really a police state,’ much like it is today with certain people in the White House. I kind of consider myself, hopefully, knowing the difference between right and wrong. And I was proven to be on the right side of history because it was considered later down a ‘police riot.'”
The following summer in June, Chichester and his boyfriend at the time received a call from a friend in New York City. “You won’t believe what’s happening here tonight,” he said. The daily live updates from the Stonewall riots continued to motivate Chichester. He had been to the Stonewall Inn, a dumpy mafia-owned gay bar where patrons paid a steep cover charge and had to pass through the men’s room to get to the dance floor. “You don’t really feel oppressed until you start opening your eyes,” Chichester says. As word spread through Chicago of an anniversary march celebrating the Greenwich Village uprising, Chichester prepared the flags. Their symbol, two female symbols linked with two male symbols under a proud fist, was printed on his back porch and attached to a pole using the sewing machine of his neighbor—an unaware vice cop. About 200 people gathered in Bughouse Square on Saturday, June 27, 1970, one day before New York City’s first march. The organizers chose this starting location because of its longtime reputation as an area celebrated for free speech. A bonus, somewhat underground reason: the square had also been a popular cruising ground for decades. The marchers raised their flags as they headed for Daley Plaza. “It was really a freeing kind of feeling,” Chichester says. He adds that it wasn’t a frightening experience, but he did see expressions of disbelief and jaws dropping from passersby who weren’t used to such bold protesting.
Out of that energy, Chichester found more resources from radicalized individuals like himself. Vernita Gray created an LGBT helpline by listing her new home phone number, cleverly chosen as FBI-LIST. Richard Pfeiffer picked up organizing the next Pride march (which he would do every year until his death in late 2019). Henry Wiemhoff and others continued meeting as Chicago Gay Liberation. With the support of these activists and many more, Chichester organized Chicago Gay Alliance and, later, the first gay community center in Chicago. Out of that space on Elm Street, the activists held meetings, started a phone line, shared donated books, held weekly buffets, offered housing, and wrote a newsletter. They picked up the activist tools established by earlier groups like the Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine Midwest, which warned gay people of police officers (such as the notorious John Manley) posing as cruisers in order to entrap gay men.
Chichester kept himself on the ground, so to speak, in the gay community by tending bar at the Gold Coast and several other businesses owned by future International Mr. Leather founder Chuck Renslow. There he witnessed more police actions, such as his coworker’s arrest for keeping a “disorderly house.”
The next day when they got him out of jail, Chichester says, “he had his chaps off and he was wearing them like a stole, it was so cold! Things like that happened all the time.”
After the first march, organizers decided the next anniversary should be a new form of celebration: a parade. They knew it would be a much larger event in 1971. Chichester went downtown to apply for the permit. “It’s all a learning process,” he says of organizing a large action. “You realize as you get older, if you’re worried about being told no, you’re gonna be told no. If you just go ahead and do what you wanna do, usually there’s not that much pushback.” On the permit, “we named everything we could think of, including a flea circus. Animals, bands, floats. They said yes to everything. The only thing they didn’t say yes to was that first year, they did not stop traffic.” That took about five years, he says. Finally closing down the streets became a necessity for the city when the parade date lined up against a Cubs game. Pride parade organizers finally got word from baseball’s National League on future schedules: “They’re not gonna put a baseball game up against the parade, so fabulous! That was another win.”
Chichester recalls about 1,000 people gathering in 1971 at Belmont Harbor, near another known gay gathering place and cruising ground called the Belmont Rocks. A few floats were lined up and they headed south to Lincoln Park. The parade grew in size every year following, especially after more big wins like marriage equality, Chichester says.
On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 2019, Chichester took a trip to New York City, not to join the parade, but to march with the Reclaim Pride Coalition’s new Queer Liberation March. This separate event was held to recognize a lack of activist involvement in corporate-sponsored, police-lined Pride parades that have become the most common forms of annual celebration. Chichester recalls the street queens and friends he made in places like the early Stonewall when explaining the type of inclusion he saw at Reclaim Pride. “I don’t need a million people to make me feel happy, I just need the right people, people who are outspoken.” He believes that if there were to be more marches, and different options such as Reclaim Pride’s event or the Dyke March, it would ease crowds from corporate Pride and get more people out and able to be vocal. “I love Rich Pfeiffer,” Chichester says of the 48-year Pride parade organizer. “I don’t know how he did it for that length of time and the pressure of trying to keep everybody happy.”
This year will see no Pride parade, only marches. Sunday, June 14, saw the largest protests for transgender rights in recorded history. Thousands of activists filled the streets of Chicago, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles to protest the frequent murders of transgender women of color, two of which happened just days before. The following morning, the Supreme Court announced its ruling against discrimination of LGBTQ employees, a victory the movement has worked for since its beginning. Prior to the ruling, a brief of historians as amici curiae was submitted to the court, citing writing by Bilitis cofounder Del Martin and 1954 Mattachine Society meeting notes using the phrase “sex variant” as evidence that midcentury Americans recognized the meaning of the term “sex” to include the identities of LGBT individuals, thus including them in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I love Pride,” Chichester says. “You see what good it does. All the lost folks out there who are committing suicide or unhappy or losing their family—I’ve been very lucky with my family, they’ve been very supportive over the years, but I’m on the small end of that percentage.” He begins to reminisce about the march against Anita Bryant, the Orange Balls at the Aragon, the LGBT Hands Across America. “There’s always something new to do.” v