In June 1970, when I was a teenager walking in Chicago’s first gay pride march, the only destination I had in mind was the Civic Center downtown. That was where 200 people would gather under the wary gaze of a few bemused cops to listen to speeches commemorating the previous year’s riots outside the Stonewall Inn, the gay bar in New York where a routine police raid sparked the birth of modern “gay liberation.” I had no idea where this movement was heading. I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that 25 years later there’d be a Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual History Month, honored with a proclamation by a mayor named Daley and an exhibition at the Chicago Historical Society.
That exhibit, The Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement, opened last weekend as the centerpiece of a monthlong series of activities throughout the city. Organized by the Advocate, the gay and lesbian newsmagazine, the show is presented here by the Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives.
Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual History Month was the brainchild of Rodney Wilson, a Saint Louis high school history teacher. He chose October because school would be in session and “he wanted it to have an academic component,” says Kevin Boyer, Gerber/Hart’s president. This year’s celebration won the endorsement of the National Education Association–and a predictable backlash from Concerned Women of America, an ultraconservative Christian group headed by Beverly LaHaye, who termed the association’s “unofficial observance of homosexuality” a “direct assault on innocent, unsuspecting children.”
The Long Road to Freedom presents a year-by-year account of the gay rights movement starting in 1967, the year the Advocate, now a slick biweekly, was launched as a mimeographed newsletter. Printed texts, reproductions of news stories, and a collection of vivid photos by Rink, Joan E. Biren, and others who have documented the lesbian and gay community recap the tides of progress and backlash.
Of particular interest are accounts of old issues still debated today: gays in the military (a lifesize reproduction of Vietnam veteran Leonard Matlovich’s tombstone, which carries the epitaph: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men–and a discharge for loving one”); the ordination of homosexual clergy; media images (Archie Bunker gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a drag queen years before Roseanne’s lesbian kiss); lesbian mothers’ custody battles; ideological, racial, and class divisions within the movement; and the campaigns for and against gay-inclusive civil-rights laws. Also represented are early examples of media outing. (Remember Oliver Sipple, the ex-Marine who saved President Ford from would-be assassin Sara Jane Moore? He was disowned by his family after his gay friends revealed his homosexuality to the press.)
Embracing politics, culture, and sports (including a 1982 Advocate article on the first Gay Games, written by former Chicago GayLife reporter Steve Kulieke), the show is dotted with images of and quotes from pop-culture celebrities representing a spectrum of coyness: K.D. Lang and Janis Ian, Liberace and Rock Hudson, Christopher Isherwood and Robert Mapplethorpe, Dave Kopay and Billie Jean King, Quentin Crisp and Divine, Lily Tomlin and former child star Tommy Kirk. There are also reminders of such gay and lesbian activists as Harvey Milk, Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Bruce Voeller, Jean O’Leary, Elaine Noble, Virginia Apuzzo, and others brushed aside by the gay movement’s leader-du-jour mind-set.
The movement’s enemies are here too, including Dan White, Anita Bryant, Pat Buchanan, Pete Wilson (who vetoed California’s gay rights bill in 1991), and AIDS, first reported in the Advocate as “gay pneumonia” and “gay cancer.”
Inevitably a promotional tool for the Advocate, the show is marred by a few sloppy touches–misspellings on the photo captions, for example–and, sadly, by vandalism: some photos have been scarred, and at least one text card has been defaced with the word “fag” scrawled in ink. And given the magazine’s roots in Los Angeles, it’s not surprising that activity on the coasts gets the most extensive representation. To offset that, Gerber/Hart has set up an auxiliary display of artifacts affirming that this city looms large in gay-movement history. They include an article analyzing the 1961 revision of Illinois’ penal code, which made this the first state to decriminalize homosexual activity, as well as a facsimile of the incorporation papers for the Society for Human Rights–America’s first documented gay rights organization, founded here in 1924 by postal worker Henry Gerber. The group’s stated purpose was “to promote and to protect the interests of people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness which is guaranteed them by the Declaration of Independence, and to combat the public prejudices against them by dissemination of facts according to modern science among intellectuals of a mature age.” (The SHR disbanded in 1925 when police busted Gerber on a trumped-up obscenity charge.)
It was in Gerber’s honor that Gerber/Hart was founded in 1981. The other namesake, Pearl M. Hart, was a local civil-liberties attorney known for her work on behalf of homosexuals and immigrants. The agency spent much of its first decade in a damp, cramped, bathroomless basement on Sheffield north of Belmont, and weathered with difficulty the 1987 deaths of Greg Sprague and Joe Gregg, two of its most passionately committed boosters. In 1991 the revitalized library moved to its current location–a roomy Roscoe Village storefront. Gerber/Hart maintains a collection of some 10,000 books as well as archives of organizational records, news clippings, and authors’ papers. The library, at 3352 N. Paulina, is open noon to 4 on Saturday and Sunday and 6 to 9 on Monday and Thursday–browsers are welcome, though only members may check out materials. The archives are open by appointment.
The Long Road to Freedom is on display through November 5 at the Chicago Historical Society, 1601 N. Clark. A Gerber/Hart benefit viewing of the show, featuring an appearance by Chastity Bono (the lesbian daughter of Sonny and Cher), takes place from 6 to 9, Friday, October 20; the cost is $40 to $100.
Gerber/Hart also presents Keepin’ On: Images of African American Lesbians, a display created by New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archives, through October 31. Not Just Passing Through, a documentary video about the Lesbian Herstory Archives, will be screened at Gerber/Hart this Wednesday at 7:30 PM. The event is cosponsored by Women in the Director’s Chair; admission is $2.
For information on these and other history month activities, call the Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives at 883-3003.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.