The 20th anniversary of the passage of Chicago’s Ordinance on Human Rights will be marked Sun, 11/9, at 4 PM at Gerber/Hart Library, Chicago’s lesbian and gay archives, located at 1127 W. Granville. A program organized by Timothy Stewart-Winter, a doctoral student in history at the University of Chicago, will recap the long campaign to pass a law protecting Chicago’s LGBT community from discrimination in housing, jobs, and public accommodations. The ordinance was approved by the Chicago City Council on 12/21/88, but only after 15 years of struggle not only between the LGBT community and politicians but within the community itself.
A gay rights ordinance introduced in 1973 had been languishing in committee for a decade, while mainstream gay leaders waited for what they deemed would be “the right moment” to bring the bill up for a vote. They banked on the support of Mayor Jane Byrne–but the playing field changed after Byrne lost reelection in a three-way race between herself, Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, and U.S. Rep. Harold Washington. After Washington became Chicago’s first African-American mayor in 1983, some gay and lesbian activists threw their support behind Washington’s progressive reform agenda, but others–along with their allies in the City Council’s anti-Washington bloc (led by Ald. “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak )–were holding off for an expected comeback bid by Byrne. Washington supported passage of the bill–in 1984 he became the first sitting Chicago mayor to appear at a gay rights rally, which I helped organize.
But the Byrne backers wanted to stall the bill until after the 1987 election, when Byrne was expected to face off with Washington for a rematch. The Washington-allied activists gained the upper hand and brought the gay rights ordinance up for a vote in 1986. They expected the bill to fail, but they felt it was necessary to lose a battle in order to ultimately win the war.
When the bill was rejected by the City Council in 1986, an angry community immediately set out to revamp and reintroduce the ordinance. A newly formed organization, Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting, spearheaded the campaign. Its leaders formed a winning strategy: combining grassroots organization with behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. When Washington died in 1987 and was replaced by interim mayor Eugene Sawyer, the Town Meeting leaders convinced Sawyer to support the ordinance, which he had previously opposed; the Town Meeting activists also courted the support of white conservative aldermen who had been foes of Washington.
The revamped bill came up for a vote in September of 1988 and was defeated at a stormy City Council session chronicled in the Reader by Achy Obejas. But Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting refused to accept defeat. The ordinance was immediately reintroduced, and three months later–after more public demonstrating and more behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and deal-making–the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance was finally voted into law, taking effect in February 1989.
Sunday’s program at Gerber/Hart will feature a panel of activists: Laurie Dittman, Rick Garcia, and Arthur Johnston–three of the so-called “Gang of Four” who guided Town Meeting in its final months. (The fourth, writer Jon-Henri Damski, died ten years ago.) For more information, please call Gerber/Hart at 773-381-8030.