June 14 marks a turning point in the history of Chicago’s LGBTQ rights movement—one worth remembering in the wake of Sunday’s mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, the worst mass shooting in American history.
On this day in 1977, singer, orange-juice industry spokeswoman, and former Miss America Anita Bryant arrived in Chicago for a concert at the historic Medinah Temple (now a Bloomingdale’s outlet at Wabash and Ohio). The concert had been booked months earlier, before Bryant achieved a new national notoriety as leader of an anti-LGBTQ initiative in Dade County, Florida, where citizens voted to overturn an antidiscrimination ordinance that had been passed by the county commission earlier that year. The law prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, public service, and accommodations. The vote to repeal the law happened on June 7, 1977.
So a group of Chicago LGBTQ activists, including me, decided to organize a picket of the June 14 concert in Chicago. We were warned by gay establishment leaders that it would be an embarrassing failure. Back then, it seemed, the only time LGBTQ people turned out en masse was for the Pride Parade.
But a spontaneous, unexpected turnout of 3,000-plus people proved the naysayers wrong. Protesters chanted “pray for Anita” and sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” according to the Tribune‘s coverage of the event. (Attendees of the concert reportedly sang the same tune.)
According to historian John D’Emilio’s account of the protest, demonstrators carried signs that read “Anita is McCarthy in drag,”—a reference to Communist scaremonger Joseph McCarthy—and “God drinks wine, not orange juice.”
“The gays were noisy but peaceful,” a police spokesman told the Tribune, though eight demonstrators were arrested.
It was the first large-scale LGBTQ political demonstration in Chicago.
After the three-hour protest, some of the marchers headed over to Pioneer Court outside Tribune Tower to protest a series of inflammatory, questionably sourced articles co-written by then-Trib reporter Michael Sneed (now of the Sun-Times) that purported to link a child pornography ring to the gay community in Chicago.
Coverage of the anti-Bryant rally made the Tribune‘s front page. And though Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign triggered a national conservative backlash movement to defeat gay rights laws around the country, it also helped fuel the growing LGBTQ rights movement.
Progress always provokes backlash. Sometimes that backlash is vicious and violent, as in the case of the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk, who had emerged as a national political figure by leading California’s resistance to the Bryant campaign. Sometimes it’s unimaginably tragic, as in Orlando this week. The struggle for justice—the struggle against hate—is unending, but relentless. It will not and it must not end.