A few months after Stonewall—the 1969 riots in New York incited by a police raid on a gay bar—an ad for a gay roommate appeared in the University of Chicago Maroon. The man who’d placed it was former student Henry Weimhoff—and the responses he received would end up inspiring him to place another, seeking activists to help him form a local chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, an organization that had started in New York in response to Stonewall.
The Chicago GLF was much more militant than any of the city’s previous gay activist groups. The first one, the Chicago Society for Human Rights, founded in 1924 and thought to be the earliest documented “homosexual emancipation organization” in the United States, was almost apologetic in its quest for fair treatment of gays. Its official mission 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.” It was fairly short-lived: after publishing two issues of its newletter, Friendship and Freedom, the society was shut down by police and its founder, Henry Gerber, arrested.
The 1950s and ’60s saw local chapters of two national organizations, the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis and the gay Mattachine Society. Rather than social agitation they focused on support, opting for secrecy in an era when the opposite could have serious consequences. Police raids on gay bars were frequent, and arrestees would often find their names printed the following day in local newspapers, jeopardizing jobs and livelihoods.
By the late 60s, more radical groups, like Mattachine Midwest, had formed locally and were responding more aggressively to police harassment. The high-profile closing of Chicago gay bar the Trip in 1968 led to a legal challenge that went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court (which ruled in favor of the bar).
Stonewall, though, was the real flash point—in New York and nationwide—and the Gay Liberation Front chapters formed in its aftermath were far more abrasive and demanding than previous groups. The manifesto of the national organization called for the abolition of “existing institutions” of oppression, among them heterosexuality. And its statement that “We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature” was a far cry from the “mental and physical abnormalities” to which the fledgling Society for Human Rights had confessed.
It was an article in the Village Voice that clued Weimhoff in to the existence of the Gay Liberation Front; acquaintance Murray Edelman, who was a U. of C. grad student at the time and would become the cofounder of the local GLF chapter, encouraged him to place the Chicago Maroon ad to find members.
Once formed, the Chicago GLF’s earliest actions appeared to be a direct retort to the police raids common in that era: the group hosted a series of dances for same-sex couples.
The first, a small mixer held in January 1970 on the U. of C. campus, was timidly promoted and sparsely attended. Emboldened by the lack of police harassment, though, Weimhoff organized a subsequent on-campus event that attracted around 600 people. Mark Sherkow, who’d been a graduate student at U. of C. in the late 60s, remembers the scene at the university’s Pierce Tower: “It was packed,” Sherkow says. “I wasn’t ready to dance with anybody—I just sat in a chair and watched.” Other students, he says, were “kind of gawking into the room, and laughing.” Still the police didn’t come.
The next dance, also at the U. of C., drew about 1,000 people—and inspired the organizers to venture off campus. In April 1970 they hosted an event in the annex at the Chicago Coliseum. Murray Edelman says the group’s lawyer, Renee Hanover, warned them shortly beforehand that the Chicago police planned to shut them down. After a nervous vote, with the memory of the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 “still very vivid in our minds,” says Edelman, the group decided to go ahead with it.
About 2,000 dancers from all over Chicago came, but the police didn’t. “When the dance started,” Edelman says, “Renee told us that they had decided to back off.” A week later gay activists mobilized by the dances picketed the Normandy Inn, a gay bar that enforced rules against same-sex couples dancing. Gay historian John D’Emilio recites the activists’ demands: “Gay people can dance both fast and slow . . . no arbitrary dress regulations . . . no discrimination against women.” After a weekend of lackluster business due to the protests, the bar changed its rules.
The GLF had outgrown Hyde Park—in other words, says Edelman, the group was too big to fit its meetings into Weimhoff’s apartment—and was “reconstituted” as a citywide organization called Chicago Gay Liberation. By the middle of the decade, GLF chapters across the country had died out; in Chicago, part of Chicago Gay Liberation had split off in late 1970 to form the Chicago Gay Alliance. Much of the action moved to the north side—where in June 1970 the first gay pride parade had been held. Edelman says the energy surrounding the GLF had “just kind of peaked.” He moved to San Francisco in 1973. Weimhoff moved to New York, where he died of AIDS in the 1990s.
But a new wing of the movement was stirring in Hyde Park: 1974 saw the first annual Lesbian Writers’ Conference, organized by activist Marie J. Kuda and pulp novelist Valerie Taylor, who’d also cofounded Mattachine Midwest. The conference came at a transitional moment within the larger gay-rights movement—books that would become genre classics, like Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), were beginning to supplant lesbian pulp fiction, which had been sold under coded titles as a sort of open secret in the 1950s and ’60s. Some pulps were reissued in the 1970s by women’s presses—this time as cultural artifacts of another, less open, era.
The conference, held annually through 1978, drew participants nationally and covered the literary process from creative inception to publication. The conference also produced the first annotated bibliography of lesbian literature, Women Loving Women, edited by Kuda and published in 1975. When Kuda decided that the 1978 conference would be the last, says John D’Emilio, she envisioned a time when it would come back to Chicago in a weeklong festival celebrating lesbian literature, art, and music.
“Wouldn’t it be great at McCormick Place?” Kuda asked. “Right after Illinois passes the ERA?”
Nowadays, while Hyde Park might lack the bar and club scene that constitutes much of gay life elsewhere in the city, it does boast organizations like Affinity Community Services and the Youth Pride Center, which provide resources for south-side queer people (see page 27 for listings). And as in the 70s, much of the action is at the University of Chicago, which now runs an GLBTQ programming office and has hosted a yearly campus pride festival since 2008.