Heading into the 21st century, queer activism was at a crossroads. While the AIDS epidemic was far from over for the millions of people who lacked access to adequate health care and could not afford expensive antiretroviral therapy—which cost thousands of dollars a year even with insurance—many larger gay organizations had moved on from the issue. With gay marriage and access to military services held up as preeminent issues by groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the more radical impulses of groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) shifted from center stage and into the margins of the community.
This split came to a head with planning for the Millennium March on Washington, held in 2000. While radical groups wanted the event to emphasize universal health care as the focal point of the rally, HRC, one of the event’s main organizers, instead focused on faith, family, and the ability to serve in the military as key themes for the march. That conservative sensibility incensed a group of radical queers, who gathered at a conference for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (now known as the National LGBTQ Task Force) in 1998 to discuss counterstrategies. That meeting in turn sparked the writing of “It’s Time To End The Gay Rights Movement As We Know It,” a broadside full of rage against the increasing normativity of the wider movement.
The opening lines of the provocation set the tone:
“Gay conservatives. Gay credit cards. Stonewall commemorative neckties. Mass obsession with gay marriage. Clinton as ‘our best hope.’ Diamond-studded red ribbons for sale at Tiffany’s. Professional lesbian and gay ‘leaders’ charging exorbitant speakers fees. Proclamations of the ‘end of the AIDS epidemic.’ If this is the ‘gay rights movement,’ it’s way beyond reform.”
This salvo was the opening cry for a group of queers unwilling to cede their radical politics to the mainstreaming impulses of HRC and the like. Soon thereafter, they would become known as Queer to the Left (Q2L), a small but lively group of like-minded organizers who, over the course of the late 1990s and early 2000s, would raise hell against gentrification, the death penalty, homonormativity, and plenty more. Though their impact is less obvious and more localized than forebears like ACT UP, which many Q2L members were involved in a few years before, the group nevertheless sustained defiantly radical queer politics in the face of increasing conservatism, all carried out on a neighborhood level.
“At one point, the Chicago Free Press described us as some ragtag group, and I got really upset. I thought they were trying to be dismissive of us,” says Joey Mogul, a lawyer with People’s Law Office and Q2L member. “But then I realized we really just were a ragtag group, and in the age of the nonprofit-industrial complex, I’m sort of proud of that.”
“It’s Time To End The Gay Rights Movement As We Know It” set to words sentiments that were increasingly prevalent amongst a particular queer activist milieu in the mid-90s. Although AIDS continued to shape queer people’s lives, the gradual introduction of antiretroviral treatments was enough for many wealthier community members who could afford treatment to shift their focus toward other ends like gay marriage. Andrew Sullivan’s moratorium on the AIDS epidemic, “When Plagues End,” was published in November 1996, coincidentally the same year that ACT UP’s Chicago chapter stopped organizing.
“Before it was Queer to the Left, it was a nameless coalition of queer women who were sick of queer white men running everything,” says Dawne Moon, now an associate professor of social and cultural sciences at Marquette University. “There were ten or 12 of us who had been in ACT UP and Queer Nation who just decided that we were going to do something different.”
But if Sullivan could argue that AIDS was over in a year in which the disease claimed nearly 34,000 lives in the U.S. and more than 1 million globally, other queer activists refused to let the disease’s legacy slip away so easily. Although AIDS was no longer the primary motivating factor in post-ACT UP organizing spaces, the sense that mainstream gay groups were ready to bottle up the group’s more radical impulses kept many in the fight as the 20th century shaded into the 21st, unappeased by a vision of assimilation that gained steam in this period.
As remembered by Q2L member Jeff Edwards, now a union organizer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, ACT UP’s early years were uniquely embraced by various factions of the gay community. In its heyday, Edwards recounts marching with the group at each year’s Pride Parade, feeling like “total rock stars” as the crowds embraced their commitment to effective AIDS treatment—the group could draw in those who otherwise shunned radical politics, animated by the fundamental desire to stay alive.
“We even had a guy who was a millionaire Republican who went to college with William Buckley who took to the streets,” Edwards remembers. “He’s a guy who could normally call the senator or call the president and have a conversation, but when it came to AIDS, it didn’t work out that way—he was temporarily on the outside.”
All of that changed when effective treatment came into the picture. With the acute fear of death no longer as present for wealthier members of the community, a growing dissensus returned to the gay rights movement, with more conservative elements ready to once more distance themselves from the insurgent proposals made by groups like Queer Nation, a direct action group known for its brash messaging, and the Lesbian Avengers, a group of queer women who split from ACT UP, best known for founding the Dyke March.
“Now we’re in a situation where I don’t think we’re going to see that kind of broad coalition within the community because there isn’t that kind of galvanizing issue that cuts across these differences,” Edwards said in an interview with Chicago-based zine Punk Planet in 2000. “Right now, I think there are many people who if we went back ten or 15 years would have been prone to supporting Act Up [sic] who are now writing checks to HRC.”
ACT UP’s radicalism in many ways mirrored the Gay Liberation era of queer politics. After years of “homophile” organizing in the 50s and 60s sought to show white gay men as polite and unassuming, gay organizing in the late 60s and 70s snapped back, no doubt aided by a broader climate of left-wing militancy. But before AIDS once again sharpened the focus of gay militants and galvanized the uncommitted now afraid for their lives, another era of increasing conservatism crept up in the 70s and early 80s. Gay newspapers like Chicago’s Windy City Times, in between regular news coverage, worked to depict the community—especially relatively privileged gay men—as sophisticated and financially successful. They suggested that many queers were prepared to assimilate into straight society with just a few key legal rights extended their way, using reader surveys to show advertisers and the straight public that the community sought little more than the trappings of a well-to-do consumer lifestyle.
If ACT UP temporarily recentered more militant strategies within the gay rights sphere in the late 80s and early 90s, such approaches were viewed as increasingly gauche amongst the 90s gay elite, whose increasing access to the halls of power seemed poised (or not) to push gay rights forward in as-yet-unrealized ways. Left-wing queer organizers regained a more subaltern edge, a stance no doubt enhanced by a general right-wing drift in American culture that made explicitly leftist perspectives even more unwelcome. The impulse to hew closer and closer to traditional forms and sources of political power grew increasingly normalized in this period, especially with Bill Clinton’s 1997 address at a HRC dinner, the first presidential speech made to a gay audience.
The endless push-and-pull between competing political persuasions within the community set the stage for the more localized interactions which guided much of Q2L’s work. Uptown would prove a potent terrain for Q2L’s activism.
“Die yuppie faggot,” the graffiti sneered.
First spotted in Ravenswood, the ugly epithet expressed a growing sentiment amongst some long time neighborhood residents in the early 2000s: gay gentrifiers were making the neighborhood unlivable for others, particularly the community’s diverse body of low-income renters who were increasingly being priced out of the north side.
The graffiti was likely targeted at members of the 46th Ward Gay and Lesbian Organization, a group of well-heeled homebuyers who had begun buying properties in the area. As Edwards characterized the group: “Their only purpose was to organize to go to CAPS meetings to tell the police which buildings to go after, and to show up at meetings to promote development that would be more high-end, calling anything addressing affordable housing as dangerous to the neighborhood.”
Although it’s unclear if he was a member of the organization, current 46th Ward alderman James Cappleman was among the group of gay gentrifiers who were opposed to Q2L’s affordable housing campaigning. In a Windy City Times letter to the editor written in 2001, Cappleman criticized the group for wanting to maintain concentrated poverty in the area, tut-tutting: “No one is liberating the poor when they are kept concentrated in one particular area. Didn’t we learn that lesson with Cabrini Green?”
As people like Cappleman and members of 46th Ward Gay and Lesbian Organization had the time and resources to promote new luxury development in the area, those in Q2L were ready to make clear that not all gay people were down with gentrifying Uptown. These local battles gave Q2L an inroad to challenge both the gay pro-growth sentiment and the homophobic backlash it inspired, putting the group in coalition with other community-based organizations.
One of the group’s pamphlets, “Gentrification: Keywords,” was modeled off a similar pamphlet, “AIDS: Keywords,” written by ACT UP member Jan Zita Grover in 1987. The pamphlet argued that the homophobic graffiti came from residents who “were identifying gay men’s supposed privilege as the explanation for the displacement of longtime working-class residents from the neighborhood.” While the pamphlet is clear that such discriminatory language remains dangerous, it notes two key bits of missing information: most queers weren’t the well-to-do gentrifiers that nonetheless played a part in changing the neighborhood, and that most new residents involved in gentrification were not queer.
Indeed, as the group noted, queer people had been living in cities long before the visible effects of gentrification began, seeking out community together in districts that were quickly noted for their supposed deviance. Before Boystown became the de facto gay district in Chicago, the near north side was a popular area for queer sociality, pushed out by the development of the Carl Sandburg Village, located near Clark and Division, in 1962. (For quite some time, the intersection at Dearborn and Division was known in the community as Quearborn and Perversion, in recognition of a near half-century of gay activity nearby that only waned with rising housing costs and the onset of the Sandburg Village.) For lesbians, Andersonville became “Girlstown” in the 90s (and perhaps even earlier), with more women lured to the community after bookstore Women and Children First was displaced from Boystown due to increasing rents. Across history, economic and social marginality left the queer community largely at the whims of homophobic landlords, employers, and society at large, forces still clearly at play.
This long-term struggle for affordable housing animated another pamphlet handed out by the group at the Pride Parade in 2002. With “Housing is a Queer Issue,” the group invoked The Wizard of Oz in proclaiming, “There is no place like home (if you can afford one).” While condemning the consequences of increasing costs for all poor people, the pamphlet noted its specific impact felt within the queer community. “One-half of Chicago’s PWAs [People with AIDS] live below the federal government’s poverty level. One third have been homeless at some point,” the sheet noted, drawing upon research conducted by AIDS Foundation Chicago. “Housing is a Queer Issue” staked Q2L to an anti-gentrification perspective in marked contrast with its surroundings, as it argued: “Vibrant ‘gay residential neighborhoods’ cannot survive gentrification—Lakeview is proof of that. Most lgbt [sic] folk cannot afford to live within walking distance of the Pride Parade route.”
Q2L wasn’t just committed to reshaping conversations around housing issues through these kinds of pamphlets and broadsides. By joining in a coalition called Community of Uptown Residents for Affordability and Justice (COURAJ) starting in 1999, the group partnered with an eclectic mix of other neighborhood groups to advocate for much-needed new affordable development in the community. Within this wider coalition, Q2L won a significant victory for affordable housing in the neighborhood through the planned Wilson Yards complex, even as their impact was limited by ward boundaries and divergent political goals.
In the 46th Ward, residents had the ear of six-term alderwoman Helen Shiller, whose deep ties to Uptown’s considerable base of community activists limited the extent of gentrification throughout her near quarter-century in office. COURAJ and Shiller’s work on Wilson Yards, first introduced in 1998, was emblematic of this partnership. Through COURAJ organizing, Shiller’s support, and the eventual approval of Mayor Richard M. Daley, activists ensured that the $151 million, TIF-funded site would include a 98-unit senior housing facility and an 80-unit, family-friendly apartment building, paired with the construction of a new Target and Aldi next to the Wilson Red Line station.
The coalition found less success just a few blocks north at the redeveloped Goldblatt’s building, located just south of Broadway and Lawrence. With the building just beyond Shiller’s jurisdiction, it fell under the control of then-48th Ward alderwoman Mary Ann Smith, who did not share Shiller’s activist bent. Despite that hurdle, the group still managed some limited victories at the site, securing a handful of additional affordable units as well as a $1 million earmark for a nearby single room occupancy building. The building was eventually occupied by Borders Bookstore in 2004, which closed just eight years later as the chain went belly-up.
“Cities and urban neighborhoods have been central to making queerness visible in our society, enabling many kinds of LGBTQ folks to be open about their lives and to find lovers and friends in an otherwise hostile and violent society,” Edwards said in a 2001 Windy City Times article. “Today, 30 years after gay neighborhood-building that was concerned about creating a vibrant public life became so central to our movement, some more privileged individuals take this work for granted, or even look with disdain upon what they call ‘gay ghettos,’ such as Lakeview, unable to see that these spaces still make their lives possible.”
Acting in coalition through COURAJ put Q2L in a strange position: being asked to organize with the religious group Jesus People USA, a group with many who opposed both abortion and homosexuality. Deborah Gould, now an associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, wrote an article about the partnership, “Becoming Coalitional: The Perverse Encounter of Queer to the Left and the Jesus People USA,” which examined the ways in which the partnership within this wider umbrella challenged both groups. Writing in 2017, more than a decade after Q2L was last active, Gould reflected on the ways that the coalition created space for members of both groups to encounter one another in new and unexpected formations, the kind of encounter only available in the joyful heterogeneity of a still-affordable-enough urban neighborhood.
“It was more in retrospect that I realized how strange and wonderful that encounter was,” Gould said in an interview. “In the moment, I wanted to find belonging through politics, with other people who I might not agree with but who, by being in proximity to them, we would affect one another, and something surprising might happen. A lot of us had been so involved in challenging establishment-oriented gay organizations that we weren’t surprised by what would happen, and we felt open toward what might happen with people who we didn’t know and who we could be in relation to.”
Another significant issue that Q2L took up concerned the carceral system and the death penalty, fighting against racism and homophobia in the state’s punitive practices.
The group’s work on the death penalty wasn’t entirely unrelated to its anti-gentrification organizing; as it highlighted in events like “LGBT People, Police Brutality, and the Death Penalty,” the kinds of everyday repression meted out by the police were integral to changing the neighborhood and criminalizing queer people, people of color, and the poor. By organizing against the death penalty, the group pushed the wider queer movement to pay attention to these interlocking violent forces.
The group’s first foray into police violence work came during the Pride Parade in 2001, when it targeted Cook County state’s attorney Richard Devine. Though their campy slogan “This Dick is not Devine” humorously poked fun at the county’s top prosecutor, the reason for their frustration was far from funny: Devine had resisted efforts to appoint a special council to investigate Jon Burge, eventually found to have tortured more than 200 Black men while serving as a Chicago police detective from 1972 to 1991. The protests emphasized Devine’s clear conflicts of interest in the case, as he’d previously worked at the law firm, Phelan, Pope & John, which had represented Burge during the initial investigations. Q2L was only one of many groups that organized around the case, which took decades of litigation and investigation before the city’s 2015 decision to award $5.5 million in reparations to Burge’s victims. Still, their involvement at that critical juncture, just a few months before Devine began offering Death Row inmates the possibility of clemency in exchange for dropping their torture claims, was essential in keeping the case alive.
The focus on Burge and Devine then pushed the group to build a chorus of voices calling upon Illinois governor George Ryan to end the death penalty in Illinois. As the Burge torture investigation helped reveal, the death penalty had repeatedly been used to kill many people later found innocent; according to Mogul, the People’s Law Project found that of the 25 people executed in Illinois, 13 were later found to be innocent. In numerous cases, homophobia amplified the clear racism at play in deciding to deploy the death penalty; they found that “40% of the women on death row have had an allegation of lesbianism used against them during their trials.” Q2L began organizing other statewide and national queer organizations to oppose the state’s use of the death penalty, eventually placing an ad in the October 16, 2002, issue of Windy City Times calling on other queers to “Come Out against the Death Penalty and in Support of Justice.” Thanks to this pressure campaign, Ryan announced in January 2003 that the state would commute the death sentences of 164 inmates to life in prison without parole, before the state abolished the practice for good in 2011.
Q2L’s leadership on ending the use of the death penalty then drew them into a high-profile, out-of-state case. Local organizers asked Q2L to assist in an ongoing campaign to free Edward Hartman, a bisexual white man who had been charged with murder in North Carolina. As Mogul remembers it, the group had gained enough attention from their anti-death penalty work in Illinois to make them an important coalition partner in the campaign, calling upon larger national organizations to condemn the execution and devote specific resources to the issue.
“Essentially, they told us we were the only group that was doing that work,” Mogul said. “At the time, people were so big on hate crimes and hate crimes laws, and we were saying, ‘We don’t want more prosecutors, we don’t want more policing, we don’t want more prisons.’ We were trying to highlight not only are these systems inherently racist and unjust, but that they disproportionately affect members of the queer and trans community, particularly its Black queer trans members.”
Unfortunately, Hartman was eventually executed by the North Carolina government, his unsuccessful appeal to take the case to the Supreme Court not enough to prevent his death. Still, Q2L’s involvement in the case solidified its reputation as an organization willing to stand up against injustice, and to push larger mainstream gay groups to increase their commitment as well.
As Gould wrote in her article on Q2L and its coalitional efforts, “The unrealized potentialities of the past—what we might call the not-yet of politics—provide a storehouse of live possibilities for the now.” Revisiting Q2L today, and recognizing its blend of queer campiness, trenchant radicalism, and an openness to work with unexpected coalition partners, is a revivifying experience, providing wisdom for the many battles yet to be won by organizers following in the group’s footsteps. At the same time, understanding Q2L’s demise is also instructive for radical organizing today, reminding us of the persistent influence more mainstream tendencies can have in leftist spaces.
“With the movement towards marriage and what was happening in the mainstream gay movement at the time, it seemed very individualistic,” says Searah Deysach, owner of feminist sex shop Early to Bed in Andersonville. “For me as a 25-year-old, it felt new and radical to organize in the context of being queer, understanding the importance of paying attention to these things that don’t just affect us individually.”
The group also brought a particularly queer sense of play to their demonstrations that shines through in photographs and pamphlets from the era. At one point, Q2L members created a pale-faced, khaki-wearing puppet to mock assimilating, HRC gays, holding a comically large hammer threatening passersby to “Look Normal!” while demanding them to “Send $” with the other hand. Later, Q2L member Therese Quinn worked with other Lincoln Square residents to repurpose the puppet to mock 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter, tied to a fake newspaper inserted into copies of the Reader called “Alderpuppet Schulter Purports.” At another demonstration, the group targeted the rainbow pylons in Boystown, which the group saw as an attempt to commodify a gay identity in a neighborhood increasingly unaffordable for many of its queer residents. By tying pink, money-festooned ribbons to the pylons, Q2L showed it wasn’t afraid to stir up dissent within the gay community.
The group carried on into the 21st century, scoring several of its largest victories in its later years, but it would fall apart by 2005. In 2001, some members of the group were eager to participate in a citywide coalition against Mayor Richard M. Daley, wanting to push beyond the neighborhood-specific TIF project work. A slate of actions, scheduled to kick off in mid-September, was derailed by 9/11, and the coalition never recovered.
By 2004, many of the group’s busiest members, including many of the women involved at its founding, were drawn away by other commitments, sapping it of momentum. The post-9/11 era proved more difficult for the group, as its major projects wrapped up without an obvious next step to take.
“Our most consistent work was around urban development and criminal justice reform,” Edwards says. “Once the Wilson Yards project was finalized and the [Hartman] execution happened, there was nothing to ground us.”
According to Yasmin Nair, a writer, activist, and academic who has continued to organize around a queer critique of capitalism through the group Against Equality, the group was also increasingly influenced by the mainstreaming impulses it had originally repudiated; near the end of its lifespan, a newer group of white, gay men pushed the group closer to the gay marriage battles they’d previously rejected. After years of playfully teasing mainstream gay organizations, the decision to protest a bridal shower event by dressing up as SpongeBob Squarepants and asking attendees “Am I a threat to your marriage?” was a far cry from the group’s earlier efforts, lacking the kind of clarity that had previously made it so successful.
For Nair, the burden of being “the only woman, the only Brown person, and the only lesbian” left in the organization by early 2005 was enough to finally push her out, as she felt increasingly racist and sexist hostility from some of the group’s newer members. The group ended sometime later that year.
Although Q2L’s demise came with a healthy dose of personal acrimony, the fact that most of its members remain committed to queer activism and academic work today is a testament to its impact. It’s clear in interviews how much the group shaped those who called it home, full of lessons and memories both joyful and messy, experiences that can carry forth and shape the work of fighting for a better world today. Profane and profound, Q2L embodied and was eventually undone by the contradictions of the era, articulating a radical perspective that could not outrun the conservatizing forces of 9/11 and the broader gay rights movement.
“Queer to the Left was, in its own way and for its time, a short and even beautiful moment in queer history, unique and deeply necessary and also fated to not last because the definition of what we consider radical politics evolved swiftly and went past it,” Nair says. “I’m glad I was a part of it—a part some in it would deny—and that it ever happened at all.” v