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‘Queer Legacies: Stories from Chicago’s LGBTQ Archives’

From the rich archives of Chicago’s Gerber Hart Library, D’Emilio’s ‘Queer Legacies’ offers an inspiring overview of individual perseverance.

John D'Emilio
Queer Legacies: Stories From Chicago's LGBTQ Archives
University of Chicago Press
October 2020

One of the exciting aspects of the explosion in queer studies in recent decades has been the growing body of work on place-based queer histories. While the quality of the scholarship varies (along with the intended audience: some popular, some more academic), all these histories have something important to offer. In addition to their often superb analysis, they provide vital insights into the remarkably vibrant — and for many readers hitherto unknown – early history of gay, lesbian, and trans life.

George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (Basic), originally published in 1994, was one of the earliest studies to both shatter the myth that queer public life began with Stonewall, as well as adopt the place-based historical geography approach to the topic. It sparked a literal revolution in this type of scholarship, both academic and popular. Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town (University of California Press, 2003) covers queer life in San Francisco prior to 1965; Jen Gieseking’s Queer New York (2020) offers another queer historical geography of that city, while Queer Twin Cities (compiled by the Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project (NYU, 2010) explores the history in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Broad studies like Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600 (Routledge, 1999) use historiographical technique to offer glimpses at multiple urban centers: London, Amsterdam, Rio de Janiero, San Francisco, Paris, Lisbon, and Moscow.

Canadian researchers have gotten in on the action: Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer (2017) offers a lively look at queer life throughout the growth of Canada’s largest city. But smaller cities have gotten the treatment too: Rebecca Rose’s Before the Parade (Nimbus, 2020) explores queer life in Halifax, Canada between 1972-1984, while Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis’ Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold focuses on the lesbian community of Buffalo, New York between the 1930s to the 1960s (Routledge published a 20th anniversary updated edition in 2014). And of course, researchers abroad are contributing to the effort: Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin (Vintage, 2014) covering queer life from the 1850s to the eve of World War II in that city and Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day (Abrams, 2018) spanning 2000 years of queer life across the pond, are two excellent examples. This, of course, is just a sampling of the work that’s out there.

Now Chicago can boast a worthy addition to the growing body of place-based queer histories. In Queer Legacies: Stories from Chicago’s LGBTQ Archives, queer studies pioneer John D’Emilio (history and gender/women’s studies professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago) explores the rich queer heritage of America’s third most populous city. To be fair, he’s not the first, and he offers credit to his predecessors: books like St. Sukie de la Croix’s Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), and the edited anthologies Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community (Surrey, 2008) and Out in Chicago: LGBT History at the Crossroads (Chicago History Museum, 2011).

Place-based studies like Gay Berlin and Queer City, which span multiple centuries and even millennia, by needs must rely heavily on drawing their subject matter from previously published texts, correspondences, and court documents. But many recent queer histories also benefit from the spate of field research that’s occurred since the 1990s and which has been able to take advantage of oral histories provided by living subjects. Works like Queer Twin Cities emerged from queer oral history projects, while other studies have combined oral histories and interviews with documentary research. Some queer Americans born at the turn of the previous century were still alive at the beginning of this one. The welcome changes in public and legislative attitudes have enabled them to come out and share their experiences with researchers. Queer Legacies includes, among others, the touching story of Merle Markland: a lesbian born into a small mining community in 1902, who fell in love with her next-door neighbour Lil Brown as a teenager; they lived together until Brown’s death in 1978.

Queer Legacies draws on a combination of sources, although its subject matter ultimately all derives from archival work. The book is essentially a lively, annotated guide through Chicago’s Gerber-Hart archives, offering snapshots of the collections and incredible stories they contain. Founded in 1981 as a private non-profit, it’s one of the largest libraries of LGBTQ material in the US, comprising roughly 15,000 titles and 100 archival collections. Concentrating on those collections, D’Emilio has drawn out some of the representative samples of Chicago’s queer history, and provides a delectable sample of what the archives contain. The short chapters provide self-contained summaries of LGBTQ lives, organizations, and events, but the brief overviews just scratch the surface of Chicago’s fascinating queer history. Each chapter, D’Emilio observes, could easily be elaborated into a book or research study of its own. Undoubtedly, his hope is that this book will entice and inspire others to take on precisely that task.

Because social media and public discourse are dominated by such a focus on modern queer history, the vibrant early and mid-20th century lives and activism of queer people are often forgotten. The Stonewall protests are now a global icon, but what’s often ignored is the groundswell of activism that was already going on around the country and which foreshadowed its visceral eruption at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 1969. What’s also often omitted is the surge of activism that resulted from Stonewall, leading directly into today’s reforms and activism. A book such as this helps fill in the gaps, by charting the local groups inspired by Stonewall and setting out to build on the momentum it created.

These were not always just activist groups. The protests inspired vibrant reform movements within a broad range of faiths – Queer Legacies covers activism within the Catholic, Methodist, and Lutheran church communities in Chicago. The infamous 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexuals” by Catholic Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) denouncing homosexuality didn’t come out of a vacuum: it was a direct response to the groundswell of support for gays and lesbians that erupted within the Catholic Church after Stonewall. In many denominations, church officials were caught off-guard by how quickly queer faith communities came together and how widespread their support was among lay worshippers and church officers alike. Organizations like Dignity (a national organization for queer Catholics with chapters throughout the country), Unity (a local Chicago Catholic group), Lutherans Concerned (a LGBTQ-positive Lutheran group), and Integrity (an Episcopalian queer organization) are examples of faith communities that formed in the 1970s and were mostly well-received by their churches, at least in the beginning. A 1976 survey, for example, revealed that a majority of Missouri Synod Lutherans were in favour of accepting gay people into their church.

However, tremendous activist gains in the ’70s became the target of push-back efforts by homophobic church officials in the ’80s (laying the roots of the militant bigotry associated with today’s American religious right), with varying results. Often the push-back succeeded in at least temporarily repressing organizing efforts (the Catholic Church is one example of this). In other cases, a sort of détente was achieved, as with the Lutheran Church in America’s 1983 statement that “this church can neither condemn, nor ignore, nor praise and affirm, homosexuality.” Meanwhile, groups like the United and Episcopalian churches moved forward with more progressive change to integrate queer faith groups and members. Even when church officials came down publicly against LGBTQ organizing, however, the intercession of progressive-minded bishops and faith leaders were often able to mediate at the local level, keeping events like Chicago’s Gay Mass (first held in 1970) going even after the Ratzinger declaration.

Reforms within the faith community were more than just a matter of interest for churchgoers and could impact lives outside of the faith community as well. Testimonies and court appearances by queer-positive church leaders could play an important role in ensuring gay parents were able to retain custody or access to their children in divorce proceedings in the ’70s and ’80s, something that was not commonly permitted earlier in the century.

There’s been so much ink spilled over more recent struggles like the right to equal marriage that we forget some of the defining struggles of the 20th century, which for queer persons included the right to dance. Campus and student groups were often the pioneers on this front, organizing same-sex dances in Stonewall’s wake. At a time when police raids on gay bars were still extremely common, organizing and publicizing a same-sex dance was a radical act and could entail complex negotiations with police and other authorities. Yet the dances went on and played an important role in helping to normalize public perceptions of queer identity.

The archives reveal a surprisingly early awareness of the importance of tackling racism within the queer community and its activist movements. Groups like Black and White Men Together (founded in San Francisco in 1980) formed chapters across the country. Its activities included initiatives focused on identifying and tackling racism in local gay bars, and the organization’s archived dossiers reveal resources developed for dozens of training workshops focused on tackling different forms of racism both within and outside of the queer rights movement.

Individuals took a stand too. Renee Hanover, a noted lesbian lawyer who was kicked out of law school in 1964 for being lesbian – her lover subsequently killed herself – fought to get back in and proceeded to defend tens of thousands of LGBTQ people over a four-decade career. In addition to queer people targeted by the police, she also went after local gay bars, particularly lesbian clubs known for excluding and discriminating against Black American women, and was as relentless in the fight against racism within the LGBTQ movement as she was against discrimination from without. She also defended Black Panthers.

The archives reveal the challenges involved in navigating the balance between cooperation and separate organizing among identity groups within the broader movement. Groups like Gays and Lesbians Together aimed to find common bases for activism, while important organizations like Amigas Latinas offered a safe space for both social gathering and political organizing among Latina lesbians. Women’s struggle to establish a lesbian community centre in Chicago also reflects the challenges of organizing within a broader movement.

But it wasn’t all political organizing. Groups like the all-lesbian Artemis Singers (formed in 1980 and still running strong) offered a more recreational outlet to members, while initiatives like the Metis Press served a key role in lesbian cultural production and was an important part of the feminist publishing/bookstore movement which grew rapidly in the ’70s and ’80s. Sports organizations like Frontrunners (originally formed as Lavender U Joggers in San Francisco in 1974) spread across the country and spurred an explosion in LGBTQ athletics organizing in Chicago as elsewhere.

“Historical research is a cumulative effect,” writes D’Emilio. “Each box of documents will add something to the sum of one’s knowledge…But occasionally researching history offers much more. It allows one to pull together a set of themes and patterns that characterize the broader panorama. Suddenly, one sees with clarity several key elements that distinguish a period of history…”

Queer Legacies is as much a work of love – D’Emilio’s passion for prowling through the Gerber-Hart Archives and the countless stories they contain is palpable – as it is a work of history. Although it offers a riveting overview of some of the struggles that defined queer life and activism in the 20th century – the fight against AIDS; the struggle for LGBTQ recognition and acceptance in schools, sports, the military, and other spheres; the fight against racism and much more – D’Emilio hopes readers discern some of the patterns in the stories he tells.

First, he emphasizes, “individuals make a difference” – the brief biographies of gay, lesbian, and trans individuals, even before the era of Stonewall and large national movements, makes that clear.

Second, collective organizing has been key to the LGBTQ movement’s successes: “when individuals do come together to work collectively, their power and influence are magnified enormously.” Political coalitions, voter drives, and anti-racist networks are examples of collective struggles fed directly into political and social change.

Cultural production and social activity are also important community-building devices, he observes. Queer activism’s roots in bars, clubs, and the dance scene are well-known, but it also extends to the spheres of sports, publishing, music, and more. Social activities can “strengthen a collective identity and hence provide a more solid foundation for political mobilization,” he writes, and Queer Legacies offers the examples to prove it.

Finally, LGBTQ activism is a movement. It can be easy to lose sight of the big picture, particularly given how often queer activists and organizations have been at odds with each other. Some have pursued radical militancy while others have opted to work within political institutions. Some organizations avoided political activism entirely while others acknowledged the importance of non-political groups taking political stands out of principle. Some have pursued separatist activism while others have sought to build bridges and highlight intersectional struggle.

“The organizations that proliferated in and helped to solidify a diverse LGBTQ community since the 1960s had wildly different emphases – police behaviour, law reform, musical production, voter mobilization, athletics, school curriculum. But cumulatively they shared the desire to create a society in which LGBTQ people might live free from stigma and oppression,” he writes.

Queer Legacies helps remind readers of this and the broad ecology that characterizes social and political movements. The book offers an inspiring overview of individual perseverance; poignant losses, and stirring collective gains. Above all, the tantalizing samples it offers will leave readers with a profound desire to learn more.