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The path to Lori Lightfoot: A 100-year LGBTQ journey in Chicago

Tom Chiola's election as a Cook County judge in 1994 marked the "first real step to the future" for LGBTQ elected officials, writes Tracy Baim.

Astounding.

That’s the main word that keeps coming to mind for me when thinking about an openly LGBTQ African-American female mayor of Chicago.

Since the general election, when Lori Lightfoot captured the highest number of votes, I have been reflecting back on my 35 years covering Chicago’s LGBTQ community, starting in May 1984 when I took a job as a reporter at Chuck Renslow’s GayLife newspaper.

OPINION

That was just 15 years after the Stonewall rebellion in New York City, the start of the modern gay-rights movement. The community is marking the 50th anniversary of Stonewall this June — and Chicago is now the largest U.S. city with an openly LGBTQ person elected to mayor.

The path to this historic moment is paved with a yellow brick road of pain and suffering, but also joy and victory.

Chicago’s first gay milestone happened nearly 100 years ago. In 1924, postal worker Henry Gerber started the nation’s first-known homosexual rights group, the Society for Human Rights. Several founders were arrested, including Gerber. And he lost his job, but kept pushing for equality until his death in 1972.

There were fits and starts of a movement here in the 1950s, and by the mid-1960s, with the founding of the Mattachine Midwest group, the movement started to get its sea legs, and never stopped its forward momentum.

By the 1970s, Chicagoans built both short- and long-lasting organizations, some of them political, others social, spiritual, academic, athletic, health-related and beyond. Newspapers were founded, people began to come out of the closet, and legal battles started to be won.

The LGBTQ rights movement benefited significantly from prior movements for social justice, especially the African-American and women’s movements. Not only did legal and legislative victories serve as precedent for LGBTQ rights (Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade, etc.), but the foot soldiers of the LGBTQ movement often were trained in prior and parallel movements.

Several openly gay people ran for office in the 1970s, including Michael Bergeron for delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention, Don Goldman and Nancy Davis for aldermanic seats in 1974, Gary Nepon for state representative in 1977, and Grant Ford for 44th Ward alderman in 1979.

In the 1980s, Baton Show Lounge owner Jim Flint ran for Cook County board, and Cook County Hospital physician Ron Sable ran unsuccessfully in both 1987 and 1991 for 44th Ward alderman. He came close in his first race, losing by just a few dozen votes — helping to launch a new movement of LGBTQ political activism.

One can’t separate the trajectory of the AIDS crisis from the LGBTQ movement’s progress. HIV and AIDS forced many more people into advocacy, including allies. It created a sense of urgency, including for someone like Sable, who was living with HIV.

While there was a minor victory in 1980 (when Tim Drake won as a delegate for John Anderson’s presidential race) and in 1993 (when Marc Loveless won a Local School Council race), it was attorney Tom Chiola’s 1994 win for a Cook County Circuit Court judgeship that marked the real first step to the future for LGBTQ elected officials.

Cook County now has one of the highest concentrations of LGBTQ judges, and there have been “firsts” in many areas.

In 1996, Larry McKeon was elected the first openly gay state representative, and also as openly living with HIV. In 1997, Joanne Trapani became the state’s first openly LGBTQ mayor, for Oak Park. In 2006, Debra Shore was the first lesbian to win a countywide race, for Metropolitan Water District Commissioner.

Chicago’s first openly gay alderman, Tom Tunney was appointed in 2003, and this year he was joined by the city’s first openly LGBTQ African-American alderman, Maria Hadden. Raymond Lopez and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa were the first openly LGBTQ Latinx to the City Council, Deb Mell the first open lesbian (she also was first to be state representative). Lamont Robinson and Kevin Morrison both made history in 2018 — Robinson as the first African American gay man to win for state representative, Morrison the first LGBTQ person winning a Cook County Board seat.

There are many history-makers among us now, and each helped pave the way for Lori Lightfoot.

Even with this victory, many LGBTQ people are not satisfied with the symbolism alone — they want true change, especially for LGBTQ people of color, and those living on the margins of society.

So while I am still astounded, I am also sad — for the pain and suffering that built this yellow brick road to victory. But it is a victory, and those that contributed to it can take a lap now. And then we all get back to work.

There are many more “firsts” to go.

Tracy Baim is publisher of the Chicago Reader newspaper. She also is co-founder and co-owner of Windy City Times, Chicago’s LGBTQ newspaper. For a complete roadmap to Chicago LGBTQ elected history, see both the Reader and Windy City Times editions last week.

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