LGBTQ Chicago residents during Stonewall era recall ‘aura of danger’

Discrimination, hostility over being gay in America flood memories as nation marks 50th anniversary of the revolutionary New York riots that galvanized the gay-rights movement.

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The Stonewall Inn in New York City

Patrons of The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, tired of constant police raids, finally fought back in 1969, Now known as the Stonewall riots, the incidents marked a turning point for LGBTQ rights.

Associated Press

Being gay in Chicago in the 1960s could be dangerous.

Just ask Jim Flint, arrested 16 times back then when police raided the city’s gay bars. And 16 times, he was deemed in court to be innocent of any crime.

“It was scary,” Flint said. “You spent a lot of time in jail overnight,” then police would “let you out at noon the next day to embarrass you in front of everybody working downtown.”

But on June 28, 1969, when police raided The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, patrons and staff decided they’d had enough, and fought back.

The Stonewall riots, which occurred 50 years ago Friday, galvanized the gay rights movement and brought national attention to the injustices that LGBTQ people faced.

Discrimination — like what Flint faced — was part of being gay in America — but the tide began to turn with Stonewall.

‘Two separate worlds’

As a doctoral student at the University of Chicago in the mid-60’s, Esther Newton had a magazine, wrapped in brown paper, delivered to her department mailbox each month.

It was her monthly issue of the “The Ladder,” distributed by the lesbian civil rights group Daughters of Bilitis.

“I had it delivered to my department … so that if anyone found out, I would say it’s professional — I needed to know these things,” said Newton, whose anthropology dissertation would become a book, “Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America.”

Newton went on to become a professor at the University of Michigan; now retired, she lives in New York City. Back then, though, still hoping to enter academia, she knew her sexuality and her career had to exist in “two separate worlds.”

“Even though I wrote [my dissertation] about drag queens … no professor, no student, nobody knew [then] that I was a lesbian.”

Gay bars did offer a sense of community for Newton, but not without an “aura of danger.”

“If you were arrested … they published your name, and maybe your address, in the paper, and you were completely ruined.”

A 1964 raid at the Fun Lounge in Melrose Park is described in St. Sukie De La Croix’s book “Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall.”

In all, 109 men were arrested; names, ages, addresses and other personal information were published in the Chicago Daily News. The Chicago Sun-Times headline: “Area Teachers among 109 seized in Raid on Vice Den.”

The raid was ordered by Cook County Sheriff Richard Ogilvie, who went on to become governor.

When he ran for re-election in 1972, Advocates of Gay Action cited the raid in an ant-Ogilvie flyer: “… people were disgraced, reputations were ruined, jobs were lost, lives were destroyed and even suicides were committed.”

Drag artist Skip Arnold with University of Chicago doctoral student Esther Newton.

Drag artist Skip Arnold with Esther Newton, then a University of Chicago doctoral student, in 1965. Newton’s dissertation was on drag queens.

Photo courtesy of Esther Newton

‘Being gay is a revolutionary act’

A few months before Stonewall, Flint opened his own drag bar and showcase, the Baton Lounge, which endures in Uptown to this day.

And after Stonewall, Flint knew that the fight for gay rights demanded his action too.

“It was a bunch of drags that did it at Stonewall and I own a drag bar ... I said, this is it. We’ve all got to do it.”

Jim Flint, owner of the Baton Lounge, walking in the Chicago Gay Liberation March in 1970.

Jim Flint, owner of the Baton Lounge, walking in the Chicago Gay Liberation March in 1970.

Photo courtesy of Jim Flint

Flint will be one of seven grand marshals in this year’s Pride Parade. Another will be Joel Hall, founder of the Joel Hall Dance Company.

Hall recalls that the Bughouse Square community in Washington Square Park was his “safe haven” in the 60’s and 70’s.

“There was a double draw to Bughouse Square for people of color and gay people because that was an area that we could all come to,” said Hall, who is black and gay.

Bughouse Square, however, was not impervious to public hostility.

“You [got] chased down the street with baseball bats down there,” said Hall. “If you [saw] a whole bunch of [drag] queens running down the streets, you know to run.”

Hall remembers feeling empowered by the Stonewall riots; the leaders included many people of color.

After Stonewall, Hall became more involved in marches and organizing groups.

“Being gay is a revolutionary act. That is activism,” Hall said. “Being black is also a revolutionary act, because you can’t help it.”

Local Stonewall events

Events to mark the Stonewall anniversary include:

• Friday, from 9 until 11 a.m., the LGBTA Committee at the Village Chicago will hold a community breakfast at the Pancake Cafe, 3805 N. Broadway. Reservations: thevillagechicago.org or call (773) 248-8700.

• “Chicago Is A Drag” will bring in 50 drag artists to mark the 50th anniversary; 4 p.m. Friday in the parking lot of the Cheetah Gym, 5248 N. Clark St. Tickets are $25.

• The Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, 6500 N. Clark, hosts “Out of the Closets & into the Street: Power, Pride & Resistance in Chicago’s Gay Liberation Movement.” The exhibit looks at gay liberation efforts in Chicago after Stonewall and runs through September. Free admission, donations encouraged. Open Wednesdays and Thursdays, 6 to 9 p.m.; Fridays, noon to 4 p.m.; and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

• Meeting House Tavern, 5025 N. Clark St., will host “Stonewall50: Back to the Wall,” featuring songs played at Stonewall in 1969 and video footage from the riots, courtesy of Gerber/Hart. 9 p.m. Friday. Suggested donation $5, with all funds going to Gerber/Hart.

• Wrightwood 659 gallery, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave., will have “About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art,” with over 40 artists. It runs until August. Reservations: online at wrightwood659.org. General admission is $20.

Contributing: Rachel Hinton

The Baton Lounge float at the Pride Parade in 1977.

The Baton Lounge float at the Pride Parade in 1977.

Courtesy of Jim Flint

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