In 1970, Gary Chichester was printing flags on his back porch for the first Pride Parade in Chicago. He said he had asked to borrow a sewing machine from his upstairs neighbor, who he later learned was a vice squad police officer.
Chichester, the cofounder of the Chicago Gay Alliance and a longtime activist, has carried the flag in the Pride parades he has attended since then.
“The logo itself was part of the newsletters that Chicago had,” Chichester said. “People don’t really know what it is when they first see it because the rainbow flag took over, and now there’s variations of over 30 sexual minority flags that are used, but that was the first in Chicago.”
Over 50 years later, the flag is an artifact in a new exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. “Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement,” a traveling exhibit in partnership with the Newseum, looks at the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising in New York City as a catalyst for the gay liberation movement.
“It’s little beat up, it’s been caught in rainstorms. But I’m very proud of it,” Chichester said. “We have to remember our history in order to fight off what’s ahead of us.”
“Rise Up” looks at the gay rights movement through the lens of employment equality, faith, as well as visibility of LGBTQ Americans in pop culture. The special exhibition features the wedding rings of Jim Obergefell and his late husband, the couple at the center of the Supreme Court same-sex marriage case; a rainbow flag signed by flag designer Gilbert Baker; and a suit belonging to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay senator.
“Rise Up” breaks from the Holocaust Museum’s permanent exhibitions, which look at Jewish persecution under the Nazi regime. But Leah Rauch, the museum’s director of education, said the Holocaust and the LGBTQ movement has more connections than visitors may initially predict.
The museum uses lessons of the Holocaust to address hatred, bigotry, and differences today. In a similar vein, “Rise Up” looks at how identity-based persecution lives on in the present day, she said.
“The mission of our museum is to remember the past and transform the future,” Rauch said. “We do that through addressing other issues like genocide or human rights issues. LGBTQ rights are human rights.”
Rauch said “Rise Up” is one way high schools can expand representation in history curricula. And already, educators are bringing their students to the exhibit. As of last year, Illinois is one of a handful of states to mandate the teaching of LGBTQ history in schools.
“Had I been exposed to an exhibition like this as a kid, it would have meant a lot to me, personally,” Rauch said.
Arielle Weininger is the chief curator of collections and exhibitions. “Rise Up” centers on the role of the First Amendment in the gay liberation movement, and how activists used their First Amendment rights to propel the movement forward, she said. Americans like Chichester took to the streets, for example. Writers and editors created LGBTQ publications, at the risk of harassment from government authorities.
“They’re taking on really oppressive and unjust law, and putting themselves and their families in harm’s way in order to make positive change within society,” Weininger said. “It’s an incredibly admirable and inspiring story of struggle, and one that continues.”
Weininger hopes Chicagoland visitors will take in the exhibition, with its bright pastel colors and pop-up cutouts, and be moved to make change within their own communities.
The exhibit is constantly evolving, adding to its collection to reflect new developments. When President Joe Biden overturned a Trump-era ban on transgender troops, the Newseum tacked on a plaque about the reversal.
The Holocaust Museum made several Chicago additions, too. Along with Chichester’s flag, the Skokie exhibit features photos from the first Pride Parade in Chicago and the most recent Pride Parade in 2019. When visitors exit, they can also see photos of local residents enshrined in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.
“When I walked in, I realized it was Chicago because I recognized some people that were in the picture,” Chichester said, of the photo from 1970. “Who would have thought 50 years ago that we’d be at the Holocaust Museum?
The exhibition will run until May 2022, just in time for Chichester to get his flag back for the next Pride Parade: “It’s going to be quite the blowout.”