Bill Kelley wasn’t the firebrand type.
He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t harangue. But for half a century, “He did work on pretty much every major gay and AIDS issue there was,” said Tracy Baim, publisher of Windy City Times.
From the days of raids on gay bars, Mr. Kelley, in his quiet, analytical, lawyerly way, was advocate and sage. He pushed for equal rights at the city, county, state and national level. He counseled younger activists about gay history and encouraged them to keep their eyes on long-term change instead of short-term wins.
“In my 31 years covering the LGBT community, Bill Kelley is perhaps in the Top Five of all-time critical movers and shakers,” Baim said.
At one time, pushing for “gay liberation” could mean the risk of a black eye — or worse. Even allies could be lukewarm. Closeted gays, fearful of social ostracization, were worried agitators might goad opponents.
But in the 1960s, in one of the earliest equality protests, Mr. Kelley was marching outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Soon, he was organizing national gay and lesbian conferences.
In the early ’70s, he co-founded the “Chicago Gay Crusader,” the city’s first gay and lesbian newspaper, and Illinois Gays for Legislative Action, according to the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, which honored him in its inaugural group of inductees in 1991.
In 1977, he was at the first official White House meeting on gay issues.
He “was most comfortable behind the scenes, crafting the language of laws, editing,” said Baim, whose books were edited by Mr. Kelley. “While there have been many thousands of activists who have helped the movement over the decades, fewer than a dozen have done so across five decades, never leaving the stage.”
Mr. Kelley, 72, an administrative law judge with the city of Chicago, died in his sleep May 17 at his Rogers Park home, said his partner since 1979, Chen K. Ooi. He suffered a heart attack seven years ago.
He lobbied candidates, worked for them, polled voters and wrote Letters to the Editor. He helped found the Gay and Lesbian Press Association and the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association, according to the Hall of Fame. He was on the Board of the Cook County Human Rights Commission.
He grew up near Kennett, Missouri. In a 2005 interview with Windy City Times, he recalled how it shaped him. “It was legally segregated and practically segregated,” he said. “I was reading books about free speech, [about] not accepting the religiosity of the day, and about racial justice. . . . I was an ACLU member when I was in high school.”
The library was his place of refuge and information, Ooi said. Young Bill, who said he knew he was gay in high school, tried to learn about homosexuality in books. In 1959, he enrolled at the University of Chicago. In the Rare Books Room of its library, he told Windy City Times, “that’s where they kept gay books, or at least the first one I read, ‘The Homosexual in America.’ ’’ Later, he earned a law degree at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
A series of 1964 police raids on gay bars resulted in newspapers publishing the names and addresses of arrestees. That stoked his activism, he told Windy City Times. He came out — cautiously — in college.
The Illinois Department of Human Rights expressed condolences on its Facebook page, saying, “Illinois owes Mr. Kelley a debt of gratitude for his dedication and commitment to the establishment of legal protections and societal acceptance for LGBT individuals.”
“It was an honor to work with him,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. When Quigley was a Cook County commissioner, “He helped me draft the County Domestic Partnership Benefits Bill in 1999 and the Domestic Partnership Registry Bill in 2003. He was courageous and brave. . . . My thoughts and prayers are with his partner, Chen Ooi, and his family and friends during this extremely difficult time.”
Mr. Kelley and his partner met in 1979 at Cheeks, a bar on Clark Street. They created a welcoming home with a garden brimming with hydrangeas, lilacs and rhododendrons. Together, they visited Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam. They enjoyed a trip to Northumberland County, England, to trace Mr. Kelley’s maternal ancestors.
Dry English humor was the hallmark of his favorite TV shows, including “Are You Being Served?” and “Keeping Up Appearances.” He savored opera, especially anything sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. He admired ballet performances by two of the greatest examples of the danseur noble, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Judith Jamison and her endless legs thrilled him when she commanded the stage with Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater.
He was his partner’s GPS and Google. Whenever Chen Ooi needed directions, or an answer to a historical question, he turned to Mr. Kelley.
A graveside service is planned at noon Thursday at Wunder’s Cemetery, 3963 N. Clark St.
Speaking in the present tense, his partner summarized Mr. Kelley’s philosophy: “He feels he has a right to be who he is, and he doesn’t have to hide it.”