BY John D'Emilio ON February 7, 2017
Besides the papers of individuals and organizations, an archive like the Gerber/Hart Library in Chicago also contains LGBT periodicals. This can be especially important when the periodicals are the newsletters of local organizations. Most of these did not have massive circulation or long runs. Yet they do often provide thorough and detailed reports on local events and the work of the organization. They also frequently contain opinion pieces and commentary written by local activists that give a vivid sense of the times.
Two such periodical collections are the newsletters of Chicago Gay Liberation and the Chicago Gay Alliance. These were two of the very earliest post-Stonewall organizations to form in Chicago, and the newsletters at Gerber/Hart stretch from 1970 to 1972. They report on the broad range of activities that the groups engaged in, the demonstrations they organized, and the tensions and challenges they each confronted.
At first glance, the story that unfolds in Chicago seems to parallel the narrative that historians have constructed of early post-Stonewall activism in New York. In the wake of Stonewall, a group calling itself the Gay Liberation Front quickly formed in New York. Self-declared militant revolutionaries, they conducted sassy public actions, urged people to come out, declared solidarity with other radical movements of the day, and displayed that solidarity by participating as openly queer contingents in marches against the Vietnam War and at rallies in support of the Black Panther Party. Within months, a group of white gay men split from the GLF and formed the Gay Activists Alliance. It, too, was committed to militant public action, but it broke with the multi-issue coalition politics of the Gay Liberation Front and declared itself solely focused on gay issues.
Reading the Chicago Gay Liberation Newsletter, one immediately encounters its multi-issue orientation. Besides organizing a Pride March and Rally in June 1970, and conducting demonstrations at restaurants that refused to serve gay customers, it also sent a contingent to participate in the march commemorating those who died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and it organized support for the Venceremos Brigade, a group of young radicals who were supporting the Cuban revolution and defying the U.S. boycott of the island nation. One of its issues contained a report on the Revolutionary People’s Party Convention, held in Philadelphia in September 1970 and organized by the Black Panther Party. Chicago Gay Liberation included both a women’s caucus and a black caucus, which worked to keep issues of sexism and racism in the vision of the organization while also remaining active in the organization as a whole.
The October 1970 issue of the newsletter reports that Chicago Gay Liberation is experiencing a “schism.” A large group of white gay men decided to secede from the organization because it was “too political, too radical” and was “allying itself too closely to Movement groups.” They formed a new group, Chicago Gay Activists. The first issue of its newsletter, published in November 1970, announced that “our politics are that of homosexuality.” Another article declared that “the most important part of liberation is personal.” CGA definitely remained a militant organization. It planned and conducted public demonstrations that could be rowdy and disruptive. But it continued to proclaim that CGA “is devoted solely [emphasis in original] to the politics of homosexuality.”
Although this seems to mirror what had happened a few months earlier in New York, a closer reading of the newsletters leads to a more complicated and nuanced analysis. Chicago Gay Liberation, for instance, might declare itself a revolutionary organization, but a surprisingly large number of its demonstrations were focused on obtaining the right to dance. The famous retort by Emma Goldman notwithstanding (“If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”), one could reasonably argue that the right to dance was not the cutting edge of revolutionary change for LGBT people. Meanwhile, though CGA stated that its only focus was on homosexuality, its newsletter reported on gay contingents at antiwar marches, provided its readers with information about the Hiroshima Day rally, and joined in a broad coalition action to protest President Richard Nixon’s appearance in Chicago. At least in Chicago, the divide between revolutionary and reformist, between multi-issue and single-issue politics, was a good deal hazier than it might seem upon first analysis.
What I found most exciting about reading these newsletters was encountering the intensity and extent of activism in this three-year period. Especially when one considers that both organizations were run entirely on volunteer labor and had almost no budget to consider, the amount of work they did in the three years covered by these newsletters was huge. Between them, they organized protests against police harassment and violence. They demonstrated against gay bars that discriminated to keep women and people of color out, and against other commercial establishments that discriminated against LGBT people. They appeared on radio and TV shows, at a time when a visible queer presence was still extremely rare. They maintained a speakers bureau and sent speakers to high schools in the greater Chicago area. They polled candidates for Chicago’s city council, and they testified at city council hearings about the need to enact laws banning discrimination. They helped organize student groups on campuses around the state. CGA opened Chicago’s first community center for LGBT people, located in a house at 171 Elm Street. CGA maintained a mailing list of 1300, at a time when doing a hard-copy mailing was the main way to communicate to people en masse, and that involved a lot of work. CGA likewise produced 3,000 copies of its newsletter, and distributed it in many venues in the city.
Today, when so many LGBT organizations have paid staff, when many elected officials seek out LGBT endorsements, and when there is so much cultural visibility and attention by news media, it can be hard to appreciate just how cutting edge the work of these two early post-Stonewall organizations in Chicago was. It made a difference. It created a beginning foundation upon which later organizations and activists built. And the work of Chicago Gay Liberation and Chicago Gay Alliance comes down to us today in part because an archive like the Gerber/Hart Library contains precious copies of many of the newsletters of these organizations.