BY John D'Emilio ON August 21, 2017
Since Trump’s election, protest has become a way of life for many in the U.S. A week doesn’t pass without a flood of emails and posts on social media announcing the next march or rally in cities across the country. But his election also puts front and center the question of how electoral politics needs to figure among the playlist of strategies and tactics that movement activists for social and economic justice deploy. As Bayard Rustin argued in a 1965 appeal to activists in the black freedom struggle, ultimate success requires engagement with the electoral system.
For identity-based movements, one form that electoral involvement takes is running for public office. The first explicit LGBT electoral campaign that I’m aware of was in 1961 in San Francisco, when Jose Sarria, a well-known and well-loved drag performer at one of the city’s popular bars, ran for the Board of Supervisors in response to intense police harassment of LGBT people. But Sarria’s campaign was an isolated one-of-a-kind effort. Not until the rise of a gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s did running for office become one of the recognized forms of movement activism. Yet, even then, it was still relatively uncommon.
Gary Nepon was the first “out” LGBT candidate to run in Chicago for public office. His papers at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives provide a view of how complex the relationship between a movement and electoral politics can be. In the fall of 1977, Nepon began putting a campaign together to win a place on the ballot as a candidate for the Illinois state assembly from the 13th district on Chicago’s northside lakefront. The district was already in the process of becoming identified as a center of LGBT (or “gay,” as the press referred to it then) life in Chicago.
Interestingly, though there had been a continuous history of organized LGBT activism in Chicago at least since the mid-1960s, Nepon was completely unknown among movement participants. As he admitted to the press in the first round of interviews after he announced his candidacy in October, “I am not a gay activist.” But Anita Bryant’s successful campaign to repeal a gay rights law in Dade County, Florida a few months earlier “hit me like a brick,” according to his Statement of Candidacy. Nepon felt he could no longer remain silent about gay issues, and so he decided to run for public office. He made clear that he was not a “single-issue” candidate. He stood for full access to abortion, including state funding for low-income women; no-fault divorce law; increased funding of public schools; and an expansion of state-supported children and family services. But his identity as a gay man was something that he was choosing to wear openly and proudly, even if he was not emphasizing LGBT issues in the campaign.
One might assume that the LGBT community in Chicago would have jumped at the chance to rally behind one of its own. But nothing could be further from the truth. Nepon received virtually no endorsements of consequence from the LGBT community. Chuck Renslow, a gay entrepreneur and activist who was a precinct captain on the northside, did not support him. Gay Life, the main community newspaper, did not endorse him. In the view of Grant Ford, its publisher and editor, “the incumbents are our friends.” Nepon was running against incumbents [note: at this time, Illinois had districts that elected multiple candidates to the assembly] who had already shown their support for the community, according to Ford. He was wrong in assuming, as Renslow expressed it, that “the community will vote for him just because he’s gay.” When the votes were counted, Ford and Renslow were proven right. Nepon placed a distant last among the four candidates and, post-primary, was never heard from again in the world of Chicago LGBT activism.
So, what should we make of all this? Was his candidacy of no consequence? Was it nothing but a quirky oddity, a momentary distraction from the growing movement activism of the 1970s? The materials in the Nepon papers suggest otherwise.
What the campaign unquestionably produced was a level of press attention in Chicago that the LGBT movement did not yet commonly receive. The mainstream press seemed fascinated by Chicago’s “first avowed gay candidate,” as more than one newspaper described him. When San Francisco’s Harvey Milk, perhaps the LGBT political celebrity of the era, came to Chicago in a show of support for Nepon, it provided another excuse for journalists to report on what was otherwise a lackluster campaign. The Chicago Reader, a politically progressive weekly that was widely read, started their article about him, which ran for several pages, on its front cover. The headline read “Is Nepon the Great Gay Hope of Chicago?”
As it turned out, he wasn’t. But The Reader closed with a comment that does capture one way in which this was an important moment. “If the Nepon candidacy accomplishes nothing else, it has, for the movement at least, produced a new political phenomenon in Chicago: political candidates battling with each other to be the biggest friend of the gay community.” Sometimes, even a defeat can be a victory.