D'Emilio: "Let's Dance," 1950s-1970s

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CHICAGO GAY HISTORY: The Political Struggle to Dance in Public


by John D'Emilio. Copyright 2008 by John D'Emilio. All rights reserved.

Published simultaneously in the Windy City Times (Chicago), June 18, 2008, and on OutHistory.org, and on ChicagoGayHistory.org.

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“If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution.” At some point in the 1970s, it seemed like every third person I knew had a poster emblazoned with these words. Attributed to the early 20th-century anarchist, Emma Goldman, the sentiments captured the exuberance of some of that era's lesbians and gay men. (As it turned out, Goldman never said this, but that's a whole other history tale. )

In discos, at women's music festivals, on college campuses, and at street fairs, queer folk looked as if we were dancing our way to freedom. Unlike the dour images of men storming the citadels of power, the gay revolution was going to be fun.

I suspect that for some politicos—straight or queer—the association of dancing and revolution is evidence of just how trivial gay liberation is. But, if so, they don't know much history.


In Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, the prohibition on public same-sex dancing was pretty nearly complete. The CPD might make an exception for a Halloween or New Year's masquerade ball—though even here, most of the dancing couples looked to be of the opposite sex. But the bars did their own serious policing, not just of dancing but of any form of touching. An arm around someone's shoulder or a playful squeeze of someone's butt could be enough to send lurking plainclothes officers into action, and arrests for public indecency would follow. Same-sex dancing in this kind of climate? Not likely.

Folks from that era who went regularly to the bars loved them and were loyal to them, but it was a bittersweet love. “The bars are the only place for Gay people to go to get together outside of home,” one of them wrote. And then, in the next line: “There is no question that they were for shit.”[1] No wonder that, when gay liberation groups started forming at the end of 1969, the creation of new gay and lesbian spaces— and opening up those spaces for same-sex dancing— would be high on the list of priorities.

January 1970

The first group in Chicago to take on the name of “gay liberation” was on the South Side, in the Hyde Park neighborhood, and included a number of University of Chicago students. At first they met mostly to talk, but talking soon led to action.

One of the first actions, in January 1970, was to attend a campus mixer ( a “mixer” was a dance in the lingo of the ‘50s and ‘60s ) and dance together. Fewer than a dozen gay men and lesbians showed up for the action and, according to Step May, one of the participants, “we were all scared to death.” But nothing bad happened and so, emboldened, they decided to hold the first out-of-the-closet same-sex dance on campus.[2]

February 1970

Because some of the Chicago Gay Liberation members were University of Chicago students, they had access to campus facilities. They reserved the dining hall in Pierce Tower, a dormitory, for a weekend night in February. But who would come? Was it too big a space? Would they feel foolish if only two dozen campus queers showed up? So they did a “real leafleting blitz,” as May recalled, going to gay bars on both the south and north side.

Vernita Gray, who was there, remembered that folks came from all over the city, not just from the campus.[3]

“Black, white, brown, straight, gay, male, female—600 liberated people danced freely to live music,” one of the attendees reported. “Even the security guards seemed to enjoy the scene.” The crowd was mostly “young” and “hip.”[4]One can just imagine the long hair on the men, the women with granny glasses, and bell-bottomed jeans on everyone.

April 1970

This was too much fun not to do again. In April, there was a second dance, this time in Woodward Commons, a women's dorm. More than a thousand showed up. Not to be outdone, lesbian and gay students at Northwestern and at Circle Campus (today's University of Illinois--Chicago ) scheduled dances, too, for later that spring. The dancing bug was proving contagious.[5]

Bold as all this was, these actions were still, in one sense, cautious. After all, campuses by the late 1960s had come to seem like another world; wholly different standards of morality, politics and values held sway. Of course, these radical environments would embrace these queer celebrations. I can almost hear the stoned hippie saying “grooooovy!” at the sight of all those same-sex couples swaying to the music. But, could same-sex dancing happen off a campus, in Chicago proper?

April 18, 1970: The Coliseum

Chicago Gay Liberation decided to find out. It rented the Coliseum, a structure near 16th and Wabash that, in bygone days, had hosted professional hockey and basketball games, roller derby, and major political conventions. It was a huge space! And, most importantly, it was public space in every sense of the word. This was pushing the boundaries and taking a big risk.

Folks were scared. Might the police invade the place? Was there the danger of a “giant bust”? Renee Hanover, the lawyer for the gay groups, pressed hard on the police to make sure nothing would happen. The police did show up and patrol the area on April 18th, but there were no arrests and no interference.

The dancing crowds didn't quite fill the place, but 2,000 people came, making this perhaps the biggest openly acknowledged queer gathering in Chicago history. “The dance floor was filled with laughing faces,” reported Mattachine Midwest's newsletter. Its writer waxed eloquent about the dance. It “introduced freedom as the remedy that will end the closet as a way of life. The faggots came out for their public, the band was great, the vibes were beautiful.... The revolution has just begun, and the dances are part of it.”[6]

Normandy Inn Picket

One thing leads to another, as my mother often warned me. In this case, the heady pleasures of a few dances led straight to the door of a popular local bar. The weekend after the Coliseum dance, gay and lesbian liberationists showed up with picket signs outside the Normandy Inn, near Chicago and Rush Streets. The flyers they distributed listed their demands: “Gay people can dance both fast and slow ... no arbitrary dress regulations ... no discrimination against women.”

The Seed, a local alternative radical newspaper, reported that the Normandy was “nearly empty” that weekend, as protesters kept patrons away and “convinced the owners they would have to take the wishes of Gay people seriously.” The owners caved in, and other bars quickly responded as well. For queer Chicagoans, dancing had come to stay.[7]

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Research Request: add decades: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s

add dates after names of people