Chicago's Gay History



Cross-dressers, lesbian softballers, leather culture, pioneering activists, and crusading lawyers will be among the diverse aspects of Windy City LGBT history showcased in the Chicago History Museum’s “Out in Chicago” exhibit.

Opening May 21 and running though March 26 of next year, the exhibition is the first LGBT-focused one to be mounted by a mainstream urban history museum. It covers 160 years and has itself been years in the planning.

Since 2003 the museum has hosted “Out at CHM,” a series of three events a year dealing with Chicago gay history. “It’s the most popular public program that the history museum has ever run,” says Jennifer Brier, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-curator of the exhibit with Jill Austin, a staff curator at the museum. “It has been an incredible testimony to how interested people are in LGBT history.” That laid the groundwork for the exhibition, one in a series the museum has offered on various neighborhoods and populations of the city.

The show is organized thematically. The first section documents how Chicago served as a magnet for people who resisted gender norms even as city officials tried to enforce them. In 1851, just 14 years after Chicago was incorporated as a city, the local government enacted an ordinance against cross-dressing, making it one of the first municipalities to do so. The original copy of that ordinance is in the exhibit — the oldest artifact on display — along with numerous stories of Chicagoans who defied it. “We found literally hundreds of examples,” says Brier.

The next section details how LGBT Chicagoans formed families and made homes. It incorporates oral histories of a dozen residents, such as Chuck Renslow, an activist and leader of the leather community, and an African-American lesbian couple, Iman and Tasha. The section also looks at diverse types of homes. One is progressive reformer Jane Addams’s Hull House, where social workers lived among and served the poor beginning in 1889; it serves as an example of women’s space. (Many modern scholars believe Addams was a lesbian.) Also featured is a social service agency started nearly 100 years later, Chicago House, founded in 1985 to provide housing to people with HIV and AIDS, the first such agency in the nation.

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