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Chicago's Gay History

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.

The third section is about social spaces and gatherings -- bars such as the Sappho Club, an early meeting place for lesbians, and the Why Not? Club, reputedly the first S/M club in Chicago; sports groups and events, including Chicago's long tradition of lesbian softball clubs and the 2006 Gay Games hosted by the city; and gay-inclusive religious venues, encompassing gospel choirs, the LGBT Jewish congregation Or Chadash, and many others. The curators aim to show that gay life in Chicago isn't limited to a few well-known "gayborhoods." "This exhibition really does try to situate LGBT people across the city," Brier says. Adds Austin: "It also reinforces the idea that gay people here are not monolithic."

The fourth and final portion of the exhibit focuses on politics and how LGBT Chicagoans fought for social justice for themselves and other marginalized people. Featuring videos, it spotlights various key moments and players in the history of the city's gay activism. These include Henry Gerber, who founded the Society for Human Rights in 1924; it was the nation's first gay rights group and, unusual for the time, was multiracial. Another is Pearl Hart, a lesbian lawyer who represented clients from a variety of oppressed groups. (Gerber/Hart Library, a Chicago-based LGBT history archive, is named for the two of them.)

Austin and Brier aim for the exhibit to start conversations, and they also invite attendees to be a part of it. There will be a video booth where visitors can share their stories to post online.

Putting the show together has been a community effort. The museum created it in partnership with the UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Center on Halsted, Chicago's LGBT community center. It has received financial support from foundations, corporations, and individuals; the Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust and the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust (similarly named but separate foundations) are the presenting sponsors, and the financial services company Northern Trust is the lead corporate sponsor. Several local media outlets, including the LGBT paper Windy City Times, have provided advice and assistance.

Opening day, May 21, will feature musical, comedy and other performances from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be a preview cocktail reception the night before. There will also be programs and events throughout the exhibition's run, and a companion book of essays, also titled Out in Chicago, is being published in both print and e-book form. For more information, visit
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