William B. Kelley, a Chicagoan who worked for LGBT rights on the state, local, and national levels since the 1960s, has died at age 72.
Kelley, a lawyer, historian, and activist, died in his sleep Sunday morning, said his partner, Chen Ooi, Windy City Times reports. The men had been together since 1979.
Kelley helped organize the first national gay and lesbian conference, the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, in 1966. He also attended the first meeting of gay activists at the White House, held in 1977, during President Carter’s administration. He also participated in the 1980 White House Conference on Families.
He was active in Mattachine Midwest — a chapter of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group — from 1965 to 1970. In the 1970s he cochaired Illinois Gays for Legislative Action and the Illinois Gay Rights Task Force.
He was involved with numerous other groups, according to Windy City Times, including the Cook County Commission on Human Relations, which he chaired for the first 10 years of its existence, the Chicago Gay Alliance, Homosexuals Organized for Political Education, the Gay and Lesbian Pride Week Planning Committee, the National Gay (now LGBTQ) Task Force, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago, Asians and Friends Chicago, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Issues, the City of Chicago’s Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues, and the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties. He also worked for the Chicago Gay Crusader newspaper and helped edit several books on LGBT history.
After some years of working as a legal assistant, Kelley became a lawyer in 1987. In the 1990s he worked as a law clerk to Justice William S. White of the Appellate Court of Illinois. He was a founder of the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association.
In 1991, Kelley was a member of the first group of activists inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, the only municipally supported institution of its type in the nation.
Kelley, who grew up in southeastern Missouri, moved to Chicago in 1959 to attend the University of Chicago. Already politically outspoken about racial justice and other issues, he was spurred to work for gay rights after a series of bar raids in Chicago in 1964. “That really made me think that something should be done,” he once told Windy City Times.
His activism had a wide-ranging impact, several colleagues told the paper upon hearing of his death. “The LBGTQ community lost a lifelong activist and great legal/political mind,” Chicago businessman and advocate Chuck Renslow said. “We all owe him for decades of service in the cause of equal rights.”
Historian and author John D’Emilio called Kelley “an extraordinary individual,” adding, “There were so few who had the courage in those pre-gay liberation years to be ‘out there’ — and there were even fewer who made the transition as activist from pre-Stonewall to post-Stonewall. In his quiet and unassuming way, Bill was extraordinary.”
Visitation is scheduled for Wednesday from 3 to 9 p.m. at Drake & Son Funeral Home in Chicago, and again Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon, when there will be a procession to Rosehill Cemetery.