These Queer Streets

A review of Queer Clout


in Features


Chicago is a crossroads, a second city, a chance at a new life. Some people think that the Second City moniker is about being second in size to New York or Los Angeles, but it refers to the city being the second iteration of itself because a large portion of the city burned down in 1871 and was subsequently rebuilt. In reference to size, Chicago is 3rd after New York and Los Angeles; however, Chicago has a character all its own. Indigenous people, colonizers, descendants of slaves, and people looking for a fresh start, live here. Running errands in the city, I travel through communities of peoples who identify as Latinx, Hasidic, South Asian, and European. Riding the bus or the “El” train, I regularly hear, Spanish, French, English, and Amharic spoke. While the city is plagued by racial segregation, economic inequality, and political corruption, there are cultural interactions that I never imagined. There are gestures towards justice happening in this town, the questions around movements are more – how and when — then – if – we can do it.

Though 59% of residents of the city were born in the state of Illinois, there is a transient nature to the city.  40% of residents that are transplants, demographers estimate that about half were born in the US and half in other countries. And for those of us transplants who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and allies, many of us came here because there was something else that we had to be, something that was not possible in the towns we used to inhabit. For my partner and I, both black lesbians, living in a small town in the Midwest, was suffocating. Upon meeting us, people did a double-take, for them we were an impossibility. We eventually became a part of a small queer circle that valued us, but on the edges of that community, danger stalked ever closer. When I moved there, I was followed by the police about 4 times on my way to work. A few weeks later, my partner, was stopped early one morning by a State Trooper, who told her that “she touched the white line” while driving. As a masculine of center (read: butch) lesbian who has a decidedly unfeminine silhouette, we both knew that these kinds of incidents could result in death. Black lives are on the line everywhere, and Chicago is on the front lines of the debate over police brutality, income inequality, and racial segregation, but here we are possible. We regularly see other queer people of color living their lives and getting on with the mundane. We hold hands in public freely. Our subjectivities are possible. Like the recent immigrants from Bosnia, Puerto Rico, and African Americans who came to this city during the Great Migration, Chicago is a place of possibility. For Chicago queers, this is a place where we can live, fight for inclusion, and, on occasion, win. Similar to the sentiment expressed in Graham Nash’s “Chicago”, here we believe that we can change the world.

Read It

  Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics by Timothy Stewart-Winter

As one of the first cities to hold a Pride Parade, June 27, 1970, to commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion, Chicago holds a special place in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer history. Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout gives its readers a history of queer Chicago that focuses on the 20th century. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Chicago neighborhood history, LGBT legal history, and USA LGBT history.

We are living in strange times. Under the Trump administration, the strides for social equality that LGBTQ people have gained are threatened. Writing this review in the shadow of Justice Kennedy’s retirement is hard because he is the author of the majority opinion on the case that legalized same-sex marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 US. June 2015. Without his swing vote on the court, if this decision was revisited it would likely be overturned. But even with his vote, we face an uphill battle towards equality under the law. The same court voted six-three in favor of a Colorado Baker who argued that he was treated with animus by the state’s Civil Rights Commission when they sanctioned him for refusing to bake a gay couple’s wedding cake. In North Carolina, the so-called “Bathroom Bill” HB2 became law in April 2016, which outlaws respecting gender identity in K-12 public education and extends to equal access in public accommodations, makes it illegal to expand on existing discrimination laws, as well as shortens the statute of limitations for pursuing a claim of discrimination to just one year from the initial incident. Similar laws are being debated in Texas. So, while Queer Clout is Chicago-centric, it is a text that aids queer folks in understanding how legislation affects our freedom, geographical space, and civic duties.

This book has reshaped my experience of the geography of Chicago. Queer white Chicago is located on the Far Northside, while queer Black and Brown Chicago is spread across the South & West sides of the city. Queers of color in Chicago live throughout the city and the bars, clubs, and community spaces that welcome us are located in communities of color. I live on the Northside in one of the white gayborhoods.

As I stand at certain intersections, like Clark and Diversey, or Summerdale and Ashland, I wonder what it would have been like to stand here 50 years ago. Would I be arrested for holding my partner’s hand or sharing a kiss? Stewart-Winter’s account of this history assures me that, if the police were present, I would have been. Things were different. The press of sexuality and gender-based discrimination would have affected my life. As a black cisgender femme lesbian, my life is still affected by racial discrimination. And the police brutality that brought about the Queer rights movement is no longer an issue for white cisgender Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual people. Police brutality remains an issue for people of color, Transgender people of all races, and any person who is Gender Non-Conforming. Stewart-Winters titles one chapter, “Clark and Diversey is Our Ghetto” as a call back to the activism against police surveillance of queer space. Today the intersection of Clark and Diversey street looks like an outdoor mall complete with mainstream commerce and eateries with the errant Pride-themed advertisements.

But how did queer spaces become places for the rich to live and play? Queer Clout chronicles how Northside queer Chicagoans (mainly white) built political coalitions with African American aldermen from the Southside to advance their agendas of ending employment discrimination, achieving equal rights. They benefitted mightily from a combination of historical racial segregation of the city and economic boom of the 1990s. Interestingly, in order to advance their cause, they adopted the techniques of the African American Civil Rights Movement to gain acceptance through advancing a narrative of normativity. When the Black Panther Party and other movements adopted more direct-action styled protests, some queer Chicagoans adopted those methods and continued to use them throughout the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Queer Clout details the HIV/AIDS epidemic’s impact on the community. Federal spending cuts enacted by President Ronald Reagan and the neglect by Mayor Washington’s health administrator ensured the neglect of seropositive people. They were uncared for by the government and the straight community. Stewart-Winter includes the heart-rending account of a nurse in the AIDS floor of Cook County Hospital. This particular chapter brought me to tears. I have immediate family members that died during this time period of AIDS and I have often wondered what it was like to die alone in a hospital in those early days of the epidemic. People with bedsores, left in their own feces, blood staining their gowns, and cries of pain.

The nurse describes how doctors, nurses, and orderlies did not want to work with people dying of AIDS. She was horrified by the untreated pain that she witnessed. It is out of the rubble and mistreatment by elected officials that queer people started investing in creating their own spaces for care. This epidemic drove the queer community to develop health and aid institutions faster because they were in dire need.

Prior to the AIDS crisis, the issues obstructing queer life in Chicago revolved around state-sanctioned homophobia in the forms of employment discrimination, aggressive policing, and extortion by the media. What has become the stereotype of the gay community as one that is awash in cash, and constantly brunching, was non-existent before the Stonewall Rebellion. Stewart-Winter highlights the fear of being arrested for being in LGBTQ bars where same-sex people danced and kissed, both of which were illegal in Chicago before 1961. When these bars were raided by the Chicago Police they purported to be investigating a vice. Similar to the current national political moment, Mayor Richard J. Daley ran on the platform of being a “law and order” candidate that promised to rid the city of crime to make it more palatable for white suburban families to visit. One way that this affected queer people was in the policing of gender presentation, if a person was dressed in a manner that did not convey a cisgender identity, the person would be asked to undress, or forcibly undressed, and then placed under arrest. Fears of being outed were not the machination of a self-centered group of people; it was the kind of fear that would keep you up at night.

The repercussions of being an LGBTQ person were profound; where there is The Trevor Project, Queer Proms, Gay-Straight Student Alliances there were handcuffs, jail cells, and police officers undressing people 30 years ago. Stewart-Winters describes into the history of queer suppression that began with President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order 10450 banning “untrustworthy people” from federal employment, which translated as LGBTQ people and communists. What followed locally in Chicago were crackdowns on queer nightlife. Stewart-Winter writes that in 1961, Illinois passed two laws that epitomized one-step forward and two steps backward in queer rights legislation. The first law decriminalized gay sex. The second law made liquor laws more restrictive by allowing cities to close an establishment while an investigation was conducted. This liquor law changed the tenor of gay life more than the decriminalization of gay sex because the police continued to target queer establishments for raids. The liquor statute was enacted by the state but was limited to cities with populations over 500,000 people which meant that it was only enforced in the city of Chicago.

Queer Clout emphasizes the collusion between Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, the chief of police, and journalists in creating and maintaining the ideology of the queer person as perverted and, therefore, bad for society. This stereotype of the queer person as sexually perverted was linked with the child murders of the northern Chicago suburbs through stereotypical homophobic narratives. Stewart-Winter writes that in 1955, three teenage boys’ bodies were found mutilated in the Cook County forest preserve on the Northwestern side of town. The local press advanced the pervert narrative by writing that the suspect must be a sexual degenerate. Additionally, the police detained and interviewed any gay men they could round up; the newspapers published the names of paroled sexual offenders and the detained men. During this investigation, an English Professor at DePaul University (where I am currently employed) was dismissed from his job for simply being questioned about the crime. Although he was not implicated or charged, the university dismissed him because of his lifestyle. The irony is that today DePaul is known for its LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance within the community of Catholic Universities in the USA.

According to Stewart-Winters, the stereotypes of queer folks as sexual degenerates, criminals, and general non-conformers meant that most people avoided being outed. The social and legal milieu of Chicago led to the extortion of queer people by both the police and organized crime syndicates. Queer bars were easy targets for raids despite the decriminalization of gay sex. These police raids immediately closed the establishment due to an investigation into its liquor license. And without a liquor license, a bar would lose patrons. In order to have your license reinstated after 1961, the owner would have to navigate the bureaucracy of both city and state regulations, which were lengthy processes. Attempting to avoid police raids meant getting in bed with the mafia, known as the Chicago Outfit. Gay bar owners paid both individual police officers and mobsters to get warnings about when raids might occur, but the warnings were not always timely. Stewart-Winters gives accounts of gay men who were arrested by officers who were known as queer within the community, using community insider information to target raids, and even extorting people for money under the threat of arresting them for sexual offenses.

Dramatically, this swirl of mobster payoffs, stringent liquor laws, and police raids came to a head when Louie’s Fun Lounge was raided. According to Stewart-Winter, Louis Gauger, the owner of the lounge, refused to testify against a mobster named Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, which angered the Cook County, Sherriff Richard Ogilvie. The sheriff’s anger turned into Ogilvie targeting the Louie’s Fun Lounge in 1964 for a raid. Officers blocked the front and back doors of the lounge. They brought school buses to take those who were arrested to jail. Journalists were present to report on the scene. Stewart-Winter conveys the extent of the raid, 109 people were arrested. The press took their pictures as they were loaded onto the busses, and printed their names, addresses, and professions in the next day’s paper.

Incidents like the Louie’s Fun Lounge raid, made queer people begin to understand themselves as the victims of over-policing and police brutality. During the 1950s and 1960s, queer people were organizing in Chicago. The organizing was not of the radical ilk, it was homophile organizing of The Mattachine Society, called Mattachine Midwest, and the Daughters of Bilitis. According to Stewart-Winter, each of these organizations experienced sporadic successes and failures because it was dangerous to be openly associated with queerness. These organizations and their newsletters were focused on creating community and thinking through strategies for survival through outlining queer people’s rights.

When they began to understand themselves this way, Chicago queers began to borrow from the African American model of Civil Rights protest and organizing. Those methods worked, but some queer folks wanted more radical action and aligned themselves with more radical liberationist strategies, such as those by the Black Panther party. According to Stewart-Winter, after the Chicago Democratic convention and the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, queer Chicagoans began to engage in more radical organizing. Additionally, they worked across movements to get people to see their causes as connected. Not only were queer folk participants in multiple movements, but they also connected their cause with other causes of the moment, we must remember that in 1968 young folks were remaking the world with an inclusive vision.

For Chicago queers, the Democratic National Convention of 1968 radicalized people within the community. Again, they were the victims of over-policing-bars were shut down leading up to the convention, queer people were arrested under false charges of indecent exposure, and when they wanted to protest these actions in the local newspapers, they were denied the ability to have their grievances printed. They also realized that they had similar concerns as New Leftists and the Black Panthers and that radical action was needed.

Through continual advocacy that combined the strategies of advancing a normativity narrative, registering voters, running for office, and engaging in direct-action protests, Chicago queer people became a constituency that local officials should seriously by the 1980s. As the HIV/AIDS crisis began, queer people organized protests and fundraisers to care for patients. They were able to bring in large donations for the cause. But the LGBTQ movement that relied on Black organizing strategies to gain momentum, left both Black and Latinx people behind. By the 1990s, they built robust community organizations on the Northside of Chicago, The Center on Halsted, and Howard Brown Health Center began with locations in the predominately white gayborhoods of Lakeview/Boystown and Andersonville. Eventually, Howard Brown Health opened multiple centers throughout Chicago, including communities of color.

Queer organizations were able to expand their services and mission, but it also led to the combination of the brunching stereotype and the Model minority stereotypes in association with the queer community. In the US, the stereotype of the rich white gay man as the entire community remains active in the popular imagination, but this image hurts the community because it leads people to believe that the community can take care of itself without the need of political and legal remedies. And it flattens the diversity of the LGBTQ community. This cannot be farther from the truth. LGBTQ activists worked to make their causes known to city officials. Their work has achieved the gains that we live with today. Without diligent stewards of queer people’s agendas, our public existence, freedom to kiss, hold hands in public, attend schools where our gender identities are respected, dress in ways that challenge the gender codes of day, legally marry, be recognized as legal guardians of our children, and be out at work, can be taken away from us.

Queer Clout does a lot of groundwork for LGBTQ scholars to think about local history, similar to George Chauncey’s Gay New York and Nan Alamilla Boyd’s Wide Open Town, Cathy J. Cohen’s Boundaries of Blackness. There is still work to do to excavate more voices of queer Chicagoans, we need to continue to delve into and understand the events of the 1960s through the 1990s.

As a scholar and as a queer black person, I spend a lot of time looking for black people, evidence that we were here or there, and did things. Queer Clout promised me that and delivered but in a circumscribed way. In this case, I was looking for evidence of the African American LGBTQ community building in Chicago, specifically in the Bronzeville neighborhood. There is also a lack of information in this text on queer Latinx folks. Achy Obejas voice was included and gave a perspective from inside the organizing movement, but I wanted more. On these fronts, the text was lacking, but there are other scholars working in those areas. And I can only hope that more historical texts on Transgender folk, queer South Asian, East Asian, and disabled queer people in Chicago are being written. Despite these criticisms, Queer Clout is a text that anyone interested in Chicago Politics, social movements, the Reagan Presidency, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and LGBTQ studies should read.

We are living the ruble of policy decisions made in the mid-twentieth century; we need to know more about how people survived and built political coalitions. Queer Clout explores Chicago’s portion of that story. It is up to us queer folk to understand this history and create a roadmap for ourselves and the next generation to survive the moment that we are living in today. In addition to historical accounts, we need more imaginative narrative accounts of these decades that claimed so many queer people’s lives. These recent texts explore this period and its ramifications for queer people of color include Pose, KiKi, My House, The Great Believers, and The House of Impossible Beauties.

Queer people today want both revolutionary and mundane acceptance. We face challenges today including employment discrimination, schools not recognizing our gender identities, and the lack of attention paid to crimes against Trans people. And we are still in the struggle to remake society into a socially just community that would not have oppressed us in the first place. •

Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.


Anne Mitchell, Ph.D.  teaches at DePaul University in the departments of Women’s & Gender Studies and African Black Diaspora Studies. Her work primarily focuses on Black women, queer people, feminist theory, and the African American Civil Rights movement. And she is currently working on a manuscript titled Civil Rights Subjectivities and Black Autobiography. Her interests also include popular culture, Beyoncé, and the WNBA.