Despite the unbounded sexism of the early '60s, Ralla Klepak started her law practice in 1964. Driven by a passion for social justice, Klepak soon fell in love with her job. As a strong believer in the ethical core of the legal system, the young lawyer was unnerved to see the law abused by those in the business of hurting LGBT people and denying them their civil rights.
NOTE: In this special issue devoted to 1968 see personal stories of the year at the links below.
"In Chicago in 1968, this harassment came from the political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley [1902-1976] combined with the power of the Catholic Church," Klepak explained. "Raids were frequent, and often being arrested in a raid meant that often a person's name, home address, and employer were published in the newspaper. People lost their jobs; families were torn apart, just terrible things. The charges might be disorderly conduct or public indecency, and this was if a person was simply in the bar."
Klepak at the time was a powerhouse lawyer for the community, holding the distinction of having never lost a criminal case. She represented hundreds of gay clients in entrapment and public indecency trials, and had the charges dropped time and again.
"The raids themselves were selective as well as cruel," she said. "Sometimes police took everyone, other times they took pleasure in picking and choosing who was going to be taken to headquarters. I know people who jumped out of windows at the police station, risking broken bones rather than to be processed. The Lincoln Baths, Lou Gage's, the Lost and Found, the Chesterfieldso many places were raided. Another cruel aspect was that some of the officers enjoyed taking arrested transgender people and cross-dressers and putting them in cells with the toughest looking guys. The next morning they would be ushered into the courtroom in heels, with their beard showing, make-up smudged, and wig askew. There was such cruelty in the process, an intentional humiliation, like some awful kind of sport."
Klepak added that entrapment was another issue in 1968, recalling that, "Police officers like [John] Manley loved to 'round up' gays at cruising areas [such as the lakefront, forest preserves and Lincoln Park Conservatory], entrapping people and making false arrests. The vice squads were not enforcing the law; they were abusing it. They were hunting and harassing."
Another underhanded practice by police at the time was to "take a bar's license right off the wall" during a raid, Klepak said. The bar might not be technically shuttered, but without that piece of paper, alcohol could not be served. In 1968, when the gay bar The Trip, 27 E. Ohio St., was illegally raided and the bar's liquor license was confiscated, Klepak took the case all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, with Elmer Gertz as co-counsel, arguing that without due process of law a license cannot be revoked while in the process of review. (Klepak hired Gertz, knowing he had Supreme Court experience. However, she argued the tried the initial licensing case as well as the criminal cases solo.) The Trip case was an enormous early victory for the community.
One individual whom Klepak represented was then-bartender Jim Flint. If Flint had been found guilty in a raid where he was clearly being presented as "the sacrificial lamb" he never would have been issued a liquor license, and could never have opened the Baton Show Lounge, which he eventually did in 1969.
During this period, Klepak also owned the LGBT bar Togetherness, 61 W. Hubbard St., a nightclub focused on bringing together all races and both men and women in the community. It was also very trans-inclusive and featured one of the best drag shows in Chicago.
"I wanted to have a place that was elegant and that included everyone," Klepak said. "I wanted a place where people could dress up or not, but a place where people could feel good about themselves. The main thing about my place was that I demanded people treat others with respect."
At the time, bars were key in the development of the gay community and were more than merely places to have a few cocktails. Klepak explained, "In 1968, being gay was considered a mental illness as well as being illegal and a sin. But the most debilitating thing about being gay during that period was the isolation. Bars helped with that. People didn't necessarily come to bars to drink. They came to the bars to be themselves, to be respected as themselves, and to come together with others like themselves. Bars were social centers."
Klepak cited humor as an important tool the community used to bond and to survive during the era, adding, "Something I always remember from this period was that, in defiance of this oppression, the community developed and exercised a wonderful sense of fun and campy humor. We were silly and kept laughing in spite of the outside threats. Laughter was a very important means of survival in the midst of the harassment."
Recalling where the community was 50 years ago and comparing it to where we are today, Klepak expressed astonishment at the miraculous gains. She credits community leaders, like the late attorney and activist Bill Kelley, with orchestrating a plan for bettering the lives of the LGBT people in Chicago, buts added that it was the community working together that changed things.
"We've achieved what we have through the unification of community, the power of community, the power of votes, and a sense of purpose," Klepak said. "We made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone was welcome in the tent, but we never lost track that the tent was the important thing."
View the entire 1968 feature series at these links: