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Activists reflect on 30-year anniversary of Chicago Human Rights Ordinance
by Matt Simonette

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In a fight that started in the early 1970s and ended 30 years ago this month, Chicagoans fought against bigotry and ignorance inside and outside of City Hall to eventually pass a law covering anti-gay bias. These Windy City Times covers from July 1986 illustrate the big push the LGBT community made in the summer of 1986 to finally get aldermen and alderwomen on the record—so they could be held accountable. The bill lost that summer, but after two more years of lobbying behind the scenes and in front of the cameras, the HRO finally passed under Mayor Eugene Sawyer. See inside for details on the anniversary.

On Nov. 28, 2018, the Chicago City Council Committee on Human Relations advanced a resolution condemning the Trump administration's decree the month before that defined gender-identity as a category determined by one's genitalia at birth.

Though the resolution will likely lack teeth in determining federal policy, the drama-free passage of the resolution—the only opposition voiced that morning were in rambling, incoherent comments from an audience member who's a frequent speaker at city meetings—is especially notable now that the city's Human Rights Ordinance will be in place for 30 years as of Dec. 21.

The fight for that Human Rights Ordinance represented a formidable challenge for the city's LGBT community; many elected officials were not yet ready to discuss challenges that their LGBT constituents faced, all as city government contended with progressive Mayor Harold Washington, a gay-rights supporter, in ongoing struggles against machine politicians who were committed to blocking his policies.

Four activists, often colloquially referred to as "the Gang of Four," drove the fight: Laurie Dittman, who at the time was executive director of IVI-IPO ( Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct organization ); Rick Garcia, whose LGBT activism largely focused on issues pertaining to the Catholic Church; Sidetrack bar proprietor Arthur Johnston; and the late activist and writer Jon-Henri Damski.

"I don't think any of us were able to look into the future and know its overall impact," Dittman said.

The Gang of Four were working under the auspices of a local coalition of activists, Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting. It had formed in 1986, after Cardinal Joseph Bernardin intervened last minute in a vote on the ordinance, resulting in its loss when many Catholic alderman balked. The first attempt at passage of such legislation took place in 1973, with additional attempts throughout the 1970s.

But it was not until the '80s, when the community began to enjoy support from Mayor Washington, that passage seemed viable. The 1986 vote, while frustrating, invigorated the ordinance's supporters, who adopted multiple strategies to get buy-in from City Hall and the community.

Johnston first got involved in gay-rights issues when he was asked by Albert Williams, an activist who was then an editor at Windy City Times, to get involved when previous supporters considered demanding gay bar owners close to compel community members to attend a gay-rights rally.

"On his advice, I went to that meeting and outlined why I thought it was a bad idea," said Johnston. "Of course, then you have to do something."

Johnston eventually suggested keeping bars open and using them as gathering points for the rally, with bar-owners paying for busses. That rally, at which Mayor Washington spoke, was a "turning point," according to Williams.

"We had a new progressive mayor, and [Mayor Washington's gay and lesbian Community Liaison] Kit Duffy was his right hand, and was really carrying his agenda into the community in a practical way," Williams said. "We operated under the understanding that, Mayor Washington was in office and he was our supporter, and we were supporting him in his battle against the Democratic machine. We worked under these circumstances, from 1984 through 1986, when the bill came up the first time and was shot down by the Chicago archdiocese."

A key question, one that accompanies any potentially game-changing legislation, is when to call for a vote. While many politicians and activists are reluctant to bring legislation to a full-vote before a winning number of votes is certain—political insiders often pronounce failed legislation dead on arrival, thus weakening its momentum—others believe that less assured votes by legislators are important as well, getting politicians on record for where they stand and letting advocates know "who their friends are."

The Gang of Four were in the latter camp.

"It was about keeping our eyes on the prize," Garcia said. "We were not going to rely on 'friends,' like when the mayor wants to do it, or aldermen friends. We were not building a campaign for somebody to run for office. We only had one goal: to pass a strong human rights ordinance for the city of Chicago."

"Part of our message was, 'Again and again and again,'" said Johnston.

Damski knew several "machine" aldermen thanks to his column, and linked the coalition with his City Hall connections. Among them was Ald. Kathy Osterman, who told the advocates that their goal was "all about numbers and knowing how to count," he further recalled. "She told us, 'If you're going to be effective, you need to know where your votes are and who your votes are.'"

Dittman added, "Every alderman isn't just a single entity. There's often someone else that they listen to, someone else's personal values, that guide them. What was important for us was to break that down."

The activists leveraged Garcia's connections in Catholic activism, arranging meetings between Catholic aldermen and nuns who were supportive of the ordinance.

Garcia said, "We had Dominican sisters go in and say, 'We're here to talk about the gay-rights ordinance; we're here from the School of St. Pius.' The response would be, 'Oh, that's where my kids go.' … We'd make some kind of connection between the nuns and the alderman, be it a school or a parish."

Damski meanwhile continued working to bring aldermen to their cause; especially important to him was powerful Ald. Ed Burke ( 14th Ward ). Dittman additionally credited efforts by activist Norm Sloan to drum up additional voter-registrations in the gay and lesbian community. "That was kind of an overarching point of influence for every single person on that council," she said.

Sloan "was registering people under the Belmont L on his ironing board," Garcia added.

Mayor Washington's death in 1987 and the forthcoming 1989 mayoral election significantly impacted the coalition's tactics. Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer, hoping to be officially elected to the office, supported the ordinance, as did other candidates, among them then-Cook County State's Attorney Richard M. Daley, who'd eventually win the contest.

Another vote was set to take place Sept. 14, 1988, and it was surely a moment when the coalition again found out who their friends were. The hearing featured charged anti-gay rhetoric, much from the 30th Ward's Ald. George Hagopian, who, according to the Chicago Reader's account, said to the mainly LGBT audience, who sat in relative silence, "Go ahead, animals."

The coalition had braced themselves for such comments, and the ordinance failed 21-26. But some said Hagopian ultimately won supporters—many disgusted by the alderman's remarks—for the ordinance.

"It exposed the purpose of the ordinance to a wider audience," explained Dittman. "We thought, 'Wow, we've got to get this done if people think this way.'"

Garcia recalled that he and his colleagues went out to commiserate after that failed vote. There were soon joined by Osterman—who was soon notably joined by Burke, who had voted in their favor that day.

"I knew that we had won," said Garcia, who credited Damski with winning Burke's support. "Jon-Henri was always reflective of the little gay boy, or the lesbian who was thrown out of her house, or the maid who cleaned at his hotel. When he talked to the aldermen, he had an uncanny insight into real people, and that really resonated with them."

"We made it clear that we were coming back," Johnston said. "I think they just got tired of seeing us. … You don't want to see us any more? You don't want us in meetings? You don't want us in your offices? Easy—cast a 'yes' vote and we're gone."

The measure finally passed in December 1988, to collective cheers from the City Council chamber.

"It was just relief and this sense of happiness, and a sense of accomplishment," recalled Dittman. "We had been on a long journey, and we didn't know how any of it would end."

In a Dec. 6, 2018 statement, Chicago Commission on Human Relations Commissioner Mona Noriega, herself openly gay and an activist since the 1970s, reflected on the impact of the ordinance for city residents, noting that, "The Human Rights ordinance gave the CCHR the power of enforcement and was groundbreaking in that it enumerated 11 protected categories in which discrimination was prohibited. … Today the protected categories total 16. On behalf of the more than 10,000 complainants who have had the opportunity to seek a remedy when confronted by discrimination and on behalf of their families, and loved ones forced to suffer the burden of discrimination—we say thank you to the advocates who fought to bring the Human Rights Ordinance into being."

Williams said the ordinance "was not just a final victory for a campaign for LGBT-rights movement, a campaign that had gone on for 15 years. It was also a victory, albeit posthumous, for Harold Washington, and the message that Harold Washington conveyed—community empowerment, fairness and taking power away from a self-selected few leaders to make everybody both empowered and accountable."

Johnston noted yet another legacy of the ordinance, beyond just offering anti-discrimination protections and protocols. It also gave gay and lesbian professionals a freer hand to concentrate their own work on LGBT issues.

"When you think of the people in the community who are the best known [in activism], you think of lawyers with Lambda Legal and people who work for organizations like Equality Illinois, and the amazing work of various health organizations," he said. "None of that was possible before the Human Rights Ordinance. It was enormous in that there was an increase in the number of LGBTQ people who felt they could be out."

"We all understood that it was important to do the ordinance first, so that other things could follow," Dittman said.

Read original Windy City Times coverage at the links: . . . . .

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