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Attorney Ralla Klepak dies, longtime LGBTQ ally
by Owen Keehnen
2019-04-26

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Ralla Klepak, a legendary attorney in Chicago's LGBTQ and legal communities, passed away April 25 of multiple organ failure. She was 82.

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, April 30, 1:30 p.m. at Chicago Jewish Funerals, 8851 Skokie Blvd., Skokie.

Less than two years ago, in 2017, Klepak received a standing ovation when she was belatedly inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame as a Friend of the Community. Klepak was a hero to many people in that room. She was a brilliant attorney, but what made her beloved and a legend was her compassion.

Born in Chicago on Dec. 20, 1936, Ralla Klepak was the daughter of lawyers and grew up on the city's West Side. As a young woman she sometimes performed as a singer in the ballroom of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. She did her undergrad studies at Northwestern University and taught reading and English as a Second Language prior to attending John Marshall Law School. Klepak started her law practice in 1964.

Klepak saw the effects of rampant police raids on gay bars and gathering areas at a time when being arrested in a sweep often meant a person's name, address and employer were published in the newspaper. She witnessed lives being ruined and maintained that the vice squads were not enforcing the law, they were abusing it.

In response, Klepak became a powerhouse lawyer for the community. She held 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.

One individual whom Klepak represented was then-bartender Jim Flint, who was arrested in a raid at The Chesterfield. As the case progressed, it became apparent that Flint was being set up as the "fall guy" of the incident. Fortunately, Flint sought Klepak's services. With her defending him, the charges were dropped. If he'd been found guilty, Flint could never obtain a liquor license or open a bar. A few years later, in 1969, Flint opened the legendary Baton Show Lounge.

Flint, who had been arrested dozens of times as a bartender in the 1960s, was a longtime friend of Klepak. He wrote on Facebook: "I owe so much to her, most of all freedom. When the Club Chesterfield was raided in 1966 it was her that got me out without any charges—it took every judge at 26th and California [Cook County Criminal Courts] before we got to the Chief Judge who dismissed everything. She did this for so many, she was a giant in our community. … I will miss her so much."

Another corrupt police tactic during the pre-Stonewall era was to enter a suspected gay bar and take the liquor license off the wall. Although the bar might not be technically shuttered, without that piece of paper, alcohol could not be served.

In 1968, when The Trip was illegally raided and the liquor license confiscated, Klepak took the case and argued it all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. With Elmer Gertz as co-counsel, Klepak asserted that without due process of law a license could not be revoked while in the process of review. She won the case. The Trip lawsuit was an enormous early victory for the community in the periodic raiding and closing of gay bars.

In addition, Klepak's quest for justice and for doing what was right led to her involvement in the women's movement. Klepak even worked with prominent Catholic and feminist activist Sister Margaret Traxler, going to prisons in the South.

In the late 1960s, Klepak owned the LGBT bar Togetherness, 61 W. Hubbard St., a nightclub which featured one of the best drag shows in Chicago. The club focused on bringing together all races and was popular with both men and women. At Togetherness, Klepak had one demand of her clientele; that they treat one another with respect.

Over the years, Chicago's LGBTQ community could not have asked for a stauncher ally. Klepak drew up the charter for the pioneering gay organization Mattachine Midwest in the mid-1960s, and did pro bono work for the organization for years. She defended same-sex adoptions and allowed partners to inherit estates in the years before gay marriage. Klepak offered legal services in the changing of birth certificates and legal names for numerous transgender clients. She defended gay servicemen in court martial cases and provided estate planning for those dying of AIDS complications.

Beverly Friend said met Ralla Klepak in 1957 "when we were both graduate students at Northwestern University. She impressed me then, and continued to impress me with her energy, dedication, and brilliance during the intervening 62 years. She 'slayed dragons' unceasingly in her work as an attorney—especially defending the vulnerable—women , children, and the LGBT community. She was so vivid a personality, brightening the world, enthralling all of us with her tales of courtroom battles. Losing her is like having the colors of a rainbow dim. She will be sorely missed and never forgotten."

Attorney Sharran Greenberg fondly recalled her longtime friendship with Klepak, which started in the 1980s when Klepak handled her divorce and helped her through Kent Law School. "She took cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, and was a trailblazer in many ways," Greenberg said. "She was an amazing woman."

"She had a lot of contentious family law cases, and she was divesting from many of them, but she was still practicing," Greenberg said. "She was devoted to the children, and was popular with judges. She was very persuasive on cases involving disputes about children."

Of Klepak's last days, Greenberg said, "She had been complaining over the weekend of a stomach ache, but waited to go to Northwestern for a couple of days. She was very willful. I told her to go, she did go but they sent her home.

"She still had pain in the middle of the night, so she eventually went to Illinois Masonic where tests showed her kidneys and other organs were failing. I pushed them to operate, even though it looked bad, and they did try. But there was too much wrong, and she went into renal failure. I wanted her to go out with rockets red glare. It's hard for me to think of a world without Ralla Klepak."

Her 2017 induction into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame states, in part: "As a young lawyer she was unnerved to see the law abused by those in the business of hurting LGBT people and denying them their civil rights. ... She represented hundreds, if not thousands, of gay clients in entrapment and public indecency trials and had the charges dropped time and again."

In 2018, Owen Keehnen interviewed Klepak for the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots and related Chicago events: See www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/A-LOOK-AT-1968-with-Ralla-Klepak-on-the-LGBT-community-/63856.html .

"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 told Keehnen. "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."

"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 Chesterfield—so 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."

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 about her bar and the others, "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."

"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."

Klepak had no immediate survivors, but is remembered by many friends in the legal and LGBTQ communities.


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