To the curators' delighted surprise, over 100 people packed the Atrium at the Gerber/Hart Library, 6500 N. Clark St, for the April 21 opening of the "Gay is Good" exhibit. ( Perhaps it had something to do withas director Wil Brant revealed during offhand conversationSeth Meyers name-dropping the exhibit in a recent monologue. )
Brandt began the evening before introducing historian and UIC professor John D'Emilio by holding up an archive box. The "antique gay box," Brandt said, was part of the William B. Kelley and Chen K. Ooi collection, and its contents sparked the idea of for an exhibit about pre-Stonewall "homophile" movements.
D'Emilio opened by saying that LGBTQ history "doesn't get a lot of circulation in our culture." While Stonewall is presented to the world as the beginning of the LGBTQ movementand even half of D'Emilio's UIC students were unaware of its role in creating the Pride Paradehe explained there was a "continuous history of LGBT organizations" operating in the '50s and '60s. D'Emilio described that era as the worst time to be queer in U.S history.
In addition to losing jobs, having their mail tracked and FBI files opened on them, LGBTQ people faced concerted efforts to shame them. According to D'Emilio, a newspaper published the names of those arrested in a raid on Chicago's Fun Lounge in 1964, and the Tribune ran "dozens" of articles about "moral degenerates and sexual peverts' in the early '50s.
D'Emilio described '50s homophile movements as "activism in the most cautious way imaginable," but by the '60s, a few brave individuals were taking steps towards openness. For instance, while '50s activisms often wrote under psuedonyms in LGBT publications, in the '60s Barbara Giddings, editor of the lesbian publication the Ladder, printed photos of real lesbians. But larger activism, such as the first public demonstrations, still had a goal of presenting homosexuals as responsible, respectable people.
D'Emilio credited the Chicago Chapter of the Mattachine Society with using the phrase "gay power" three to four years before Stonewall. Chicago was also the site of a meeting called NACHONorth American Conference of Homophile Organizations in 1968, where "gay is good" was adopted as an official slogan. While this was a meeting of 30-40 different groups, D'Emilio pointed out that there are more LGBTQ organzations today in Chicago that there were nationally in the '60s.
'Exhibit curators were struck by the volume and nature of the materials they'd encountered. James Conley talked about discovering a "brilliant queer narrative" in the artifacts. While Conley had felt relatively well-informed about his community's past, he found the materials and thinking about the people who created them "very touching."
"Seeing that these people put their lives out there...it makes you feel very included in this long history," Conley said.
Jenn Dentel talked about Chicago lesbian pulp author Valerie Taylor's efforts to make her books a resource for readers, saying she was "stunned" by the education detail. Taylor, a member of Mattachine Midwest, included real books and locations of gay bars in her stories, and even had characters go to a meeting of a society like Mattachine.
Exhibit designer Kurt Heinrich appreciated reading how "catty" homophile organizations could be with each other in their correspondence. The designs of 60s publications, particularly a 1968 copy of Tangent, inspired the exhibit's colorful circle theme, with Heinrich using the colors on publication covers to create an "alternative rainbow style" for the exhibit. He also enjoyed the various gay slogans found on buttons from the era so much that Gerber/Hart reproduced a number of gay buttons for the exhibit openingand the audience could be found sporting slogans like "I'm Peculiar" and "It's a Gay World" on their shirts throughout the evening.
Jeff Buchholz, responsible for exhibit text, recalled realizing that all the activists had been working for their cause in their spare time, and that while Gerber/Hart had a considerable amount of material, so much of it would have been destroyed for fear of discovery in the time it was created. Curator Peter Schuster expressed how grateful he was for the Kelley collection and the volunteers who helped sort through it.
Before everyone dispersed to check out the newly opened exhibit, and perhaps browse through original copies of gay publications like The Ladder and One or bid on a silent auction item, D'Emilio reminded the audience that organizations like Gerber/Hart only exist with the support of the community. And to him, the exhibit highlighted one of the "decisive moments" in LGBTQ history.
"Fifty years ago, 'Gay is Good' was a big deal," D'Emilio said. "It was a sign of things that were shortly to come."