Gerber/Hart Library and Archives debuted a new exhibit, "Out of the Closets & Into the Streets: Power, Pride & Resistance in Chicago's Gay Liberation Movement," June 1 at the library. The exhibit is focused on Chicago LGBTQ activism during the Stonewall era.
Ahead of remarks by featured speaker Chicago Gay Alliance co-founder/longtime activist Gary Chichester and exhibit curators and library volunteers Chase Ollis, James Conley and Kurt Heinrich, Gerber/Hart Board President/LGBTQ history activism author John D'Emilio spoke about the many events happening this month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
D'Emilio made reference to President Obama's second inaugural address in which he mentioned Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall as three well-known moments in U.S. history. He said Stonewall sparked a decade of "tremendous LGBTQ activism around the country."
Among the packed crowd gathered for the event, D'Emilio noted that the Cook County Commissioner Kevin Morrisonthe openly gay person to hold that positionwas in attendance. D'Emilio also outlined the various things Chichester has done for the community, including his many years with the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.
Chichester said he saw a post on social media about who threw the first brick at Stonewall, adding no one knows the answer. He explained that the first metaphorical bricks were thrown years before that moment by many individuals, some of whom were at the event.
"Education is so important and it is nice to see young folks here because there are rumors that some people do not even know what Stonewall is and what it means," said Chichester.
Chichester explained that his political coming out occurred during the 1968 Democratic National Convention ( DNC ), when he was walking through Lincoln Park and saw buses of police dressed in riot gear heading toward a field at LaSalle and Clark streets. He went to see what was happening.
"As it turned out, I was about to witness my first major riot between the Yippies ["members" of the Youth International Party], police and the press," said Chichester. "The police violence against demonstrators and the press was unbelievable. Blood and tear gas was everywhere."
Chichester said he spent the rest of the week going to multiple demonstrations, and was at 18th Street and Michigan Avenue when what he thought was a tin can hit his footit turned out to be tear gas. He explained that being gassed changed his political views and his boots from that incident are in the exhibit.
A year later, Chichester said a friend who had moved to New York City called and told him about Stonewall and those phone updates continued for the next three days. Chichester explained that after Stonewall, gay-liberation groups emerged in Chicago, mostly on college campuses.
"It was exciting to see how the groups developed and what we learned from the movements that came before," said Chichester.
Chichester spoke about the first Pride Marches in Chicago, including the permit Chicago Gay Alliance applied for and received the second year to march from Belmont Harbor to the Lincoln Park Free Forumthe original site of the 1968 DNC riot. He said that now Chicago's Pride Parade garners over one million attendees.
"When you visit the exhibit, take the time to see how these influences helped to change the lives of so many LGBTQ+ people and the effects on our lives today," said Chichester.
Ollis, who is 29, spoke about growing up in Georgia and not understanding the importance of Stonewall until a few years ago. In talking about the exhibit's narrative structure, of which he oversaw, Ollis said there are temporal bookends but the exhibit is not in chronological order.
Heinrich explained that he designed the library's past two exhibits and, like Ollis, had to seek out information about Stonewall because it is not taught in schools. In terms of the design choices, Heinrich talked about being inspired by the fist of power/protest because it has been used as a symbol for marginalized groups.
Conley said he worked on a lot of the research and the post-opening programming. He explained that the thing that most interested him was the section on publications, especially radical papers like the Chicago Seed. Conley said even though everyone is inundated with media choices these days minority community's issues are still not being amplified except in niche online entities.
D'Emilio ended the event with a reminder about the library's June 15 open house and annual benefit on Sept. 21, called on attendees to become volunteers ( and acknowledged the other volunteers in the audience ) and/or donate money to Gerber/Hart, and invited everyone to tour the now-open exhibit.
See www.gerberhart.org/events .