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Out at CHM looks back on Chicago's LGBT bar history
by Matt Simonette
2017-02-01

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Opening the first talk of 2017 in Chicago History Museum's Out at CHM series, writer-historian Owen Keehnen said, "There has never been a more important time for LGBT history to be chronicled."

Keehnen added that the community's bars are a good focus when learning about that history. Those bars, he said, "were about more than drinking—they were about building community."

That evening, he moderated a discussion with Sidetrack owner and Equality Illinois co-founder Art Johnston, His 'n Hers owner Marge Summit and promoter/entertainer Otis Mack.

The panelists reflected on many aspects of LGBT bars in the postwar-era, when the threat of arrest loomed large and bars were usually owned by the mob.

"Everything was rotgut, and you paid two to three dollars for the privilege of walking in," recalled Summit.

Johnston recalled that the activism surrounding Anita Bryant's visit to Chicago energized the community, many of whom had not seen each other outside of bars. "It was a thrilling thing to be gay in the daytime," he said.

Mack had been active in his church community, and that gave him and framework for organizing and producing. "I took what I learned in the church and made it work in the club," he noted.

All three said that the LGBT community had the spirit and backbone to withstand whatever turmoil is ahead in the next few years. Summit said that their bars can be an important part of that, since they are a central meeting place for the community.

"The time is going to come when we are back in the streets," said Johnston. "Don't ever bet against our community."

Mack added, "I stand up for what I believe in. … We've got to fight, so let's do it."

Summit also urged, "Don't back down. I haven't backed down from anything my entire life."


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