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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Talking History with Longtime Activist Bill Kelley
by Andrew Davis
2005-06-22

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Pictured Bill Kelley and his longtime partner Chen Ooi, when Kelley received an award from the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago in 2004. Kelley with longtime activist Barbara Gittings earlier this year in Philadelphia. Photos by Tracy Baim

Although he would be the last person to say so, Bill Kelley's influence on local GLBT developments—political and otherwise—is incalculable.

Since the mid-1960s, Kelley has been involved in innumerable organizations and events that have pushed the envelope in the gay-rights movement. He helped to organize the first national gay and lesbian conferences in 1966, co-founded the Chicago Gay Crusader ( the city's first gay and lesbian newspaper ) and helped start the Gay and Lesbian Press Association. In addition, he helped found Illinois Gays for Legislative Action; took part in the first White House meeting with gay and lesbian leaders; co-chaired the Illinois Gay Rights Task Force; and was part of starting the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association.

As if all that involvement is not enough, Kelley has also been part of organizations such as Mattachine Midwest; Homosexuals Organized for Political Education; the Chicago Gay Alliance; the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago; and the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. Today, having realized his dream of becoming an attorney, Kelley is a member of the Cook County Human Rights Commission and is involved with the city's Advisory Council on LGBT Issues. Kelley was justifiably inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1991.

Because of his large body of knowledge and extensive involvement with organizations, Kelley represents a vital link between the then-nascent gay-rights movement of the '60s and '70s and present-day activism. It is not an overstatement to say that his participation played a critical role in the establishment of numerous GLBT-related facilities, policies, and groups. Indeed, Chicago—at least for the gay and lesbian community—would probably be quite a different place had it not been for Kelley's substantial input.

Windy City Times recently conducted an exclusive interview with the self-effacing Kelley as he held court on issues ranging from growing up in Missouri to the future of activism to not quite being the lawyer he hoped to be.

Windy City Times: You grew up in southeast Missouri in the 1950s. What was the atmosphere like?

Bill Kelley: Well, it was legally segregated and practically segregated, for the most part. When I entered high school, it was the first year it had been desegregated.

WCT: You read a lot of books on civil rights growing up. Did those shape your way of thinking?

BK: Well, they certainly helped; a lot of things shaped my way of thinking. [ Chuckles. ] The consciousness of rights was grounded because it was the McCarthy era. I was reading books about free speech, [ about ] not accepting the religiosity of the day, and about racial justice. It was a combination of those three types of readings that began to make me rights-conscious. In fact, I was an ACLU member when I was in high school.

WCT: You moved to Chicago to attend college ...

BK: Yes. I attended the University of Chicago ( starting in 1959 ) .

WCT: Was the college atmosphere any more liberating than what you had experienced?

BK: Oh, absolutely. That was one of the reasons I wanted to go here. In addition, it wasn't that small-town high-school jock culture I experienced in high school. As far as gayness was concerned, it gave me a chance to see whether being sexual in a different environment [ would still result in me ] being gay. I needed to check things out; I didn't know if my gayness was a function of social vectors in high school or my orientation. It turned out to be [ the latter ] .

WCT: Yet, all was certainly not well, politically speaking.

BK: You're right. That was two years before Illinois officially abolished its law against same-sex activity and, even after that, it was quite a while before authorities stopped trying to enforce laws that did not exist or enforce other laws that did exist in a discriminatory way.

WCT: Tell me about your involvement in Mattachine Midwest.

BK: I went to the first public meeting that it held, but I wasn't one of the original organizers. I was interested in finding such a group for a couple of years but didn't know how. I wrote the Mattachine Society in New York, which I read about, and they apparently kept me on their contact list. When some people started a group in Chicago, they enlisted the cooperation of the New York [ branch ] , which gave them my name. The first meeting was in August of 1965, so it'll soon be the 40th anniversary of that meeting.

I got interested because of my consciousness regarding sexual discrimination and progressive laws. I remember when I had to read about [ these issues ] in the Rare Books Room at the University of Chicago; that's where they kept gay books, or at least the first one I read, The Homosexual in America. ( People had habits of stealing such books from libraries. )

In 1964, there was a series of very scandalous police raids on gay bars that resulted in peoples' names and addresses being put in the front pages of newspapers. That really made me think that something should be done. It took me getting this mailing [ about the meeting ] to get me in contact with others who were involved in activism.

WCT: Lots of people see things that are wrong and never do anything about it.

BK: Well, I didn't do it by myself. I waited until I had the opportunity to do with others.

WCT: But you didn't wait too long, either. You started being an activist when you were pretty young.

BK: Well, yes ... I was about 22 or 23. That's not as young as people have started since then. It just seemed like the thing to do. I had always been a little outspoken, politically. Even back in the 1950s, I wrote letters to the editor—about segregation, not gayness.

WCT: How were your parents when you were growing up?

BK: They were neutral. My mother probably agreed with me. My father agreed with me, but was worried that I was going to attract unfavorable attention—which I did.

WCT: Yes. The FBI came around.

BK: Yes, they did. Later in life, my mother exhibited the same attitude when it came to my gayness. She was concerned about unfavorable attention [ that she might get ] in her small town. She became something of a recluse during her last years. However, it was a combination of other factors such as alienation or the fact that she immersed herself in books because she worked at the library and loved to read. But I don't think she ever got comfortable with how people reacted to my gayness because she insisted that [ another woman ] stopped talking to her because of that reason.

My dad never complained about me being gay. ( My parents divorced when I was in college but lived in the same town. ) However, at one point he said something that sounded like [ an item ] he thought he should say rather than something that was deeply felt. He said that [ he and my stepmother ] didn't approve of your lifestyle but this was at the same time they were accepting Chen [ Ooi, Kelley's longtime partner ] and me into the house when we visited.

WCT: Let's discuss the extent of your activism. It seems that you were involved in a laundry list of groups during the '70s.

BK: My Mattachine involvement lasted from 1965 to roughly 1970. By that time, I found Mattachine to be too lethargic and the personalities to be too irritating; we also had arguments about various issues. So I got together with another friend who was in Mattachine; we formed an organization to do a political-questionnaire project for political candidates—that became HOPE ( Homosexuals Organized for Political Education ) .

About that time, Chicago Gay Liberation had come onto the scene after Stonewall; shortly, Chicago Gay Alliance came out of that. CGA was more to my liking than CGL, so I went there and stayed until it evaporated. We lobbied Democrats, city council and the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission, which has been superseded by the Human Rights Commission.

When CGA dissolved in about 1973, I met a lover. He was an energetic CGA person ( Mike Bergeron ) who organized a newspaper and community center; I helped him with that for a few years. At that time, so many organizations were being formed to accomplish various goals. In 1976, I started working with Chuck Renslow in his office, which was an opportunity to really stay involved. I was a professional gay activist as we've had since then—but that was the closest I came to being one.

That pattern persisted throughout the '70s. I was involved in organizations that did anything that was political and activistic. Social service groups were not my cup of tea.

In 1984, while still working for Chuck, I decided to go to law school [ at Chicago-Kent ] because my grandfather had died and had left me just enough money to go there. While going there, I dropped out of practically everything. That marked a break in my activist pattern; even after school, I really didn't get back into things like I had.

From graduation [ in 1987 ] until today, I have concentrated on only a few things. One was Chicago Access Corporation, the program that facilitated cable TV shows. Then, when [ then-County Board president ] Dick Phelen was elected and issued an executive order to create the Human Rights Commission, I became chairperson. I'm still on the commission but I'm no longer chairman. When Daley became mayor, I was named to the Advisory Council of LGBT Issues; I've been there for 12 years. Also, I was in the Cook County State's Attorney's Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Issues with [ Windy City Times sales executive ] Suzanne Kraus; that was under Jack O' Malley.

Since 1996 or so, I've discovered the Internet. I now spend a lot of time being an armchair activist, trying to keep up with things and contributing to e-mail lists.

WCT: Have you thought about starting your own site?

BK: No. It would be more work than I would care to put into it. I still have to earn a living, which isn't easy. Believe it or not, being a lawyer is not a gravy train—especially when you started out as an old, gay, politically active attorney.

WCT: If you were a corporate attorney—

BK: I never could get hired. When I went to law school, I didn't intend to use law for gay activism. I was hoping to maybe be a gay activist [ on the side ] but use my education in a different field. But—probably because of a combination of graduating law school in my 40s, the legal economy of the day, being gay, and being politically active—I never was hired in the fields that I would've liked.

WCT: What fields would you have liked?

BK: I liked corporations in law school as well as international business courses; [ the latter ] would have been my first choice. However, Chicago didn't have much international law and although [ the city ] has plenty of corporations, the atmosphere was pretty conservative at that time and I didn't fit in. What attracted me to corporate law were the technicalities and the minutiae. I was also interested in intellectual property law.

It was really difficult to find employment at that time. It still is, even though things look better.

WCT: What was the impact of AIDS on the gay-rights movement?

BK: For one thing, it transformed the agenda to a large extent. It was suddenly this big component that hadn't been there before. Of course, it killed a lot of people who would've been movement mainstays. This sounds crass, but AIDS also threatened to be a problem for the interfacing of gay-rights movement politics with the larger society; there were fears that the larger society would've associated gay with having AIDS. However, it didn't happen thanks, actually, to AIDS activists; they changed the popular perception of what AIDS was. Another important result was that it brought a lot of people out of the closet. Again, it sounds crass to say so, but AIDS had a big mobilizing effect. It didn't set back the gay-rights movement; on the contrary, it probably advanced it.

WCT: 1977: You were involved in that groundbreaking White House meeting. Tell me about that.

BK: The National Gay Task Force was behind getting it set up. That was done through contacts cultivated between Jean O'Leary ( who just passed away ) , the co-executive director of NGTF, and Midge Costanza, President Jimmy Carter's assistant. Bruce Voeller, the other co-executive director, had become familiar with Chuck Renslow, because Chuck was considered a mover and shaker and Bruce kept in contact with [ those people ] . I was invited because I had been acquainted with Bruce.

I was asked to write a paper, and I did. It was about tax-exemption problems of gay groups; that was one of the issues that we wanted to bring to the Carter administration's attention. So, basically I went to Washington one day, lugging my IBM typewriter. I finished writing the paper in the hotel and went over to the White House.

I wasn't involved in the follow-up between NGTF and different agencies. However, from what I could tell, the IRS stopped blocking tax-exemption applications by properly qualified gay organizations.

We also presented concerns in other areas, including immigration. The Immigration and Naturalization Service came up with new interpretations that made it easier to be openly gay and be allowed into the country or to become a naturalized citizen. The first administrative changes came during the Carter administration.

WCT: Where do you see gay-rights activism headed, especially locally?

BK: It's about rehashing old battles in some cases. For instance, in 1975, some of us got the Illinois Department of Insurance to adopt a rule that would forbid [ the denial of ] the issuing of either insurance because of sexual orientation. There were lots of ways around such a rule. However, that type of rule had a salutary effect; it was one of the first in the country that made insurance companies more unwilling to discriminate against gay people. Well, the activities that we're seeing today with the Illinois Family Institute could create problems with insurance companies. I read the other day that one company had withdrawn from Texas since that stated adopted that 'one man, one woman' law [ regarding marriage ] . If more states adopt this 'one man, one woman' law, it might set back some advances made in the insurance industry. So that's one battle. Certainly the whole domestic partnership battle needs to be re-fought. ( So is marriage, which covers new ground. )

Other than possibly having to re-fight some battles ... we'll be re-fighting them from so far advanced a position than we used to, we'll have a head start. In addition to that, the marriage front, being pretty new, [ will result in us ] getting somewhere—although I'm not sure exactly where. It's unbelievable that, in a few years, domestic partnership has become the moderate right-wing's fallback position. Where we'll end up I don't know—but I also don't know where it should be. While it's discriminatory to deny someone the same label, what may end up being more important is that people have the same individual components in the bundle of rights—as well as the whole bundle. If that ever happens, and the same-sex institution becomes truly equal, then it stands to reason that the only thing left is symbolism. Symbolism may be important to some but to others the symbolic fight may not be worthwhile.

I also see international convergence taking place more and more, where issues in one country end up benefitting other countries. Thanks largely to groups like the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Rex Wockner's international coverage for the last 10 years or more, there's now more consciousness internationally about rights. Things are now moving faster in other countries than they do here. The Europeans' and Canadians' recognition of same-sex marriage is bound to have an impact on this country. Also, the Internet helps tremendously in getting information around. The opportunity to get information was never like it is today. It will help us—and I think we'll be helping other people, too.

WCT: I know you're a modest individual, but do you ever think about the impact you've had on the gay-rights movement?

BK: Yeah ... in fact, Chen and I are planning to move. We've had to organize the apartment so it can be put on the market. We've had to go through piles of papers that I've accumulated all these years and decided what to do with them. So, from a historical point of view, I have thought about [ my involvement ] .

WCT: Do you have any advice for younger activists?

BK: Patience ... which is always hard for young people to accept. Also, they should learn from history; I always did. When I was a child, I related better to older people; I was interested in what had happened before. History is such a useful tool for activism; you learn what to expect in terms of opposition and opportunity. Lastly, don't write off older people. They still can be very helpful, not only in terms of intellectual resources but in terms of ideas.

WCT: For instance, I'm sure a lot of clubgoers don't realize that, if it hadn't been for activists, they wouldn't be able to dance together.

BK: Absolutely. But they don't need to realize that, as long as they appreciate the general concept that you can learn from history and that there are people who can help your struggle. However, at the same time, there's no denying that you tend to be set in your ways as you become older. [ Younger advocates ] have to distinguish between those with ideas and those who don't have them.

As young people well know, old people will die off. When that happens, things will move forward. The opposition to same-sex marriage is primarily old people. They can wait for them to die off ... but, at the same time, why should they wait for that? They could enlist old people right now.

WCT: Has your activism affected your relationship with Chen?

BK: Yes. It's made him a little bit more conscious of the issues, although he's always been receptive. It's also caused strain when I have devoted too much time and space for activist stuff. However, I would say that the relationship has affected activism more than the other way around. If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have been able to do a lot of things, such as attend law school ( because of the support he offered me ) . Also, I can bounce a lot of things off of him; he's much better at understanding human nature than I am. In addition, since he's a little more conservative than I am, he can offer different viewpoints that I would never consider. Overall, the relationship has benefitted my activist involvement more than my activist involvement has benefitted my relationship.


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