The college campus served as a closet exit for many—students, faculty and staff—during the 20th century. Following World War II, Chicago's campuses became a refuge for gay graduate and undergraduate students who came to the city to attend universities and used college life and the urban environment as part of their coming-out process. Subsequently, professors followed suit, learning from student activism, finding ways to research and discuss gay topics, designing curricula and gradually institutionalizing gay identities into the fabric of the academy.
An emerging public debate about homosexuality crystallized in the 1960s, with students and college professors gradually engaging in the discourse. Although her campus had no visible LGBT presence from students or faculty, Esther Newton, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, wrote a dissertation on drag queens, studying the culture and experiences of primarily gay-identified men who dressed and performed as women to entertain or simply to express their sexual identity. When published, Newton's student work became the first significant anthropological study of a gay community in the United States.
Following Stonewall in 1969, more students initiated lesbian and gay discussion in academic centers throughout the United States, and faculty responded. A new, visible gay presence emerged on Chicago campuses.
One individual at the University of Chicago particularly embodied campus gay visibility. Henry Wiemhoff, a former UC student inspired by Stonewall, organized the University of Chicago Gay Liberation Front. This group hosted a campus dance in February 1970 that was followed by an April 1970 Chicago-area dance at the Coliseum Annex for 2,000 women and men. Not long after these dances, the university group merged with the newly founded Chicago Gay Liberation ( CGL ) , and people from these early groups branched out to form several Chicago LGBT organizations such as the Chicago Gay Alliance, Gay Horizons, and Howard Brown Memorial Clinic ( later Health Center ) .
A few years after Stonewall, students began to use college resources for gay activism. Renee C. Hanover had the assistance of law students when she challenged Section 192-8 of the Chicago Municipal Code, known as the “zipper law,” under which, according to police, anyone wearing three items of clothing not commonly worn by the person's own gender was subject to arrest. Law students Kate Dawes, Jo Ann Piontkowski and Marie Kuda, along with William B. Kelley, did the research for a brief in support of a motion to dismiss charges. Subsequently, Kuda has become a prominent activist, researcher and archivist for gay and lesbian culture throughout Chicago.
In 1973, the Gay Academic Union was founded in New York City by an informal group of academics, including eventual University of Illinois at Chicago gay scholar John D'Emilio. The purpose of the GAU was to begin institutionalizing LGBT studies and activism at colleges and universities throughout the United States. A chapter of the GAU opened in Chicago, with Gregory A. Sprague involved in its leadership. The GAU supported early feminist activism, created a gay and lesbian network, and sponsored speakers on topics related to gay studies. A conference for Midwestern gay academics, including Chicago's, was sponsored by the GAU's Midwest Caucus and held in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1975. The conference was designed to create solutions for university-related gay problems and develop strategies for gay studies, supporting gay students, group organizing, and legal rights, according to The Chicago Gay Crusader's spring 1975 issue.
In addition to activities with the GAU, Sprague also taught gay and lesbian history courses at Gay Horizons and Chicago's Lavender University ( based on a model on the West Coast ) . Lavender University was operated by a coordinating committee and assisted by an advisory committee that provided opportunities for lesbians and gay men to share their skills, interests and knowledge in supportive settings. Enrollment was open to everyone regardless of educational background and was co-educational unless same-sex-designated.
During the 1980s, Lavender University became obsolete as college campuses began to see the slow emergence of gay studies. Chicago's universities also continued to host conferences related to gay issues, topics and concerns while students rallied and protested around health issues such as HIV/AIDS.
Also in the 1980s, there was some backlash on campuses as right-wing activists promoted hatred against openly gay students and their allies. At UC, an anti-gay group called “Great White Brotherhood of the Iron Fist” was formed. The Brotherhood published newspapers naming and attacking gays, and threatened them through the mail. Activists, including Irwin Keller, Jonathan Katz, Michèle Bonnarens, Stephanie Bacon and others convinced the administration to act. Keller and Katz became activists on the Chicago gay rights bill before graduating and moving out of town. ( Today, Keller is a formerly practicing San Francisco lawyer who is part of the Kinsey Sicks, a male vocal group that performs politically topical humorous material in drag and a cappella at venues nationwide. )
The 1990s saw the institutionalization of gayness in the university setting. Institutions hosted conferences on intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality, and queer studies courses were developed and offered at DePaul University, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Other schools such as Northeastern Illinois University, Loyola University, and the Illinois Institute of Technology now had active gay student groups. Several campuses opened offices designed to address lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender concerns, with paid staff; UIC was the first.
As the century turned, gay activists and scholars were more integrated and assimilated into the fabric of university life. Students were identifying as queer, but their sexuality became less of a primary marker. It is now acceptable to be publicly out without doing gay research or teaching queer studies, as typified by openly gay Roosevelt University President Charles Middleton, or African-American and gay scholar Dwight McBride, who served as UIC's openly gay dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Other key professors in the Chicago area who are openly lesbian include Cathy Cohen, Beth Ritchie, Ann Russo, Andrew Suozzo, Jacqueline Taylor, Victoria Shannon, Achy Obejas, and Tonda Hughes. For several years gay historian George Chauncey was based at UC. Jane Saks is doing exciting work as the head of Columbia College's Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media. The early part of the 21st century also saw collaboration on resources and scholarship through the Chicago Collegiate Pride Fest, a partnership between the city of Chicago and eight universities and colleges, which included debates, roundtables and breakouts on queerness in the new millennium.
By 2008, private, public, secular and religiously affiliated colleges and universities offered queer courses on their Chicago campuses. Today, only 40 years after Esther Newton's dissertation, the queer organizational scene and curriculum are thriving, and there are high- profile queer faculty. Virtually all of the Chicago area's colleges and universities have funded gay student groups, are doing outreach to gay-straight alliances in high schools and are indicating that queerness at the collegiate level has come out of the closet in full force and with no apology.
John D'Emilio, Mark Sherkow and Elizabeth Thomson assisted in the preparation of this article.
Patrick K. Finnessy, Ph.D., is the director of the Office of GLBT Concerns at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Finnessy teaches ethics and identity within the UIC Honors College and has an appointment with the Gender and Women's Studies program. He created and published a curriculum guide for the New Press anthology Growing Up Gay/Growing Up Lesbian.
From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.