Building a Center on Halsted, Hosting the World for Gay Games VII, and Looking to the Future
Chicago started the 2000s with some hope on the horizon. AIDS drugs introduced in the mid-1990s slowed down the impact of the disease, but many people are still dying from it and no cure has been found. Community institutions were stronger than ever, despite the fact that some of the grassroots passion and activism was waning.
Part of the picture was that more people than ever have become “professional” gays—earning pay as elected and appointed officials, as staff members at gay and AIDS organizations, or even as liaisons within major corporations. The community was seeing a new breed of “activist,” ones who were not street-level radicals. The theatrical, telegenic days of ACT UP and Queer Nation gave way to more black-tie galas, corporate sponsorships and foundation grants. Donors helped shape the community, making the institutions strong and creating a “gay-industrial complex.”
This is a necessary part of a maturing movement. As with the Black, Latino, Asian and women's communities, the survival of a movement depends on securing a more permanent infrastructure. First it was “out of the closets and into the streets.” Now it is “out of the streets and into the buildings and boardrooms.”
This does not mean there is no longer a need for protests and pickets. When anti-gay forces tried to push Kraft and Walgreens from their sponsorships of the Gay Games in Chicago, pro-gay forces joined together to show their support, and the companies stayed the course. Center on Halsted was built not just with million-dollar donations but also with smaller giving generated at gay bars.
The 2000s still have activists; they just have a wider definition. There are still hate-crime marches, and gays participating in anti-war and pro-choice marches. There are AIDS protests in front of pharmaceutical companies, and trans protests outside gay benefits. There are also tens of thousands of other gay people doing their form of activism, whether for marriage rights or the right to dance in a straight bar.
The fight for marriage probably best reflects the 2000s for the community—not because it will happen in this decade nationwide, but because it has happened legally in Massachusetts and in other countries, including Canada and South Africa. The attempts of mayors to circumvent anti-gay laws, and even Mayor Daley's support of gay marriage in Illinois, show that the tide is turning. Whether fighting for the right of gays to marry or their right to serve in the military, the issues of this decade have moved beyond the scope of limited rights and into the realm of full equality. Marriage is an endgame, one that widens the net of issues. Not everyone has to back marriage to understand that it will have a cascade-like effect on thousands of other laws. In the fight for marriage rights, what we have gotten is concessions on “lesser” issues like hate crimes and employment rights, issues that are “safer” for our allies to push for.
The Democratic presidential candidates of 2008 more fully “get” gay people than ever before. They back some form of same-sex unions, and myriad other issues that our 1970s counterparts would not have dreamed possible this quickly.
We are also electing our own in greater numbers than ever, whether to judgeships or aldermanic offices, with Tom Tunney in 2002 becoming the city's first openly gay alderman. The clout of Equality Illinois and its allies finally achieved gay rights legislation across the entire state of Illinois, a bill signed into law just in time to help the Gay Games prevent a battle over public accommodations—permitting use of Crystal Lake for rowing.
The decade also saw a new emergence of playful sexuality. Whether in Chicago Takes Off for Test Positive Aware Network, or the Sissy Butch Brothers Gurlesque Burlesque shows, or the poetry slams of POW-WOW, Chicagoans let off steam through entertainment. Great new theater and cinema works were created, and writers and artists continued to put Chicago on the creative map.
What is next for the city? A need for more emphasis on cross-generational programs and support. Making sure the next generation, which is more accepting and diverse than ever before, has a safe place to grow and change. Honoring the next generation through scholarships, and events such as the Windy City Times 30 Under 30 Awards. Making sure transgender and intersex people are fully integrated into the community and feel a safe part of our GLBTQI alphabet world. Racist, sexist, geographic and class boundaries continue to poison the currents of our community. How will we fix this? Now, as the community and individuals within it continue to age, issues affecting senior gays are more at the forefront than ever before. You can judge a community by how it treats its youngest, oldest and most vulnerable. How will history judge us?
From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.