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Gay Bars Celebrated At Chicago History Museum

By Ted Cox | January 26, 2017 5:51am
 An upside-down beer sign once served as a fairly reliable if not foolproof code for gay bars in Chicago.
An upside-down beer sign once served as a fairly reliable if not foolproof code for gay bars in Chicago.
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OLD TOWN — The Chicago History Museum celebrates gay bars as focal points in the fight for LGBTQ rights with a discussion Thursday that's part of its annual "Out at CHM" series.

"Our Bars: Community, Safety, Violence, Sex, and Activism" is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the museum, 1601 N. Clark St. Historian Owen Keehnen moderates a panel including bar owners Art Johnston of Sidetrack and Marge Summit of His 'n Hers and longtime drag and talent show emcee Otis Mack.

"Truthfully, bars were where I think we got our first self-awareness," Keehnen said. "People went to bars in the postwar period feeling very isolated, and by going to bars they started to see that they were part of a group and a very large and diverse group.

"From that sort of self-awareness that they weren't the only one, people began to see that the problem wasn't the fact that they were gay or LGBT, rather the problem was the way society viewed the LGBT community," he added. "So what you had was all these people coming together, feeling they weren't the only one, and you have them getting a sense of community.

"So really our bars are kind of ground zero for our feelings of self-awareness, community, activism, and through our activism basically our rights."

According to Keehnen, Mayor Richard J. Daley called for a crackdown on gay bars in an effort to "clean up the city" ahead of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. "So crackdowns on bars got really intense, the illegal raids and everything," he said. "We'd always been harassed by police, but things really escalated that year.

"People were rightfully scared and cautious," Keehnen added. "But the thing is that feeling of belonging when they went to bars was worth the risks of being busted in one of those raids and having their names listed in the paper."

In New York City, the movement galvanized around the Stonewall riots in 1969, but things were "a little different" in Chicago, he said, where activist attorneys succeeded in winning a couple of key rulings. "Chicago had a really good balance I think between picketing and protest combined with legal wins," Keehnen said. He credited a movement that borrowed tactics from the civil-rights era and antiwar activism, sometimes growing out of student protest such as the gay liberation movement at the University of Chicago, but even so much of the activity remained centered on gay bars.

The bars only gradually came into the open, going through periods where, for instance, an upside-down beer sign might signify a gay bar to those in the know, as things moved toward more widespread acceptance.

"I still remember what a big deal it was when you finally had bars with windows that you could actually look out of and that didn't have entrances off the alley or the front windows painted dark," Keehnen said.

According to a museum news release, the discussion will concentrate on how, going back to the '50s and beyond, bars served as "places of community and safety, sometimes broken by police violence and often determined by politics of gender and race."

It's the first program in the 14th year of the "Out at CHM" series focusing on LGBTQ issues. The series typically has three programs a year. "Our Bars" is to be followed by "Art, AIDS and Activism in Chicago" in March and "From New Town to Boys Town to Lakeview" in April.

Tickets are $20, $15 for students and museum members. The evening begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m.