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D’Emilio talks Nixon and gay liberation [21 April, 2010]

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The Chicago History Museum’s (CHM’s) ongoing series, Out at CHM, featured local gay historian John D’Emilio on April 15.  D’Emilio, a professor of history and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, presented a piece entitled “Richard Nixon, Gay Liberationist?” Speaking to a packed auditorium, D’Emilio discussed the implications of his research for scholars of queer history.  He argued that while it was tempting to read the virtual end of the harassment of gay bars in the 1970s as a sign of the success of queer resistance to the Daley machine, the truth might be more prosaic and linked to wider national political changes of the time.

For much of its relatively short life as a field of study, gay history has been seen as the uncovering of the hitherto invisible lives and events surrounding gays and lesbians.  In the 1970s in particular, a “few women and men … decided that their contribution to this liberation project was that they’d help break the silence, shatter the invisibility, and end the isolation by uncovering a “hidden history” of same-gender-loving and gender-crossing people,” D’Emilio said.  As examples of the research emerging from this period, D”Emilio discussed his own work as well as that of pioneers like Alan Berube, who wrote Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women During World War II,which focuses on how “the war years proved decisive in helping to forge a collective lesbian and gay identity, and in helping to build urban communities.”  The ’70s also saw the publication of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, by Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, about the world of working-class lesbians in Buffalo, New York between the 1930 and the 1960s.  This was a departure from the standard gay history of urban areas.

While such works were different in their subjects and scope, they were similar in that they are stories of resistance in which “The key actors and movers are gay men, lesbians, and gender-crossers.”  His research on Chicago at first seemed to affirm previous gay histories.  Queer Chicago during the 1960s was witness to a tremendous amount of repression.  For instance, “ [c]ity law prohibited wearing clothing for the purpose of concealing one’s sex,” which meant that women who wore short hair and trousers with zippers down the front could be arrested.  Gay and lesbian bars were targets of harassment by the police.

But, according to D’Emilio, “by the second half of the 1960s, signs of organized political resistance by lesbians and gay men were growing” and Chicago became one of the earliest homes of the gay liberation movement.  In the early 1970s, gays and lesbians were refusing to remain silent, he said: “They publicly identified and named Chicago police officers who made it a practice to go after queers.”  By the mid-1970s, police harassment of gay bars had virtually ceased and the resulting increase in gay ownership of bars and businesses led to the creation of the Lakeview neighborhood.

Seen in the light of typical gay-history narratives, it would appear that the police harassment ended as a direct result of queer resistance.  In fact, “The harassment of gay bars was just one piece in a larger story of bribery and corruption, of police and organized crime, and of the political machine of Mayor Richard Daley,” D’Emilio said.  He went on to explain that the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 was the most significant factor in ending the systematic raids on the gay bars.

Richard Daley was “described in the 1960s as the second most powerful Democratic party politician after the President” and was credited with having delivered the 1960 election to Kennedy.  The election of a Republican President enabled what had seemed impossible: an investigation of corruption in Daley’s Chicago.  In 1970, the U.S.  Attorney investigated the killings of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and the resulting report led to 14 indictments.  As D’Emilio pointed out, “If the idea of Richard Nixon and his attorney general supporting justice for black power militants seems to stretch credibility, then you can appreciate how intent this new administration was on discrediting Daley and undermining his political power.”

In a tightly knit system of extortion and bribery, where police officers loyal to the Daley machine could extract payoffs from bar owners without fear of punishment, it was unlikely that protests by “a few dozen gay liberationists and lesbian feminists” had any effect on police corruption.  But in 1969, the FBI and the Justice Department began investigating a tavern shakedown by the police.

Between 1972 and 1974, D’Emilio said, “56 police officers—including the Captain of the district that had the largest concentration of gay bars in the city—were indicted on corruption charges … 34 police officers were found guilty, and the scandal forced the resignation of Chicago’s police superintendent” and “ [i] n the wake of almost two years of relentless publicity exposing police extortion of tavern owners, it was no longer possible for the police to harass and intimidate gay bars—their owners, their workers, their patrons—at will.”  The result was the end of “systematic and pervasive police harassment of bars,” which did not mean that there were not sporadic instances of the same by individual homophobic cops.  Yet, he added, “queer resistance is barely a piece of this story, and anything ‘queer’ is quite marginal to the narrative.”

D’Emilio pointed out that this particular history did not mean that the earlier historical work by him and other scholars, which centralized queer resistance, was no longer true.  Rather, his hope was that “by embedding queer stories in a larger political economy, a larger national political history, they become less separated and less self-contained, less ghettoized, less inside a ‘lavender bubble,’ and instead be seen as more integral to, more connected to broader narratives of U.S. history.”

Originally published in Windy City Times, 21 April, 2010

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