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social sciences

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The vigorous Midwestern metropolis of Chicago has been a center of gay and lesbian community and organizing since the early part of the twentieth century. Though the city's politics have been, with some justification, stereotyped as corrupt and ruthless, Chicago has also been the birthplace of many reformers and progressive political movements. The first known gay rights group in the U.S. was the Society for Human Rights, founded in Chicago in 1924, and in 1961 Illinois became the first state to legalize private acts of homosexuality between consenting adults.

More recently, Chicago has emerged as the home of a flourishing and diverse glbtq community.

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Early History

In 1781, an explorer from St. Marc, Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) named Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable founded the first permanent settlement at the strategic trade location where the Chicago River connects the Mississippi River with Lake Michigan. The town of Chicago was officially incorporated in 1833, becoming a city in 1837 as the industrial revolution swelled urban populations throughout the nation.

The famous Great Fire of 1871 destroyed much of the business district of the city, leaving three hundred dead and 90,000 homeless. Chicago administrators hired leading architects to rebuild the city, and the wide boulevards, graceful buildings, and numerous parks they designed earned Chicago the nickname "Paris of the prairie." Over a century later, Chicago's stunning architecture is still admired by visitors from around the world.

Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, Chicago's position as an industrial and meatpacking center of the Midwest drew tens of thousands of immigrants, from rural areas of the U.S. as well as from other countries, seeking jobs in the city's slaughterhouses and factories.

Rise of a Gay Community

The industrialization and urbanization of the late nineteenth century brought about lifestyle changes as well. Young people began to move away from their families and live alone in boarding houses or tenements. By the early twentieth century this independence, along with the relative anonymity of a growing city, began to allow the rise of a gay community.

The Levee district on the South Side, already home to prostitution and the opium trade, became a center of gay social activity, with saloons and dance halls offering drag shows for gay male customers.

Lesbians in Early Chicago

As frequently happens in societies where women have little power, lesbians were less visible than gay men in early Chicago. Some butch lesbians passed for men in order to obtain better jobs and live in relative safety with a partner. Newspapers occasionally published accounts of women who had been discovered passing as husbands.

However, other women managed to live in couples, including Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Ellen Starr (1859-1940), two unobtrusively lesbian social workers. Addams and Starr not only helped poor people living in Chicago's slums, but also worked to reform labor laws and improve working conditions for women and children. In 1889, they opened Hull House, one of the first settlement houses to offer services to the poor.

Henry Gerber and the Society for Human Rights

By the 1920s, both gay men and lesbians had become more visible in Chicago society and had expanded out of the "vice" area of the Levee to the bohemian center of Towertown on the Near North Side. It was the era of Prohibition, and the saloons were replaced by tearooms and speakeasies, such as the Bally Hoo Café and the Dill Pickle Club.

It was in this atmosphere that a German immigrant named Henry Gerber (1892-1972), along with six other men, started a homosexual rights group called the Society for Human Rights in 1924. The Society survived only a few months, publishing two issues of its journal, Friendship and Freedom, before being shut down by the Chicago police. Gerber was arrested and his name published in newspapers. Although the charges against him were dropped, he lost his job at the Post Office.

However, though the public struggle for gay rights had been temporarily quashed, underground gay culture flourished. An article in a 1930 issue of Variety magazine estimated that Towertown was home to thirty-five gay clubs. In addition, gay men and lesbians formed extensive social networks and staged private parties in their homes and apartments.

African Americans

The industrial revolution had also led to a flood of African Americans out of the rural South and into northern urban centers. African Americans gravitated to Chicago's South Side, frequenting clubs like the Pleasure Inn and the Plantation Café and hosting drag balls that became fashionable social events for straights and gays alike.

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An architectural rendering (Gensler, 2005) of Chicago's Center On Halsted.
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