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Daley double: Scholar talks local LGBTQ history [29 April, 2009]

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Chicago’s infamous machine politics is as much the stuff of lore as a reality of Chicago life.  Richard J. Daley, most associated with the machine, was mayor from 1955 to 1976.  His son, Richard M. Daley, has been mayor from 1989 to the present.  Except for a period of 13 years in the interim, there has been a Daley in power since the mid-1950s.  The issue of what differences, if any, mark the tenures of the two men has been the subject of several books.

Timothy Stewart-Winter, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago, discussed the differences between the two Daleys in terms of their relationships to the LGBTQ community, in a talk entitled “Machine Politics and Queer Chicagoans Since 1955: From Daley to Daley.”  The April 21 event was part of Gerber/Hart Library’s “The Cutting Edge: Young Scholars Share Their Work” series.  Stewart-Winter’s paper began by noting that the elder Daley was often held up as an exemplar of middle-class family values, with a Tribunearticle describing him as “a family man in a city of family men.”  Publicity photos of the mayor showed him at home with his wife and seven children, and much was made of the fact that he lived all his life in the working-class neighborhood of Bridgeport.  Stewart-Winter pointed out that this “normative vision of family life” came with a reputation for being tough on crime, and that toughness included frequent raids on gay and lesbian bars and gathering places because the mayor “viewed gays as a law-enforcement problem.”

The 1950s saw the enforcement of “disorderly conduct laws,” which were broad enough to allow police to round up gays and lesbians for infractions as minor as “violations of city laws against cross-dressing”—which simply meant that women could be arrested for wearing fly-front trousers.  The frequency of such raids prompted one gay writer to comment, “Chicago had quite a heat wave in the 1950s.”  Despite such repression, according to Stewart-Winter, Chicago queers found ways to continue sustaining a vibrant and underground subculture, especially in the drag balls on the South side.

According to Stewart-Winter, 1968—the year of the Democratic Party crackdown on dissenters at its National Convention—was a distinct chink in the hitherto impenetrable Daley armor.  This period saw the rise of the Stonewall generation and the growing perception among gays and lesbians that they needed to be out and to be more politicized.  The 1970s saw more acceptance of gay life, with the Sun-Timesdoing a series of articles on gay life, with titles like “From Homebodies to Hustlers.”

Richard M. Daley’s emergence in public life has seen a marked difference in terms of the treatment of the gay and lesbian community.  This mayor has the overwhelming support of the community and is known for several typically pro-gay moves and announcements, including a support for gay marriage.  However, as Stewart-Winter pointed out, relations between the community and the mayor got off to an unsteady start.  In 1989, the mayor had a “stormy confrontation” with organized gay constituents who felt he had backed away from campaign promises.  The following day, members of the activist group ACT UP and others were arrested as they protested the mayor.  Over the following years, however, the mayor’s relationship with the community strengthened.  In 1997, he proposed the rainbow pylons in Boystown and, in 2009, appointed openly gay Ron Huberman as head of Chicago Public Schools.

Stewart-Winter took a few questions at the end of the talk, and one audience member asked what made Chicago’s gay history any different from that of other major cities, which saw similar cultural and political shifts over the years.  In response, Stewart-Winter said that Chicago gays had “less of an anti-establishment edge” but that in some ways they were more typical of the region than San Francisco or New York City might be in relation to their surrounding locales.  For instance, said Stewart-Winter, Chicago is historically a very Catholic city, and it is also the biggest city not automatically associated with gay culture.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 29 April, 2009

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