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Hyde Park & Kenwood Issue: Dance for Your Rights

Hyde Park was a bastion of the Stonewall-era gay-rights movement in Chicago.

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A few months after Stonewall—the 1969 riots in New York incited by a police raid on a gay bar—an ad for a gay roommate appeared in the University of Chicago Maroon. The man who'd placed it was former student Henry Weimhoff—and the responses he received would end up inspiring him to place another, seeking activists to help him form a local chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, an organization that had started in New York in response to Stonewall.

The Chicago GLF was much more militant than any of the city's previous gay activist groups. The first one, the Chicago Society for Human Rights, founded in 1924 and thought to be the earliest documented "homosexual emancipation organization" in the United States, was almost apologetic in its quest for fair treatment of gays. Its official mission was "to promote and to protect the interests of people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness." It was fairly short-lived: after publishing two issues of its newletter, Friendship and Freedom, the society was shut down by police and its founder, Henry Gerber, arrested.

The 1950s and '60s saw local chapters of two national organizations, the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis and the gay Mattachine Society. Rather than social agitation they focused on support, opting for secrecy in an era when the opposite could have serious consequences. Police raids on gay bars were frequent, and arrestees would often find their names printed the following day in local newspapers, jeopardizing jobs and livelihoods.

By the late 60s, more radical groups, like Mattachine Midwest, had formed locally and were responding more aggressively to police harassment. The high-profile closing of Chicago gay bar the Trip in 1968 led to a legal challenge that went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court (which ruled in favor of the bar).

Stonewall, though, was the real flash point—in New York and nationwide—and the Gay Liberation Front chapters formed in its aftermath were far more abrasive and demanding than previous groups. The manifesto of the national organization called for the abolition of "existing institutions" of oppression, among them heterosexuality. And its statement that "We reject society's attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature" was a far cry from the "mental and physical abnormalities" to which the fledgling Society for Human Rights had confessed.

It was an article in the Village Voice that clued Weimhoff in to the existence of the Gay Liberation Front; acquaintance Murray Edelman, who was a U. of C. grad student at the time and would become the cofounder of the local GLF chapter, encouraged him to place the Chicago Maroon ad to find members.

Once formed, the Chicago GLF's earliest actions appeared to be a direct retort to the police raids common in that era: the group hosted a series of dances for same-sex couples.

The first, a small mixer held in January 1970 on the U. of C. campus, was timidly promoted and sparsely attended. Emboldened by the lack of police harassment, though, Weimhoff organized a subsequent on-campus event that attracted around 600 people. Mark Sherkow, who'd been a graduate student at U. of C. in the late 60s, remembers the scene at the university's Pierce Tower: "It was packed," Sherkow says. "I wasn't ready to dance with anybody—I just sat in a chair and watched." Other students, he says, were "kind of gawking into the room, and laughing." Still the police didn't come.

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