By Sam Feldman
In 1924, German immigrant Henry Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights in Chicago. It was the first known gay-rights organization in America, and among the most short-lived. Seven months later, the police raided Gerber’s Old Town home without a warrant, putting an end to the organization and arresting its officers. “Strange Sex Cult Exposed,” blared the headline in the Herald-Examiner the next day.
Eight decades later, things look a lot different in Chicago. “Chicago is definitely one of the most gay-friendly cities in the country,” says Liz Garibay, manager of public programs at the Chicago History Museum. “People don’t even think about it, it’s just a part of the city.” This places gay history firmly within the purview of the museum. “The LGBT community is a big part of the history of Chicago,” Garibay notes. “Chicago’s gay community played a huge role in starting to create this nationwide movement for gay rights.”
Garibay is the coordinator of the museum’s “Out at CHM” LGBT-themed lecture series, which wrapped up its fifth year last month. In the past the series has tackled everything from the AIDS crisis to the USA PATRIOT Act in front of crowds of 450 to 500 people. “It’s probably one of our top three most popular series,” says Garibay. “It’s always been sold out.” This year’s offerings were more explicitly political than usual: the lectures were on sexual politics, U.S. citizenship and the history of transgender activism. It is no coincidence that the political focus comes in an election year. “We try to connect it to what’s happening in our city, in our country,” Garibay says. The sexual politics lecture, for example, drew connections between early uses of sexuality as a weapon—as in the 1952 election, where the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket spread rumors that the divorced Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, was gay—and the scandals of modern politicians like Larry Craig.
“Out at CHM” encompasses only lectures, but the museum’s LGBT programming extends beyond that. For example, its “Project Sunday” series of monthly documentary screenings recently showed “Screaming Queens,” a documentary on the struggles of transgender activists that accompanied the “Out at CHM” lecture on the same subject four days later. Just last week, as part of its “History Pub Crawls” series, the museum led an “Out and About” trolley tour of historic LGBT bars throughout Chicago. In general, though, the museum focuses its LGBT-themed programming in the first five months of the year. Garibay points out, “When June comes around there’s so much happening in the city, so much going on with gay pride, we try not to compete with anything.” How far we’ve come from Henry Gerber’s days—the “strange sex cult” now has its own pride month.