Archive for the ‘Illinois’ Category

Queer Chicago


Chicago, Ill.

In my ramblings through cyberspace, I discovered a new queer local history film that looks exciting: Quearborn and Perversion: An Early History of Lesbian and Gay Chicago. Filmmaker Ron Pajak says his mission is “to uncover stories from men and women, black and white, about the lesbian and gay life of Chicagoans before any freedoms existed.” The film spans the years 1934-1974, and has a wealth of amazing historic photos and video footage, as well as interviews with lesbian and gay Chicagoans. You can watch a preview at the website – don’t miss it.


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Evanston, Ill.

Frances Willard home
“Rest Cottage”
1730 Chicago Avenue

Frances Willard (1839-1898) left her hometown in Wisconsin to attend Evanston College for Ladies. After a teaching career at various women’s colleges, she became president of her alma mater in 1871 and then dean of women at Northwestern University when the schools merged two years later. In 1874, with the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Willard resigned from her post to become the WCTU’s corresponding secretary. Five years later, as WCTU president, she led a national movement for “Home Protection.” Her temperance campaign was a direct reaction against the violence (both physical and emotional) perpetrated on women and children by alcohol-abusing men, and it eventually led to the enactment of Prohibition in 1919.

In her autobiography, Glimpses of Fifty Years, Willard included a chapter titled “Companionships,” in which she outlined her passionate friendships with women over the years. One was with a woman in Evanston she calls “Mary B., for whom my attachment was so great that when she properly preferred my brother… the loss of her was nothing less than a bereavement, a piteous sorrow for a year or more, as my journals testify, one of the keenest of my life.” She referred to her relationships with women as “attachments, so much less restful than friendships.”

For 33 years, Willard’s live-in private secretary was Anna Gordon, also a devoted temperance worker. Willard called Gordon “the rarest of intimate friends” and by the pet name “Little Heart’s-ease.” Gordon stayed on in the house after Willard’s death, becoming president of the WCTU herself in 1914.

Willard and Gordon’s restored home in Evanston, a National Historic Landmark, is open to the public, appearing much as it did when they lived there. On exhibit are many memorabilia of Willard’s years as a temperance warrior.

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Chicago, Ill.

Henry Gerber home
1710 North Crilly Court

In December 1924, at a cost of $10, the Society for Human Rights incorporated as a not-for-profit organization, listing its business offices in this rowhouse, the home of its leading force, Henry Gerber (1892-1972). With this move, the Society went into history as the first homosexual rights organization in the country.

Gerber had been to Germany as part of the Army of Occupation after World War I, and had seen firsthand the early German homosexual rights movement there. Back home, he founded the Society to “protect the interests of people… abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness” – coded language for protecting gay people from discrimination, harassment, abuse, and arrest.

The Society published two issues of Friendship and Freedom, written by Gerber, before running out of money for printing and distribution. The group disbanded after just one year, when the police caught wind of its activities and arrested Gerber, confiscating his typewriter, diaries, and all the Society’s literature. Although a judge threw the case out because the police had not obtained search warrants, Gerber lost his job when the newspapers reported his arrest. But he continued to write about gay rights throughout his life. Chicago’s LGBT library and archives, founded in 1981, is named in Gerber’s honor, and in 2001, the city of Chicago bestowed landmark status on Gerber’s rowhouse.

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Chicago, Ill.

800 South Halsted Street

In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, intimate companions since their college days, founded one of the most famous social experiments in this country’s history, Hull-House. It was their intention, Addams wrote later, “to rent a house in a part of the city where many primitive and actual needs are found, in which young women…might learn of life from life itself….”

The house they located was built in 1856 for Charles Hull, a prominent Chicagoan. Addams described the building as “a fine old house…, surrounded on three sides by a broad piazza which was supported by wooden pillars of exceptionally pure Corinthian design and proportion.” It stood, she noted with amusement, “between an undertaking establishment and a saloon.” Though the house was being used for offices and storerooms for a neighboring factory, Addams and Starr were able to rent the second floor and a downstairs drawing room, and the following year, they obtained the lease on the entire building. They furnished it with “a few bits of family mahogany” and items from their travels abroad and officially took up residency in September, 1889.

In an era when foreigners were feared and xenophobia was rampant, Addams, Starr, and the women who came to work with them offered immigrants (mainly Italian) education, medical care, guidance, and day care facilities. Expanding to thirteen buildings over the years, Hull-House became a model for settlement houses across the country. It was also a training ground for numerous reformers, including Julia Lathrop and Florence Kelley.

Addams’ biographers have generally ignored her personal life, assuming that she didn’t have one because she wasn’t attached to a man. Yet, though her intimacy with Ellen Starr had waned by the early 1890s, Addams shared a 40-year relationship with Mary Rozet Smith, who was one of the many idealistic young women from wealthy backgrounds who came to work at Hull-House. Smith routinely accompanied Addams on her lecture tours, and Addams was always sure to wire ahead to the hotel where they were staying for a room with a big double bed.

Although Hull-House as a social-service organization is still in existence, the original building at Polk and Halsted is now a museum, under the auspices of the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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Chicago, Ill.

Lorraine Hansberry homes and sites

5330 S. Calumet Avenue on the Southside of Chicago was the first home of playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965). Hansberry later described the black neighborhood as having “scrubbed porches that sag and look their danger. Dirty gray wood steps. And always a line of white and pink clothes scrubbed so well, waving in the dirty wind of the city.”

When Hansberry was a young child, her father, a prosperous businessman, moved his family to a middle-class white neighborhood of Chicago (6140 Rhodes Avenue), where their house was surrounded by an angry white mob and a brick thrown through the window. It was the difficulty of blacks seeking better housing in traditionally white neighborhoods that Hansberry placed at the center of her celebrated play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Raisin was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway.

Hansberry was committed to the discussion of social injustice. After college, she moved to New York City, where she worked for Paul Robeson’s journal, Freedom, and studied African history with W. E. B. DuBois. Hansberry also became an ardent feminist. Though she married Robert Nemiroff in 1953, they separated amicably a few years later, when Hansberry began the process of coming out as a lesbian in Greenwich Village. A subscriber to the early lesbian magazine, The Ladder, she wrote several letters to the editor – signed “L.H.N.,” for Lorraine Hansberry Nemiroff in 1957 in support of lesbian rights and feminism.

Sadly, Hansberry died of cancer at the young age of 34, with plans for many more plays than she was able to write. Her contribution as an African-American woman to literature is recognized at the Lorraine Hansberry branch, Chicago Public Library, 4314 South Cottage Grove Avenue.

I’m glad as heck that you exist. You are obviously serious people and I feel that women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations. Our problems, our experiences as women are profoundly unique as compared to the other half of the human race…. I feel that THE LADDER is a fine, elementary step in a rewarding direction.

–extract from Lorraine Hansberry [L.H.N.] letter to the editor, The Ladder, May 1957

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