‘Convert them, co-opt them, or kill them‘: The ugly fight to pass the LGBTQ-inclusive Chicago Human Rights Ordinance | Bleader

Friday, February 16, 2018

‘Convert them, co-opt them, or kill them‘: The ugly fight to pass the LGBTQ-inclusive Chicago Human Rights Ordinance

Posted By on 02.16.18 at 08:58 AM

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  • Logan Javage

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This year, 2018, marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the LGBT-inclusive Chicago Human Rights Ordinance—as I was reminded yesterday when I had the pleasure of running into Laurie Dittman on the bus. She was one of the leaders of Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting, the activist organization that led the campaign to pass the legislation protecting Chicago's LGBT community from discrimination in housing, jobs, and public accommodations. The ordinance was approved by the Chicago City Council on December 21, 1988, but only after 15 years of struggle—not only between the LGBT community and politicians but within the community itself.

A gay rights ordinance introduced in 1973 had been languishing in committee for a decade, while mainstream gay leaders waited for what they deemed would be "the right moment" to bring the bill up for a vote. They banked on the support of Mayor Jane Byrne—but the playing field changed after Byrne lost reelection in a three-way race between herself, Cook County state's attorney Richard M. Daley, and U.S. representative Harold Washington. After Washington became Chicago's first African-American mayor in 1983, some gay and lesbian activists threw their support behind Washington's progressive reform agenda, but others—along with their allies in the City Council's anti-Washington bloc (led by Alderman "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak)‚ were holding off for an expected comeback bid by Byrne.

Washington supported passage of the bill—in 1984 he became the first sitting Chicago mayor to appear at a gay rights rally, which I helped organize. The Byrne backers wanted to stall the bill until after the 1987 election, when Byrne was expected to face off with Washington for a rematch. The Washington-allied activists gained the upper hand and brought the gay rights ordinance up for a vote in 1986. They expected the bill to fail, but they felt it was necessary to lose a battle in order to ultimately win the war.

When the bill was rejected by the City Council in 1986, an angry community immediately set out to revamp and reintroduce the ordinance. A newly formed organization, Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting, spearheaded the campaign. Its leaders included, over a two-year period, Rick Garcia, Art Johnston, Laurie Dittman, Jon-Henri Damski, Jonathan Katz, Irwin Keller, and Kit McPheeters, with crucial behind-the-scenes advice from Mayor Washington's liaison to the LGBT community, Kit Duffy, and Peggy Baker and Jon Simmons, who succeeded Kit as mayoral liaisons to the community. Town Meeting formed a winning strategy: combining grassroots organization with behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. When Washington died in 1987 and was replaced by Eugene Sawyer, the Town Meeting leaders convinced Sawyer to support the ordinance, which he had previously opposed; the Town Meeting activists also courted the support of white conservative aldermen who had been foes of Washington.

The Town Meeting leaders also forged an irresistible coalition with other constituencies impacted by the legislation. As the Chicago Tribune noted when it covered the final showdown in City Council, the ordinance expanded anti-discrimination protections "not only for homosexuals but also for the elderly, handicapped, divorced and single parents, veterans regardless of military discharge, and other minorities in housing, employment and public accommodations."

The revamped bill came up for a vote in September 1988 and was defeated at a stormy City Council session chronicled in the Reader by Achy Obejas at which one alderman, George Hagopian, called gay people "animals." Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting activists brought the bill to a vote even though we knew it would fail, in order to gauge who our allies and opponents were—so we could concentrate on our opponents, and, in the immortal words of Town Meeting leader Rick Garcia, "convert them, co-opt them, or kill them."

But Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting refused to accept defeat. The ordinance was immediately reintroduced—supported by the full-out backing of Windy City Times's founding publisher, Jeff McCourt, who donated his office space to the Town Meeting activists (we dubbed it "Ordinance Central"), and by a blistering front-page editorial in Windy City Times written by Mark Schoofs, my successor as the paper's editor. Three months later, after more public demonstrating and more behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and deal-making, the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance was finally voted into law, taking effect in February 1989.

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