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PASSAGES Longtime gay activist William B. Kelley dies
by Tracy Baim, Windy City Times
2015-05-17

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[Updated May 18, 2015 with memorial service information.]

William B. Kelley, 72, who in 2015 was marking 50 years as a gay activist, passed away peacefully in his sleep the morning of May 17, according to Chen K. Ooi, his partner since 1979.

There were very few LGBT Chicago activists who stayed as consistently engaged in community activism as Kelley. He was part of the Mattachine Midwest chapter and wrote for and edited its newsletter. He helped organize the first national gay and lesbian conference in 1966—the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, co-founded the Chicago Gay Crusader newspaper, and attended the first White House gay-rights meeting, in 1977, under the Carter administration.

In Chicago, he was a critical player in numerous organizations as a founder, member and sometimes leader. He chaired the Cook County Commission on Human Relations for its first 10 years. He co-chaired Illinois Gays for Legislative Action in the early 1970s, the Illinois Gay Rights Task Force in the late 1970s, and was inducted into the first class of the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, in 1991.

This summer, he was planning to attend the 50th anniversary of the Philadelphia Reminder Days for gay rights — he had marched there during the 1960s.

Visitation will be Wed., May 20, 3-9 p.m. Drake & Son Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western Ave. On Thursday, visitation will be at the same location 9 a.m., with procession to Wunder Cemetery, 3963 N Clark St, Chicago at noon.

State Rep. Greg Harris said he was "totally shocked to hear the sad news. Bill always had the most amazing perspective and guidance on events of the day because of his deep grasp of our community's written and lived history combined with his legal knowledge and his kind, gentle way. What a loss for us all."

"The LBGTQ community lost a life-long activist and great legal/political mind," longtime businessman Chuck Renslow said. "We all owe him for decades of service in the cause of equal rights. I loved him a lot and I will miss him terribly. I really don't have the words to describe the loss we've collectively suffered. My heart goes out to Chen."

"An extraordinary individual," wrote historian and author John D'Emilio. "There were so few who had the courage in those pre-gay liberation years to be 'out there'—and there were even fewer who made the transition as activist from pre-Stonewall to post-Stonewall. In his quiet and unassuming way, Bill was extraordinary."

"He was the face and voice of gay liberation in Chicago for so long," said Chris Riddiough. "I first met Bill about 40 years ago—in the midst of a controversy over gay marriage—as always he spoke with reason and thoughtfulness in the midst of swirling arguments over the impact on the movement for gay rights and women's rights of an attempt by two women to obtain a marriage license from Cook County. After that I worked with Bill on many campaigns ranging from the opposition to Anita Bryant to the effort to pass a gay rights bill in the Chicago City Council.

"Working with the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago, Bill was able to draw many diverse parts of the gay and lesbian community from bar owners to lesbian-feminist activists like myself. His work with the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force was paramount in the move to pass legal protections for gay men and lesbians. Bill, of course, was in the fight before I was … . His courage in stepping forward at a time when so few of us were willing to be identified as gay, led the way to the movement and victories we see today. … His droll wit, interesting posts [on Facebook], comments about Chicago always brought back those heady days in the 1970s when we were forging a new era for the gay and lesbian community."

"For the final 10 years of my syndicated gay-press career, Bill was my editor, my proofreader, my fact-checker, and my all-around advisor. In both English and Spanish," said Rex Wockner. "I don't think I know anyone else who knew so much about everything, including the entire history of our movement. One of the most remarkable, amazing people I ever have known, and a dear friend. He would do things like spend two hours reading the constitution of Trinidad and Tobago, at midnight, in order to tweak one sentence in one of my international news briefs. As gay news became more complex and more intertwined with legal things, I couldn't have continued as long as I did without him. This is a huge loss—for me, for Chicago, and for brainiac first-hand memory of LGBT history nationwide and beyond."

"I loved and admired Bill Kelley, and I will miss him and his wry smile and his quiet grace," said writer and editor Jorjet Harper. "The old saying that 'when an elder dies, a library burns to the ground' is more true of Bill Kelley's passing than of anyone else I know. His deep and finely detailed knowledge of LGBT history was rooted in his personal experiences as a creator of and a witness to that history.

"Bill and I worked closely together as co-editors on a number of Tracy Baim's books, including Obama and the Gays; Out and Proud in Chicago; Gay Press, Gay Power; the Chuck Renslow biography Leatherman, Jim Flint's biography The Boy From Peoria, and Vernita Gray's biography From Woodstock to the White House (the last three co-written with Owen Keehnen). At the time of Bill's death we had just finished editing the first biography of gay activist Barbara Gittings. I thought we made a great editing team; I have always enjoyed working with him, and I relied on his expertise, his eye, and his impeccable mastery of Associated Press style. Bill's vast knowledge of people and events in the community was often astonishing to me, and he would tease out fine points of historical accuracy that I would never even have been aware of.

"He truly has been a Chicago icon for decades in the struggle for LGBT equality, yet his manner was softspoken and unassuming. I am still in shock that he's gone, along with that part of our living history that has gone with him."

Israel Wright, a longtime friend and fellow Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame board member, was among activists who had just spent time with Kelley at the Hall of Fame's bowling event May 9.

"I am so at a loss for exact words to express how important Bill Kelley has been to me and believed in all that I have done with the Chicago Gay ad Lesbian Hall of Fame and otherwise," Wright said. "At times when it seemed there was no one in my corner I could always count on Bill to be my great support. The last time we were together was at our most recent Celebrity Bowl and once again he provided invaluable support to make sure the event went well.

"Bill and Gary Chichester are the reason that the structure and sustainability of the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame exist today. He would often say in the last year he was looking forward to the day he could relax from all of the efforts he was expending. Well, Bill the heavens just opened again for a real angel to take his place among the stars.

"Bill and Chen were a world-traveled couple who often shared their adventures on Facebook. I was often in wonderment of the gardens in the back of their house and how much dedication they devoted to being caretakers of nature."

"This news is devastating," Gary Chichester said. "I have known Bill for over 45 years and have always found him to be someone who would have great insight regarding the issues that have faced our communities. He was a wonderful friend and mentor. We have lost a great leader and one of the most important individuals creating change in the fight for equal rights for LGBT people.

"Bill Kelley was incredibly generous with his time and insights and so helpful to me in my work for Windy City Times and beyond," said writer Chuck Colbert. "Just this morning [May 17] I received an email from him that came through at roughly 4 a.m. on my end. His passing is a great loss for our community."

As the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame website states: "His influence behind the scenes cannot be overestimated. His knowledge, intellect, and steady, reasoned approach have earned him the trust and respect of community activists on all sides of issues.

"Kelley has been an initiator of a large number of community projects; his involvement has included Mattachine Midwest, the Chicago Gay Alliance, Homosexuals Organized for Political Education, the Gay and Lesbian Pride Week Planning Committee, Illinois Gays for Legislative Action, the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago, the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, and the National Gay (now Gay and Lesbian) Task Force. ...

"He has represented lesbian and gay concerns while actively participating in such groups as the 1980 White House Conference on Families and the implementation committee for the 1980 startup of the Illinois Human Rights Commission. In 1987, after many years of concern with lesbian and gay legal rights, he realized his personal dream of becoming a lawyer."

Dick Uyvari said he had "the distinct pleasure of serving with Bill the last four years, on the board of Friends of the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. Bill was certainly 'one-of-a-kind'—an intelligent, kind, and generous man, and extremely competent in all matters legal. He was unequalled when it came to writing technical opinions and responses."

In the 1990s, Kelley was a law clerk to Justice William S. White of the Appellate Court of Illinois. He was on the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and was a board member and officer of the Chicago Access Corporation. He was a founder of the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association and a member of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago, Asians and Friends Chicago, the Cook County State's Attorney's Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Issues, the City of Chicago's Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues, and the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties, according to the Hall of Fame.

In a 2005 interview with Windy City Times, Kelley discussed growing up in Southeast Missouri in the 1950s. "It was legally segregated and practically segregated, for the most part. When I entered high school, it was the first year it had been desegregated," Kelley said, adding that reading influenced his view on civil rights. "The consciousness of rights was grounded because it was the McCarthy era. I was reading books about free speech, [about] not accepting the religiosity of the day, and about racial justice. It was a combination of those three types of readings that began to make me rights-conscious. In fact, I was an ACLU member when I was in high school."

Kelley moved to Chicago in 1959 to attend the University of Chicago. "As far as gayness was concerned, it gave me a chance to see whether being sexual in a different environment [would still result in me] being gay," he said. "I needed to check things out; I didn't know if my gayness was a function of social vectors in high school or my orientation. It turned out to be [the latter]. ... That was two years before Illinois officially abolished its law against same-sex activity and, even after that, it was quite a while before authorities stopped trying to enforce laws that did not exist or enforce other laws that did exist in a discriminatory way."

Kelley went to the first public meeting of Mattachine Midwest, in August 1965. "I was interested in finding such a group for a couple of years but didn't know how," he said. "I wrote the Mattachine Society in New York, which I read about, and they apparently kept me on their contact list. When some people started a group in Chicago, they enlisted the cooperation of the New York [branch], which gave them my name. ... I got interested because of my consciousness regarding sexual discrimination and progressive laws. I remember when I had to read about [these issues] in the Rare Books Room at the University of Chicago; that's where they kept gay books, or at least the first one I read, The Homosexual in America."

In 1964 in the Chicago area, there was a series of very public police raids on gay bars that resulted in peoples' names and addresses being put in the front pages of newspapers. "That really made me think that something should be done. It took me getting this mailing [about the meeting] to get me in contact with others who were involved in activism," Kelley said. "I was about 22 or 23. That's not as young as people have started since then. It just seemed like the thing to do. I had always been a little outspoken, politically. Even back in the 1950s, I wrote letters to the editor—about segregation, not gayness."

Kelley was involved with Mattachine Midwest from 1965 to roughly 1970. "By that time, I found Mattachine to be too lethargic and the personalities to be too irritating; we also had arguments about various issues. So I got together with another friend who was in Mattachine; we formed an organization to do a political-questionnaire project for political candidates—that became HOPE (Homosexuals Organized for Political Education)," Kelley said. "About that time, Chicago Gay Liberation had come onto the scene after Stonewall; shortly, Chicago Gay Alliance came out of that. CGA was more to my liking than CGL, so I went there and stayed until it evaporated. We lobbied Democrats, City Council and the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission, which has been superseded by the Human Rights Commission.

"When CGA dissolved in about 1973, I met a lover. He was an energetic CGA person [Mike Bergeron] who organized a newspaper [Chicago Gay Crusader] and community center; I helped him with that for a few years. At that time, so many organizations were being formed to accomplish various goals. In 1976, I started working with Chuck Renslow in his office, which was an opportunity to really stay involved. I [wasn't] a professional gay activist as we've had since then — but that was the closest I came to being one. That pattern persisted throughout the '70s. I was involved in organizations that did anything that was political and activistic. Social service groups were not my cup of tea."

"One day he walked in to my office and the next thing I knew he was the smartest legal assistant who had not yet gone to law school that I could ever find," said longtime attorney Ralla Klepak. "After years of nagging (a talent of mine) he went to law school. Historian, lawyer, administrative judge, intellectual, warrior, chronicler, Solomon-like attributes, the world is diminished by his loss and we are greater by his life, cut too short. We collectively mourn."

In 1987, while still working for Renslow, he received his law degree from Chicago-Kent Law School.

"I'm personally deeply grateful that even then [in the 1960s], when the movement's prospects looked so bleak, Bill had the foresight to hold on to so many obscure scraps of paper," said historian Timothy Stewart-Winter. "He soon became a national leader in the homophile movement. My heart goes out to his dear partner of many years, Chen Ooi, who tolerated the weeks I spent going through Bill's papers on the living room. Rest in power, sir."

Mark Segal, founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, said he knew Kelley since the early 1970s, when Segal came to Chicago to speak at Gay Pride. "Bill was passionate about LGBT history, and was humble about his part as a pioneer," Segal said. "He marched when few would, he spoke up when few would, for all this he was to be honored in Philadelphia this July 4th on the 50th anniversary of the 1965-'69 Independence Hall 'Equality for homosexual's' picket line, [among] the first LGBT public demonstrations in the nation. Today's LGBT activists for equality should honor and equal his passion and bravery."

Kelley spoke to Windy City Times about his participation in the historic White House meeting. "The National Gay Task Force was behind getting it set up. That was done through contacts cultivated between Jean O'Leary, the co-executive director of NGTF, and Midge Costanza, President Jimmy Carter's assistant. Bruce Voeller, the other co-executive director, had become familiar with Chuck Renslow, because Chuck was considered a mover and shaker and Bruce kept in contact with [those people]. I was invited because I had been acquainted with Bruce. I was asked to write a paper, and I did. It was about tax-exemption problems of gay groups; that was one of the issues that we wanted to bring to the Carter administration's attention. So, basically I went to Washington one day, lugging my IBM typewriter. I finished writing the paper in the hotel and went over to the White House."

Asked his advice for younger activists, Kelley said this in 2005: "Patience ... which is always hard for young people to accept. Also, they should learn from history; I always did. When I was a child, I related better to older people; I was interested in what had happened before. History is such a useful tool for activism; you learn what to expect in terms of opposition and opportunity. Lastly, don't write off older people. They still can be very helpful, not only in terms of intellectual resources but in terms of ideas."

Kelley said if it had not been for his partner Ooi, "I wouldn't have been able to do a lot of things, such as attend law school (because of the support he offered me). Also, I can bounce a lot of things off of him; he's much better at understanding human nature than I am. In addition, since he's a little more conservative than I am, he can offer different viewpoints that I would never consider. Overall, the relationship has benefitted my activist involvement more than my activist involvement has benefitted my relationship."

"I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Bill Kelley's passing," said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley. "Sadly, we lost one of Chicago's longest-serving and most influential LGBT activists. It was an honor to work with him on meaningful legislation during my time as a Cook County Commissioner. He helped me draft the County Domestic Partnership Benefits Bill in 1999 and the Domestic Partnership Registry Bill in 2003. He was courageous and brave in ways we rarely see and a true inspiration to me. His presence, intellect, conviction and character will be greatly missed by many. My thoughts and prayers are with his partner, Chen Ooi, and his family and friends during this extremely difficult time."

Survivors, in addition to Chen K. Ooi, include Michael A. Kelley (brother) and Michael's sons Stephen P. Kelley, Christopher P. Kelley and David A. Kelley. He is also survived by step sisters and brothers Sheila Thompson, Sandra Spence, Don Spence and Richard Spence.

See Kelley's interview with the Chicago Gay History Project here: chicagogayhistory.org/biography.html .

See interview Kelley and Chen here: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Bill-Kelley-and-Chen-Ooi-on-their-lives-and-volunteer-work/38019.html .

Also see this 2005 interview with Kelley: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Talking-History-with-Longtime-Activist-Bill-Kelley/8607.html .

MORE REMEMBRANCES

John Chester was among longtime Chicago activists who recalled their early encounters of Kelley. "Bill Kelley was the first person to whom I spoke about getting into GL support work back in the early '70s," Chester wrote in an email. "He invited me to a meeting down at the old gay liberation house off LaSalle Street. He hooked me up with Larry Gullian who headed Gays for Legislative Action where I went to my first GL political action at Larry's apartment on Hudson Street. Bill and I had what I would call a very amiable and respectful working relationship. … Bill was a fact and word person. Whatever he said about the wording of an ordinance in Chicago or a bill in Springfield I took as the gospel. I never knew him to be wrong in that area. … I had enormous respect for Bill and I only wish the Chicago community understood what a debt of gratitude they owe Bill for his early pioneering work on our behalf. His work was irreplaceable."

From Ed Mogul:

FOR WILLIAM B. KELLEY

In 1961, the State of Illinois adopted the criminal code that in effect legalized homosexuality at a time when a large cohort of baby boomers were about to enter their teenage years.

Starting in the 1960's, young men and women arrived in Chicago from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Indiana and Michigan expecting to express themselves freely in a Midwestern community that would accept their chosen lifestyle.

Gay businesses flourished in Chicago, and institutions were formed for gay people to help their own like Gay Horizons (for counseling) and Howard Brown (for health).

But at a time when it was still a bit uncertain whether lawyers who were openly gay would be allowed to practice law in Illinois, William B. Kelley emerged as an activist advocating forcefully and effectively for his brothers and sisters. He had a demeanor and the legal credentials that commanded respect from other lawyers and judges. His great skill was expressing in the written word what needed to be said.

Aristotle said that happiness consists of actualizing your full potential. In that sense, William B. Kelley lived a happy life. What a wonderful thing to be said about any person.

The ancients admired as heroes people with exceptional athletic or military prowess. Among the many heroes our community has produced since 1961, William Kelley stands out as a hero, who we can all admire for effecting change. Chicago is a richer place for the freedoms and equality he helped win for LGBT people. We owe him our undying praise.

EDWARD MOGUL, Esq.

5/19/2015


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