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Bernie Hansen's gay-rights legacy remembered
by Matt Simonette
2021-07-30

This article shared 1355 times since Fri Jul 30, 2021
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Activist Arthur Johnston recalled the late 44th Ward Alderman Bernie Hansen as perhaps "the most unlikely gay-rights alderman."

Johnston—one of the activists involved with, among other endeavors, the push for the city's Human Rights Ordinance in the '80s—said that Hansen exemplified the difficulties of trying to evolve from an "old world" machine politician into a "new world" representative for a growing gay constituency in his ward.

Hansen died July 18 at his home in Chandler, Arizona. He was 76, and had served as a Chicago City Council member during 1983-2002.

On July 21, Hansen's successor, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th Ward), co-sponsored a proclamation in City Council that pointed to the former alderman's achievements.

Hansen "was one of the City Council's most outspoken and effective supporters of Human Rights," the proclamation said. "He was the lead sponsor of the 1988 Human Rights Ordinance, which expanded protection against discrimination in housing and hiring to gays, lesbians and disabled persons, and sponsored an ordinance that provided more protection and assistance for victims of bias-related crimes in Chicago. In 1997, the City of Chicago passed an ordinance, which Hansen introduced, that extended health-care benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian city employees."

The proclamation further noted that Hansen oversaw the addition of the North Halsted Street rainbow pylons in his ward, as well as strongly supported the eventual opening of Center on Halsted. But activist Rick Garcia said that Hansen viewed the passage of the ordinance as the "crowning achievement of his time being an alderman."

"Absent Bernie, the ordinance would not have happened," Johnston, who owns the Lake View bar Sidetrack, said.

A native of the Lake View neighborhood that he served, Hansen was an alderman who knew "the nuts and bolts" of the job, said Tunney. His focus on the 44th Ward's infrastructure earned him the nickname of "alley alderman." As such, Hansen won't be remembered as "the most progressive politician" in many other city issues, Tunney acknowledged.

Indeed, Hansen was part of the so-called "Vrdolyak 29" voting bloc of City Council members committed to stifling proposals from Mayor Harold Washington, a development resulting in years of relative stagnancy at the City's legislative level.

But Hansen could "read the tea leaves" portending ever-increasing political power for Chicago's gay and lesbian community in the late-'80s to early-'90s, many of whom were livening in his ward, Johnston said.

In the early '80s, the city's gay community was relatively apathetic in civic issues, he added. The AIDS crisis, and the first political challenge by openly gay physician Sable to Hansen's incumbency in 1987, were among events that jump-charged the community politically. The gay community rallied behind Sable, who lost by only a few dozen votes.

"That was [the community's] first real foray into Chicago politics," said Garcia.

Sable's campaign ultimately inspired the creation of a number of local activist organizations. Sable lost again in 1991 by a wider margin, but Hansen knew after the first near-miss that he would have to be responsive to his gay constituency.

"He saw the writing on the wall and he responded fully," said Garcia.

Johnston admitted that activists at the time were embarrassed to have Hansen—who was both less eloquent than many politicians and well-known for being entrenched in Machine-politics—as their legislative advocate once Hansen became chief sponsor of the Ordinance.

"We wanted a sponsor who was younger, more hip and more with it than Bernie," Johnston told Windy City Times. "But as it was explained to us, we had no choice but to have him as the sponsor."

But Hansen knew how to grease the wheels that, after three tries, got the ordinance passed by the City Council. The alderman enlisted votes from several fellow Machine politicians at a time when Council members would not even admit to having any gay constituents.

Those politicians at first said that gay people "only lived in Bernie's ward," Johnston remembered.

Hansen even briefly spoke at the 1993 March on Washington. Garcia recalled hours of machinations to convince the alderman to get onstage and to then get him a speaking-slot.

"We knew that having him on the national stage would help him back home," Garcia said.

The former alderman for many years divided his year between Arizona and Illinois, but moved to the southwest permanently a few years ago. When Hansen returned to Chicago, he was a regular at Tunney's Ann Sather restaurant, reliably showing up at about 7 a.m. every morning.

"We talked often," Tunney said. "It's always good to have a relationship with your predecessor. It was a different day when he was alderman. He did a lot for Lake View.… I think Lake View is much better off because of Bernie's stewardship."


This article shared 1355 times since Fri Jul 30, 2021
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