One-term Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, the city's first and still-only female mayor, died Nov. 14 at age 81, according to her family.
Byrne was the first Chicago mayor to show support for the gay community. She issued an executive order banning discrimination in city employment and hiring, spoke out against police raids on gay bars, and she backed Chicago's gay-rights ordinance during her term in office, which lasted 1979-1983.
After she lost re-election, she rode three times in a convertible in the city's Pride Parade. Rich Pfeiffer, Pride Parade Coordinator since the 1970s, said she was in the 1983 parade, soon after leaving office, and then again in 1984 and 1985.
"Although there had been an alderman and state rep in previous parades, Jane was the first high-profile politician to appear in the parade," Pfeiffer said. "In fact, she called me in 1983 saying that she would like to be in the parade. So we had her near the front. Although many people are used to elected officials in the Pride Parades, it was a very big deal back in that era! We had originally invited her back in 1981. She was unable to attend, but did send us the Gay Pride Parade Day proclamation.
"When word spread that she was going to be in the parade, several more elected officials called to participate … and as you know in the years following that, more and more elected officials began participating, and mayors that came after her issued Pride Week and later Pride Month proclamations. Richard M. Daley was the first 'seated' mayor to participate in the parade in 1989 and then returned in 1990. After that we were told that he had an agreement with his wife Maggie to take Sundays off."
In support of the city's gay-rights bill, Byrne said: "There have been abuses and there has been discrimination, and I think we all believe in the Constitution, and if we all believe we are created equal regardless of race, color, or [sexual] preference, then it's time we put it on the books," according to an Aug. 31, 1979 Chicago Tribune article.
Byrne also provided the first City Hall press space for a gay newspaper, for GayLife reporter Steve Kulieke.
But Byrne also angered many progressives by turning her back on some of the reforms they sought, and she lost a three-way primary race for mayor in 1983 to Harold Washington.
When Byrne sought a come-back in the 1987 mayoral race, the gay community was split, causing a lot of heated debates. Both candidates lobbied heavily for the gay vote, including at the Prairie State Democratic Club, a gay political group.
One flier compared Byrne's accomplishments on gay rights to Washington's. Put out by a progressive, pro-Washington group, the flier was titled "For Lesbians and Gay Men, The Record is Clear," noting that Washington had done more than Byrne for the community.
Byrne's interactions with the Chicago LGBT community are documented in two books I wrote with Owen Keehnen, Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow and Jim Flint: The Boy from Peoria. Both Flint and Renslow had numerous interactions with Byrne,
Steve Kulieke, for the book Leatherman, said of Byrne's move to give GayLife press access: "She tried to ban the Chicago Tribune from the pressroom because she didn't like what they were reporting. That did not go well, so to smooth things over ... [she] invited more papers, including GayLife, to have a desk. There is a picture of me in GayLife carrying my IBM Selectric typewriter in City Hall. I got interviewed by radio and other media. They asked me what it was like to be the first gay reporter in City Hall. I said, 'I hardly think in the long proud history of the Chicago press I am the first to be gay, but I am the first representing a gay paper.' It was an exciting time."
In 1981, Byrne became the first Chicago mayor to declare "Gay Pride Parade Day" in the city. The date was June 28. The proclamation came June 5 in response to a request from the Gay and Lesbian Pride Week Planning Committee, according to a report by Kulieke in GayLife's issue of June 12. Byrne sent her regrets for not being able to be in the parade itself, but even her proclamation was groundbreaking: It was among the first such actions nationally, at either the city or state level.
In 1982, gay businessman and publisher Chuck Renslow tried to get an interview with Byrne for his GayLife newspaper. Kulieke did the interview, and Renslow sat in. It is unclear whose idea it was, but at some point Renslow asked if Byrne would sign an executive order banning anti-gay discrimination in city government jobs and services. "She said yes, and did so the next month for gay pride, in June 1982."
Renslow proudly announced the coup in a memo sent June 22 on GayLife stationery, inviting people to a June 24 reception at the Oasis, 111 W. Hubbard St., to celebrate the historic order. The Byrne interview was in the next issue of GayLife.
The Byrne executive order, dated June 18, 1982, was effective immediately and said in part: "I, Jane M. Byrne ... do hereby order and direct that no City department, agency, commission or its employees or agents shall discriminate against any person on account of sexual orientation or affectional preference in any matter concerning hiring or employment, housing, credit, contract provisions, or in the provision of services."
Byrne's interactions with the gay community were also documented in Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria. During Mayor Michael Bilandic's 1979 election effort, when he was facing off against Byrne, Flint's Baton Show Lounge was raided. This was considered a common thing during election season, as politicians tried to show they were for law and order and cleaning up the "deviates."
In early February, Flint and one of his performers were arrested. The New Flight was raided the same night, and the Chatterbox was next. These incidents were reported in Ira Jones' "Ira's Eye on Chicago" column in the GayLife edition of Feb. 16, 1979.
"Is there any coincidence that gay bars are always raided approximately 30 days before every election in Chicago?" questioned GayLife Publisher Grant Ford in the same edition.
The arrests received TV and print news coverage, and Howard Goodman, owner of the New Flight, hosted a meeting at My Brother's Place, a gay restaurant at 111 W. Hubbard St. Other gay business owners and media attended, and as a result, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago appointed an ad hoc committee to investigate the incidents.
Raids that occurred between May 12 and 20 were covered by Stephen Kulieke for GayLife's May 25, 1979, edition: "Carol's Speakeasy at 1335 N. Wells was the site of the most serious police action when eleven men were arrested for disorderly conduct" in the early morning hours of May 19. At around 1:15 a.m., the police entered the bar to check for underage drinkers. But then the doors were locked and patrons were told they could leave shortly. Soon, the floodlights were switched on and the estimated 550 people were told, "It would be to your advantage to leave."
The match had struck kindling. Within a week, plans were taking shape for a march against police harassment.
The timing was also politically important, since the raids had taken place just one month after Byrne took office April 16, 1979. Many gays had backed Byrne's election as a change from business as usual, and they were upset that these crackdowns now came in the early weeks of the new administration. A March 2, 1979, GayLife report on Byrne's election win was titled "Gays cheer news of Byrne upset," and it said Byrne "sought for and received considerable support from Chicago's active gay community."
On May 19, a few hours after the Carol's raid, about 75 people gathered at the Belmont Avenue and Broadway office of Dignity, Chicago's gay Catholic group, to plan a response to the raids. They called for a May 21 community-wide meeting.
At that May 21 meeting at Second Unitarian Church, 656 W. Barry, hosted by the citywide Gay and Lesbian Coalition, a group of about 350 people voted overwhelmingly to stage a march Tuesday, June 5, against the police harassment. An ad hoc committee was formed, "Gays and Lesbians for Action," to organize the protest. Flint and Doris Shane, a supervisor at a health-care facility, were selected to co-chair the group. More than 100 volunteers met at the Baton on May 24, and Flint and Shane held a news conference May 25 at the Executive House hotel, 71 E. Wacker Dr.
GayLife Publisher Grant Ford [Renslow later purchased GayLife from Ford] reported at the May 21 meeting that he had contacted Mayor Byrne's office and was told Byrne would not tolerate police harassment, and that she would launch an investigation about the recent raids.
The June 1, 1979, issue of GayLife reported on plans for the nonviolent march: "In response to Mayor Jane Byrne's now famous campaign slogan 'One Chicago,' the planners chose 'One Chicago for Gays and Lesbians Also' as the motto for the march. Earlier last week leaders attended the Chicago Police Board meeting to raise some probing questions about recent police bar raids, and alleged use of excessive force, entrapment and selective arrests in dealing with gay businesses and their patrons."
The Police Board meeting took place May 22, and John Donovan from Mayor Byrne's office also attended. GayLife reported May 25 that the meeting "was in great contrast to the stormy meeting held May 16 between 18th District Commander Joseph McCarthy and Joe Murray of the 13th District Gay Caucus."
Chief of Patrol Earl Johnson said he will "discipline all officers who harassed, whether physically or verbally," patrons at the bars. James Casey of the Office of Professional Standards said he would investigate cases of alleged police abuse. Gay attorney Larry Rolla suggested that the police have sensitivity training on gay issues, and Donovan pledged the mayor's support for such a program (which did in fact happen).
The June 5 march began at Bughouse Square (formally known as Washington Square Park), on the corner of Walton and Clark streets, at 6 p.m., and marchers headed south on Clark to the Daley Center Plaza for a rally. GayLife's June 8 edition estimated there were 2,000 participants, including 44th Ward Ald. Bruce Young.
Before the march, representatives from Gays and Lesbians for Action also had an extended discussion with Mayor Byrne on a wide range of grievances. Co-chair Doris Shane said Byrne "was concerned enough to call us in before the march. She assured us she was asking for investigations of the harassment charges and allowed real openness to gay problems."
While Jane Byrne's administration dramatically reduced the number of raids on gay bars, there were still some incidents that outraged the community.
During a raid on a predominantly African-American gay bar, the Rialto Tap, 14 W. Van Buren St., Dec. 28, 1979, about 100 men were arrested on various charges of prostitution. In a Jan. 4, 1980, GayLife cover story, Kulieke reported that Byrne responded "with strong words of criticism which received extensive coverage on local TV and radio and in the daily papers."
Byrne said the police energies would be more wisely spent on "true crime." Kulieke also reported a police source as saying Byrne had sent a memo on the topic to the police and that there would be upcoming meetings between the police and the gay community.
Danny Jordan, a former Chicagoan, emailed his memories of Byrne's time in office. He had a unique perspective: his partner, Chet Wiziecki, who died in 2001, was Byrne's hair dresser.
"Most likely, the gay man with the most quality access to Jane, both before and after the election, was Chet, her beautician," Jodan said. "When I first saw Jane, my immediate reaction was that she needed a makeover if she wanted every chance of winning the election. So, I sent her a letter outlining what I thought and who could best do that for her, of course it was Chet at Head West on Armitage. About three weeks after sending the letter, Chet received a call at the shop, it was Jane. She made an appointment, Chet worked his magic in the shop, in the next day or two her new look was in the news. It really did 'take ten years' off her appearance and totally updated her from frump to 'with it'. After that, her hair was done at her campaign office, her apartment or at City Hall office. Chet was no shrinking violet when it came to being gay and how that impacted a life, how we were treated, how we lived and what we wanted. I'm sure that the conversations between them were full of all kinds of content as most are between a beautician and client.
"About three or four weeks after Jane's initial appointment, I received a call from her assistant with an invitation to come down to Jane's campaign office, she wanted to talk. Jane thanked me for the letter and asked me what I thought the problems were in Chicago, a loaded question. My response was that people were afraid, afraid to use the subway, to use the 'L' platforms, to go downtown to a movie, of getting carjacked or robbed in their alleys, to walk a street at night, etc., also that the city was dirty, very dirty. She asked me what I thought could be a campaign slogan and I replied 'A city without fear." She liked it. The phrase was never widely used but Jane did often say in different ways that we must make Chicago a city without fear. The first time I heard it, I knew that she meant it. After being elected, Jane did launch efforts to 'clean up' the city with regards to both crime and physically. Of course, I like to think that that conversation began something positive and concrete and that knowing both me and Chet 'as a couple' had influenced her, in a small way, to better support our community."
After Byrne was ousted from City Hall in 1983, she attended gay events and AIDS benefits, but she did not have a strong political voice in subsequent years. At one point, she reverted to her religion when asked about supporting gay rights, saying she would have to consult with her pastor. Many in the gay community felt it was a betrayal of her earlier support for gay rights.