Back in October, the Newberry Library and the Chicago Historical Society launched Outspoken, an exhibit and public symposium series that explore Chicago's long free speech tradition. The demands of labor movements, the abortion debate, the fight for equal marriage rights are only a few of the many forms of expression covered by the library's elaborate ground floor display. On Dec. 11, the program's invited speaker was David K. Johnson, historian and author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Entitled Free Speech and the Kids of Fairytown, his presentation traced the origins of Chicago's gay community.
In early twentieth century, the Near North Side neighborhood around Bughouse Square ( now Washington Square Park, directly in front of the Newberry ) was the heart of bohemian culture in Chicago. Artists, novelists, and journalists were among those who congregated and mingled there, and the boarding houses that lined the square also provided gay men with anonymity and relative safety. Unfortunately, Johnson's research, based primarily on recently discovered work by graduate students of the time, reveals little information about the presence of lesbians.
Consulting contemporary sources, it is interesting to note that the entry for Bughouse Square in the voluminous Chicago Encyclopedia ( developed by the Newberry itself, published this fall ) mentions the place's bohemian past along with its soapbox tradition, but does not include any reference to the gay subculture.
In 1911, concerned by female prostitution and other 'deviant' behaviors, city officials decided to investigate the growing popularity of the square. They set up a vice-commission of so-called 'moral reformers', one of whom was the president of Northwestern University. Investigators soon discovered the gay underworld, which they viewed as a type of urban depravity. Although the vice-commission stopped short of treating homosexuality as a medical problem, it nevertheless warned of its criminal implications.
Sociology students from the University of Chicago are also among those who paid particular attention to the emerging gay culture and its geographical development. While Bughouse Square attracted gay men at night, Oak Street Beach and Tower Town ( east of Water Tower ) became favorite locations for daytime leisure and encounters. A small number of downtown businesses were known to cater especially to gay and lesbian patrons. One of them, Thompson's Cafeteria, located at Michigan and Ohio, may very well have been the site of some of the interviews conducted by the graduate students.
Further south, department stores like Marshall Field's on State street gave gay men new venues where they could stroll and flirt without being accused of—or arrested for—loitering. Some were even employed as sales clerks. Johnson said the lucky ones who landed those jobs were commonly referred to as 'counter jumpers'.
Partly as a result of the Depression and its inherent insecurities, the 1930s saw a crackdown on gay culture. Individuals and establishments were repeatedly targeted. Groups and behaviors that had previously been accepted or simply ignored were now monitored closely. This had a chilling effect on how and where gay people associated and assembled. Support for academic research of the 'homosexual lifestyle' eroded. Bughouse Square gradually lost its beacon status.
But the repression and forced fragmentation of the gay community did not lead to its demise. In time, and with the influx of successive waves of immigration, the city grew more tolerant of diversity. Johnson cited local and national newspaper headlines that celebrated Chicago's 'fairies' and read excerpts that lauded the colorful character of its gay culture.
Fittingly, in 1970, Bughouse Square was chosen as the starting point for Chicago's first gay liberation march. The peaceful procession's final destination was City Hall, where participants posted their list of demands. While today's Gay Pride Parade no longer goes there, City Hall certainly seems to represent the next step in the gay movement's walk toward equality.