On Oct. 17, Skokie's Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center hosted a "Legacy of Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement" panel discussion to kick off its latest exhibit, "Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement."
Award-winning journalist and author Erin Blakemore moderated the event. Blakemore has written for History.com, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic.
Panelists included Sidetrack co-owner, Equality Illinois co-founder and activist Art Johnston; Stonewall uprising participant/Philadelphia Gay News founder Mark Segal; and transgender Nigerian-American researcher, strategist, advocate and Point Foundation scholar Vanessa Warri.
Before the panel commenced, Segal chronicled what it was like to grow up in the 1950s and 1960s, when LGBTQ people were excluded from many career options. He said that, in 1969, he was 18 years old and had just moved from Philadelphia to New York City six weeks before the Stonewall uprising took place. Segal said he was present during the revolt, and described what happened that night and the ensuing nights. He said Marty Robinson gave him chalk and asked him to write on the buildings and sidewalks in the neighborhood "Tomorrow night Stonewall" to alert people to come and continue the protest.
Segal said that the Gay Liberation Front was the result of those ensuing weeks of protests and the organization was inclusive from the beginning. He said that they were "creating a community" of support on myriad issues and used direct action to accomplish their goals.
Johnston said he came to Chicago in 1972 to finish a teaching program at Northwestern University and had every intention of leaving as soon as he was done; however, that all changed when his theater department friends convinced him to go to the gay bars in Chicago. It was on that night that he met his longtime life partner, Jose "Pepe" Pena.
Gay bars were some of the very few places where the community felt safe back then, said Johnston. Going to gay bars sparked his involvement in the LGBTQ activist community. Johnston also learned that the mafia was responsible for keeping many gay bars open and running during that time.
Johnston also spoke about his bar being raided early on by the police and his subsequent arrest. He also said that only recently was he able to get his police record, adding that the building where he was jailed is now home to Town Hall ApartmentsChicago's first-ever, LGBTQ-friendly affordable senior-housing complex.
Warri said she was "the only queer child in a religiously devout home" and when she came out, "there was no place for me." She added that this resulted in her becoming an homeless runaway in San Francisco during her teen years. Warri spoke about coming into this advocacy work due to the LGBTQ elders who gave her a place to live. She is currently in the first year of a Ph.D. program at UCLA, in the social-welfare department.
Blakemore asked about the tension around the ways people protest for their civil rights and how they see it playing out now.
Segal reminded the audience that the fight for LGBTQ equality in the United States began in Chicago with Henry Gerber's Society for Human Rights in the mid-1920s. He also stated that, until the mid-1960s, most LGBTQ organizations/protests were subdued.
In terms of his own activism, Segal said that it began that night at Stonewall and has continued to this day. He said that the Gay Liberation Front "challenged every part of society." Segal called out the work that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera did with their organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to help LGBTQ youth without housing. He added that during a recent interview with the BBC the anchor pointed out to him that he was un-housed when he came to New York City which is something he never thought about himself before that moment.
"There is no wrong way to resist and, in fact, it takes multiple forms of resistance [to get ones message out]," said Warri.
Warri said she is "bringing that spirit of resistance into my work" as well as the important of using "evidence-based practices." She added that fighting against authoritative practices is also vital for progress to take place.
Blakemore asked Johnston about queer joy in the context of LGBTQ bars.
"It has been said that the most important things that have happened in the LGBTQ community happened in bars," said Johnston.
Johnston echoed Warri regarding the need for all forms of protest to affect positive change. He said that the best way to do this is focus on what is happening in one's own community and that is what they did when they protested anti-LGBTQ rights activist Anita Bryant at the historic Medinah Temple in 1977.
Blakemore asked what has been lost from history and what they want younger people to know about what came before them.
Segal spoke about how some states are mandating LGBTQ history in public-school curriculums, including Illinois, mentioning that his favorite LGBTQ person from United States history is Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.
Warri said how important it is to center LGBTQ elders because they "have been key players in where I am today." She added that their stories and wisdom need to be elevated and they should be able to "age in place."
Johnston said LGBTQ people "lack a systematic way of transmitting out history to our youth because [many of us] do not grow up in families with [LGBTQ elders as relatives]." He added learning how Jewish people pass down their history is something LGBTQ people should do.
Segal said he is Jewish and because of his grandmother, who left Russia during the pogroms (organized riots/killings) and how she became a suffragette shortly after arriving in the United States. He added that his grandmother brought him to his first civil-rights demonstration when he was growing up.
Warri said there needs to be better ways to transmit stories so they are passed down the generations.
Segal spoke about disrupting network TV shows beginning in 1972 and how important that was to get the message out to the masses and how much has changed since then with prominent people like Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper in people's homes every weekday.
Johnston added that media images of LGBTQ people, including commercials featuring same-sex couples and their families, have been very effective in changing people's minds, even more so than the activist work he has done for decades.
An audience Q&A session followed.
Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center Board of Trustees member Denise Foy and Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame representatives Gary Chichester, Kathy Caldwell and Rick Karlin also spoke.
The exhibit will run through May 8, 2022.