A friend of mine, Ron Pajak, recently celebrated the completion of his documentary film, Quearborn and Perversion (a slant on Dearborn & Division). The documentary, about gay and lesbian history in Chicago from 1924-1970, was screened a few weekends ago at the Music Box. He worked on the film for 10 years and the archival footage he assembled into a narrative is amazing.
And I couldn't believe how Ghosts of Chicago it was.
In the 20's and 30's the neighborhood around the Water Tower was all houses and storefronts.
This area was considered the Greenwich Village of Chicago. The neighborhood was called "Towertown" and it was where many artists, bohemians, and gays and lesbians lived.
At a certain point in time, IL was the only state in the nation where homosexuality was legal. Even so, abuse towards gays and lesbians in Chicago was extreme. Hidden bars were the only places where gays and lesbians could meet. Often these were bars with no windows in them or with windows that were painted black, so that the places looked abandoned. They were pretty dark and drab inside, too. Dancing was not allowed. When gays and lesbians were found dancing, they were arrested, and the bars closed down. Police would hang around places they suspected of being gay and lesbian bars. The police would wait outside a bar as people were leaving, and harrass them. If you were a woman, you had to be wearing at least three pieces of "feminine" clothing, or you were taken to jail. Pants with zippers were considered "male". The more butch women would often go into the bathroom and change out of a skirt or dress into pants and shirts and then change again before leaving the bar.
One of the women interviewed, a former bar owner, said that the bars had to pay the police and "the syndicate" like clockwork. She said that people today say the syndicate doesn't exist, but she is certain it still runs things in Chicago. There were regular raids on gay and lesbian bars -- in a particularly contemptible one, hundreds were arrested and their names and professions were printed in the newspaper the following day. Over a hundred were teachers. Careers were ruined. One of the men interviewed, who had been a school principal for decades, lost his job because of the incident.
In a lighter moment, there is an interview in the film with Studs Terkel that is hilarious. He retells the story of an evening that he and some friends went out to a bar, but they didn't realize it was a lesbian bar, and one of his friends tried to cut in and dance with one of the women. He also said that Pearl Hart, who spent 61 years as a lawyer and is known as a tireless defender of the oppressed, "was one of the greatest people I've ever known." Hart represented children, women, immigrants, and gays and lesbians, often without charging a fee, or for only a small fee. Terkel, a long-time friend of Hart's and fellow advocate for social justice, led the campaign to try to win a seat for Hart on the City Council, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Hart was the first woman in Chicago to ever be appointed as Public Defender in the Morals Court.
The Chicago History Museum co-produced the film and it is a remarkable contribution to the Museum, as well as a true gift to the gay and lesbian community.