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LGBT culture in Chicago

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Chicago has long had a gay neighborhood. Beginning in the 1920s there was active homosexual nightlife in Towertown, adjacent to the Water Tower. Increasing rents forced gay-friendly establishments steadily northwards, moving through Old Town and Lincoln Park along Clark Street and on to Boystown.

Boystown presently serves as the best-known Chicago gayborhood and as a center of its LGBT culture.[1] In recent years, the area has been criticized for focusing on "affluent white gay men," rather than the broader LGBT community.[2] Gentrification efforts have pushed many LGBT people to reside ever further north into Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park.[3]


Skyline of Chicago

The LGBT community in Chicago is among the most prominent ones especially for the Midwest region in the United States among San Francisco and New York City and holds a significant role in the progression of gay rights in the US. Chicago is the third biggest city in the US and has a population of around 3 million. Around 150,000 of those people identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, questioning, or other.[4]

19th century[edit]

In the late 19th century, gay culture was considered illegal, and any suspicion was reported to the authorities and swiftly dealt with. Being open with sexuality at the time would most likely lead to negative consequences.

In 1889, social reformer and activist Jane Addams opened Chicago's first settlement house, the Chicago Hull House. The purpose of it was to offer social reform for the community during the Gilded Age when many immigrants required help. Jane Addams had at least two same sex relationships over a long period of time. One of them was with Mary Rozet Smith, a Chicago born philanthropist.[5][6]

20th century[edit]

Pansy Craze:[7]

The early 1900s proved to be explosive for Chicago as a whole and other urban neighborhoods in the United States. This was a time period during the 1920s and 1930s called the Pansy Craze when LBGTQ visibility greatly opened up.[7] A reason that this happened was due to prohibition laws restricting people's ability to consume alcohol. Underground gay culture massively grew in the city and actually became a lot more open for a brief period of time. Gay cabarets were established and nightclubs had a steady demand. By the 1930s there were at least 35 pansy parlors. These clubs got so packed that some of them, like "Diamond Lil's" had to turn people away.[8]

In 1924, the first American gay rights organization called "The Society for Human Rights" was established by a German immigrant and Chicago resident Henry Gerber. Gerber was inspired by similar institutions back in Germany and wanted to recreate one in Chicago. Its purpose was to defend the rights of people who have disabilities or were abused. On December 10, 1924, the state of Illinois officially recognized the society. However, it was shut down not long after, but it made its impact as gay and lesbians were seen to be more open near the Magnificent Mile area.[9]

As the second half of the 20th century rolled around, gay communities started to be established centering around Clark Street. These neighborhoods would later develop into Boystown (Northalsted) and Andersonville.[10] Then on July 28, 1961, Illinois became the first state to abolish sodomy laws as part of a package to revise old criminal laws.[11] Other states followed after like Connecticut in 1971, but Illinois was at least a decade ahead. Along with the increased population of lesbians and gays came increasingly frequent police raids which led to arrests for actions such as cross dressing. Groups like the Mattachine Society attempted to meet with the police and negotiate the arrests, but to no avail.[12]

In 1969, Baton Show Lounge was founded in River North.[13][14][15] In 1970, the Bijou Theater was opened in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood.

In 1970, another pro LGBT group University of Chicago-based Chicago Gay Liberation protested against same sex dancing by organizing dances around the city to spread awareness.[16][17][18] That same year, Chicago held its pride parade in honor of the three-day long Stonewall riots that took place in Chicago. Mostly acting as a political march, only 150 were in attendance. Since then, it has become a powerful symbol and annual celebration.

In April 1983, Harold Washington was elected Mayor of Chicago, making him the first African American mayor of Chicago.[19] Besides that, however, Washington greatly promoted and pushed for LGBT rights. He addressed gay rallies and pushed forward proactive legislation among other forms of activism. His Human Rights Ordinance passed in 1988, which set a new precedent for equal rights, but he was unable to see it in action as he died on November 25, 1987.[16]

It is important to know that during the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was at its peak in the United States. This very much applies to Chicago as it is a major urban center. On September 9, 1985, the Chicago House was incorporated into Illinois as a project to house those suffering from the disease. A few years later, Chicago honors the victims of AIDS through "The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt" which can be found in Navy Pier. In June 2021, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the AIDS Garden Chicago; the park officially opened on June 2, 2022.

LGBT newspaper Windy City Times published its first issue on September 26, 1985 in Chicago.[20][21] The Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame was established in 1991.

In 1993, a community that is present to this day called the Center on Halsted opened. Located in Lakeview, it provides many programs and services for the LGBT community. The Center on Halsted has now also transformed more broadly into a recreational space.[22]

Center on Halsted

21st century[edit]

In 2004 Illinois fully banned discrimination based on sexual orientation through the Illinois Human Rights Act. In 2007, the Center on Halsted opened its doors on Halsted Street and Waveland Avenue, bringing in over one thousand people per day.[23]

The 2006 Gay Games were held in Chicago from July 15 – July 22, 2006.

Illinois in the 21st century passes a flurry of acts that ensure LGBT rights even further. In 2008, legislators agreed that same-sex couples could now make their own decisions regarding health in most circumstances. In 2010, the Safe School Improvement Act was passed, its purpose being to prohibit any form of bullying or violence on the basis of discrimination of any kind, including sexual and gender identity. Later in 2013, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed off on the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act. In doing this, Illinois becomes the 16th state to fully allow and embrace same-sex marriage. The first couple to do so were Vernita Gray, and her partner, Patricia Ewert, on November 27, 2013.[16]

Recently, in 2019, Lori Lightfoot became at age 56 the first black woman and gay mayor of Chicago. She was inaugurated on May 20, 2019.[19]

In June 2019, the Midwest's first drag-centered festival, Chicago Is a Drag Festival, was founded.[24][25]

Chicago, although not the most affluent LGBT affiliated city, still has key pieces of history that influenced the nation. Currently, Chicago is at its peak in terms of LGBT population and influence.

LGBT neighborhoods of Chicago[edit]

Chicago is the 3rd largest city in the United States, home to around 2.7 million residents, being made up of 172 neighborhoods. All of the neighborhoods hold various genders, races, and beliefs, and 4 of them have a large LGBT presence. Chicago has long had a rich history of gay neighborhoods, dating back to the early 1920s when being in the LGBT community was against the law. At the same time, gay nightlife grew at a rapid pace in Chicago causing an increase in rent and forcing gay-friendly establishments to move north. The gay-friendly establishments settled in neighborhoods like Boystown, Andersonville, Uptown, and Edgewater.[26]


Northalsted, commonly known as Boystown, is one of the largest LGBT neighborhoods in the United States, leading the way for the Chicago neighborhoods. Boystown is a young and upcoming neighborhood in Chicago that has nightclubs, coffee shops, trendy LGBT owned stores, and the annual pride parade of Chicago that has been a tradition since 1971.[27]

Boystown hosts a pride parade on the last Sunday of June in the heart of the neighborhood every summer to represent everyone in the LGBT community. Families, friends, members, and allies all meet to celebrate their pride. Originally the parade was started in 1970 as a march from Washington Square Park to the water tower, but since then it has taken different routes. The parade now passes through other neighborhoods that are now picking up the tradition of holding the parade.[27]

The nightlife in Boystown ranges from the Legacy Walk, the world's only outdoor LGBT history museum, all the way to 24/7 nightclubs with karaoke parties, drag shows, dance floors, dive bars, and more. As Boystown was one of the first known LGBT neighborhoods, it became the first neighborhood to adapt the festive pride ambiance to the city. The streets are lined with pride flags, rainbow crosswalks, and colorful banners as members and allies show support.


Andersonville, Chicago owns the second largest gay and lesbian community in Chicago only behind Boystown. The neighborhood is gifted with its Swedish background, always busy main street and historic architecture. The beautiful Northside neighborhood is within walking distance from the beach and a short car ride from the loop in the downtown area. Andersonville continues to be an action-packed neighborhood that has events and opportunities for everything.

The neighborhood is recognized as the "shop local capital of Chicago" with small businesses on every corner and straight away. LGBT Pride is everywhere in the neighborhood in the form of pride flags and other meaningful banners, but the most pride is shown in early June at Andersonville. The neighborhood hosts an annual midsommarfest, which is one of the most popular street festivals in all of the Chicagoland area. The festival is a jumpstart to the summer, and an intro to all of the street festivals in the Chicago summer heat.[28] Midsommarfest is a yearly event that brings together passionate Chicagoans for a fun-filled weekend. It's a super diverse festival with delicious international food, lively entertainment, talented artisans and vendors, and tons of interactive activities for all types of people. It brings the old-world Swedish traditions with the Maypole dancing and flavorful international cuisine, while being a culture and pride festival all in one.


The Chicago neighborhood of Uptown is home to the best views in the city along with elite nightlife. The neighborhood is on Lake Michigan, which is where the fun and exciting aspect of Uptown begins. Uptown is the neighborhood for anyone who loves bars, live music, and nightlife. Visitors can enjoy sipping delicious cocktails on the patio at Big Chicks, a fantastic LGBTQ restaurant bar-gallery with a welcoming atmosphere and great weekly specials. The neighborhood has loads of drag queen artistry, The Baton Show Lounge is a must-visit. It's a beloved spot in Chicago that is a staple of Uptown. Many shows are performed at the Pride Arts Center nightly, where you can experience queer theater, movies, and comedy that resonates with all audiences. Uptown also offers a mix of Art Deco and Prairie School architecture, as well as authentic Asian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, and Indian eateries and grocery stores. The biggest attraction of the neighborhood is the views at beautiful beachfront parks and the hidden gem that is Graceland Cemetery.[29]

Uptown is a part of the neighboring festivals and parades but doesn't have one of its own. The neighborhood is known to be very connected to the adjacent neighborhoods with all the same ideas. Travel guides will recommend putting Uptown at the top of the list whether that is for the views or the LGBT pride.


Edgewater is a diverse mix of cuisine and attractions. As food is not related to the LGBT community, the restaurants very much are in Edgewater. The neighborhood holds the most gay restaurants in the city of Chicago along with a variety of activities to enjoy your stay.[26]

The city is famous for its incredible storefront theater scene that peaks in Edgewater, where you can witness mind-blowing acting and innovative productions in intimate 50–100 seat theaters. Edgewater is a neighborhood that's buzzing with theater companies, making it a hotspot for the kind of theater that has put Chicago on the map.[26] Some of the most popular in Edgewater include The Raven Theater on Clark Street, the Rivendell and Steep Theatre companies, and the NeoFuturists on Ashland Avenue.

Outside Neighborhoods[edit]

The city of Chicago is diverse in all ways, and the city shows that in different ways. As the north side of the city is rich with LGBT pride, the other parts of the city have pride as well. Representation is not as common in other parts, so the Chicago government works on the equitability of those neighborhoods so people can feel safe.


In 1961 Illinois was the first state to repeal its sodomy law. Effective LGBT political involvement began in the 1960s alongside the civil rights movement, with organizations such as the Chicago Gay Liberation Network, Mattachine Midwest, and ACT UP/Chicago. Along with laws that went against the discrimination of the LGBT community and laws that supported the community.

In 1965, Mattachine Midwest was founded as a gay rights organization following the Fun Lounge police raid the previous year. This organization was the first enduring gay rights organization, for it lasted until 1986. The Mattachine Midwest contributed both politically and socially to help the discrimination against LGBT groups. They have brought up the issues of entrapments and bar raids to police officers and superintendents, and its members have voted for political candidates. The organization also created a monthly newsletter that provided LGBT groups in Chicago sources of gay community news, and provided a phone number for the LGBT community to find legal, medical, counseling, employment or religious help if needed. These contributions led Mattachine Midwest to the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.[30]

The Chicago Gay and Lesbian Democrats was the main LGBT political group of the 1980s. LGBTinterest groups and the Democratic Party have facilitated LGBT political involvement in Chicago.[31]

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Chuck Renslow was one of the main pioneers for Chicago's LGBT community through his advocacy for inclusion, and fought alongside the Democratic party to push for non-discrimination among LGBT individuals in Chicago. He had served eight years as a Democratic precinct captain and was a delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention.[32] Renslow was also widely known for his long-running leather bar, which was also one of the first opened in Chicago, and his world-renowned provocative male photography that earned him a spot in the Chicago LGBT Hall Of Fame.[33]

In 1983, Mayor of Chicago candidate Jane Byrne promised to support LGBT issues, so the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Democrats endorsed Byrne. However Harold Washington won the Democratic Party primary. At that point the LGBT voters began to support Washington, and they helped him win the general election. Before the election, Washington served in the Illinois State Senate and the Illinois House of Representatives from 1965 to 1976. He also served in the U.S Congress from 1981 to 1983.[34] With the help of LGBT voters, Washington became the first African American elected as Chicago's mayor. Throughout his term, Washington has openly shown his support for the LGBT community, he was the first Chicago mayor to welcome members of the LGBT community to city hall. He also went to many LGBT events such as the Chicago Pride Parade, the LGBT civil-rights rally, IVI-IPO Glynn Sudberry Awards dinner in 1985 and Mattachine Midwest Anniversary Dinner in 1986.[35] Harold Washington's great contribution to the LGBT community earned him a spot in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame. LGBT voters supported Washington during his re-election in 1987 because of how he supported LGBT causes and criticized homophobia during his previous term.[31]

ACT UP/Chicago was an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with AIDS. It often criticized the Mayor of Chicago Richard M. Daley.[36] It later became a part of the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame for actively challenging the institutional response to AIDS and the discrimination against LGBT groups.

Originally called the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network in 1988 and later changed to the Gay Liberation Network in 2004, the GLN(Gay Liberation Network) was an organization founded in Chicago, Illinois. The co-founder of the organization is Andy Thayer, an LGBT rights activist. The organization was formed after the murder of Matthew Shepard and the three anti-gay bashing in Chicago.[37] The GLN were active in protestings against discrimination targeting the LGBT communities and fighting for equality and rights for the community. In the beginning of 2000, the group protested against the Chicago Police Department, for discrimination against the LGBT community and colored people during arrests of LGBT citizens.They contributed greatly to the passing of SB 10 in Illinois in November 2013, which legalized the same-sex marriage.

In 2019, Lori. E Lightfoot was elected as 56th mayor of Chicago, being the first Black woman and openly gay person to serve in this position. Before being elected as the mayor, Lightfoot served as the President of the Chicago Police Board and chaired the Police Accountability Task Force, she also worked as a senior equity partner in the Litigation and Conflict Resolution Group at Mayer Brown.[38] During her term, she introduced a resolution that acknowledges LGBT businesses and helps to promote them. "My administration is committed to providing historically underrepresented business owners equal opportunities to compete for and earn City work — whether this applies to race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation…This resolution demonstrates our dedication to providing access to resources that will help our LGBT businesses grow and succeed." Her resolution will make sure the Department of Procurement Services to be inclusive and help LGBT businesses to get their opportunity to work with the city.[39]

As time progressed, there had been more and more involvement of the LGBT community in politics. In 2023, with nine openly LGBT council members– Timmy Knudsen, Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, Lamont Robinson, Jessie Fuentes, Bennett Lawson, Maria Hadden, Ray Lopez, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez –the Chicago City Council became the first city council to have the highest number of LGBT identifying officials in all of the United States. "This is a great thing because it makes the city of Chicago more reflective of the true diversity in our neighborhoods," Lopez, who will now hold the most senior position within the caucus, commented, "Issues that have long gone unresolved or unconsidered simply because they weren't someone else's issues may actually be addressed."[40]

Notable people[edit]

Many individuals have lived in or around the City of Chicago as well as affecting or identifying in the queer community have impacted the city.

Notable drag performers from Chicago include:

Jane Addams[edit]

Through the early 1900s, LGBT leader Jane Addams brought many citizens together. Jane Addams was born September 6, 1860, in Cedarville Illinois. She was most likely best known as a co-founder of Hull House in Chicago, one of the first social foundations in North America.[41] The settlement included 13 buildings and a playground. Addams spent her time after her father's death in 1881 tending to this settlement and using it best to amplify help for the Chicago community and beyond. The Hull House offered college-level courses and was an outlet for working girls as it held a nursery, gymnasium, and community kitchen. This eventually took to tending to the immigrants as it housed many unfortunate enough to afford housing for the time being, but this wasn't the end to Addams's story.

As suffering and death spread in Chicago due to tight living quarters such as tenement housing and dangerous factory work, Addams jumped at the opportunity. As she was known for helping people. She strove for additional justice including tenement housing regulations, an 8-hour factory working cap, and thorough inspection of their workplaces. She was described as overly active whenever trouble struck. This led her to become the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.[41]

Jane Addams was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2008. While she and her life partner Mary Rozet Smith spent 35 years romantically together, According to the Hull House Museum Addams was better described as "queer" rather than under the terms of "gay" or "lesbian", due to the widespread sexuality that the term queer covers.[42] Same-sex marriage in Chicago was just legalized in 2013 according to the Chicago Tribune, So marriage for Addams was never an option. Still, they managed a relationship over three decades.[42]

Howard Brown Health[edit]

Howard Brown Health Center is a non-profit LGBT healthcare and social services provider. Howard Brown Health was founded in 1974 by Chicago-based organizers and researchers and named after Doctor Howard Junior Brown as he helped change the image of queer by coming out publicly in 1973.[43] Howard Brown Health in as one of the first gay-focused health centers in the nation according to their 'I am HBHC' annual report.[44]

As the AIDS crisis struck in the early 1980s, a little more than 1000 people in the U.S. died due to the deadly effects of the illness.[45] While suffering spread among major cities, Chicago included, Howard Brown became an outlet as they implemented the City of Chicago's AIDS Hotline in 1975.[43] The hotline was mainly run by the staff and various volunteers as it was operating 24 hours a day.[46]

In 1991 Howard Brown was Inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame as they were recognized for their potential and good doing for the Queer communities health overall. Their Capital Campaign resulted in a $3.5 million state-of-the-art facility which allowed them to build their establishment further.[44]

Howard Brown also continued to open The Brown Elephant in the late 1980s, a prominent retail clothing store connected directly to Howard Brown Health. With its proceed feeling into patient care, Brown Elephant Resale directly funds services for more than 50% of uninsured patients, or patients who are generally under-insured with medical services.[47] The Brown Elephant has also been named best resale shop in the Chicago Reader's "Best of Chicago" since the year 2010.

Dom Orejudos[edit]

Dom Orejudos, a ballet dancer, choreographer, and artist, was a role model for many as he fit the minority of his field of expertise. After attending Ellis-DuBulay School of Ballet, Orejudos was part of the Illinois Ballet Company. He later resigned but carried on his passion as he choreographed for around 20 ballet companies.[48] A Tribune critic in 1959 called him "a performer of elasticity and charm" and told him his dancing had an unmistakable personality to it.[49] These shows included Snow White, Thais, and The Persistent Image, but his ballet The Charioteer later got major recognition for inaugurating the first color telecast of WTTW in Chicago. Their station received three Emmys awards for the production and presentation.[48]

Dom Orejudos wasn't just claimed "inventive" for his performance on the stage, but also his performance on paper as his imagination dealt with fantasy subjects. All of these subjects were signed "Etienne", his other widely-known artist name. Orejudos's fantasy art had been displayed on posters and magazines for decades due to the different approaches he took to translate his sexuality on paper. His most famous collection, known for its use of leather clothing, details the male body as it enhances their appearance for a factor of intrigue. When asked about his work he responded; "I just draw erotic fantasies", yet what he didn't know is that these are the types of male fantasies that queer men took as their expressions and inspirations.[49] He and his business partner Chuck Renslow, and his long-lived companion, carried on to operate several businesses including International Mr. Leather and the Gold Coast Bar.[49][33]

After a long battle with AIDS Dom (Etienne) Orejudos died at home in Boulder, Colorado in 1991 at the age of 58. He was accompanied there by his brother Gill Orejudos as his work thereafter continued to be prominent in gay culture.[48]

Danny Sotomayor[edit]

Daniel Sotomayor, a resident of Chicago of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, was born in 1958. He graduated from the American Academy of Art with a major in graphic design as he dove into his passion for cartooning, but his life stopped short as he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, redirecting Sotomayor's journey as an artist.[50]

As his life was foreshortened, Sotomayor became overly involved with Chicago activists and portrayed himself as an essential figure in the ACTUP/Chicago movement.[45] Fueled by his anger, he created graphics and designs to help support the organization. He then became recognized as the first openly gay, openly HIV-positive cartoon artist in the nation, and used his art as an outlet for the anger and emotion he withheld. This included art pieces covering modern medicine, public policy, law enforcement, family dynamics, popular culture, and of course the gay community that he lived in.[51]

Daniel Sotomayor was widely known for his public confrontations with Mayor Richard M. Dailey of Chicago while he made headlines in 1990 for his banner stating "We demand equal healthcare now", and "Daily tell the truth about AIDS".[51] Sotomayor attempted to implement the city's AIDS plan, by bringing attention to inadequate education, prevention, and media plans according to the LGBT Hall of Fame.[51]

On February 2, 1992, Sotomayor received an "Alongi Award" in recognition of his efforts as an activist during the AIDS crisis as an HIV patient himself. Sotomayor died 3 days later on February 5, 1992.

Marie J. Kuda[edit]

Marie J. Kuda is a historian, archivist, writer, lecturer, and promoter of LGBTQ+ history. During her lifetime she sought to spread and preserve a positive image of the LGBTQ+ community. She did this through her writing. She organized lesbian writing conferences, and published the first lesbian annotated bibliography. She dedicated her life to preserve the LGBTQ+ history in Chicago. She presented many lectures that brought to light the contributions of LGBTQ+ people to culture and innovation. She was also a member of the Gay and Lesbian Task force. This community strived to eradicate false information from libraries, and to make accurate information more accessible. She died in 2016 at the age of 76 after a long and impactful life.[52]

Charlene Carruthers[edit]

Charlene Carruthers is an LGBT activist, community organizer, and author based in Chicago, Illinois. She gained notability through her commitment to racial and social justice issues, such as police brutality. She was involved in grassroots activism movements and organizations that have advocated for the rights of people in marginalized communities. She worked as the national director of the Black Youth Project 100. The Black Youth Project 100 is a youth-led organization that mobilizes and empowers young black activists. The book she wrote, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, shows her personal experiences on the intersectionality of race, sexuality, and gender in broader social justice movements.[53]


AD HOC Committee of Proud Black Lesbians and Gays[edit]

The AD HOC Committee of Proud Black Lesbians and Gays organization was formed in 1993 with the purpose of participating in the Bud Billiken parade. The event is hosted by the Chicago Defender Charities, and is considered the largest African-American parade in the nation. The committee was denied participation after completing the necessary steps to enter well before the deadline. The hosts said it was due to lack of manpower. However, another organization was allowed participation two days before the deadline. The only difference in the two organizations was the use of "Lesbian and gay" in there titles. The filed a complaint on the basis of sexual discrimination, and eventually were allowed to participate in the parade. Their participation promoted positive representation for the LGBTQ+ community, and the celebration of diversity in any way shape and form.[54]

More Institutions[edit]


Newspapers Chicago Gay Crusader (now defunct) and Windy City Times have served LGBT readers. Windy City Radio is the city's only LGBT radio station.[55] Online guide ChicagoPride.com is a news and events website for the Chicago/Midwest LGBT community.






See also[edit]


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