View From The Gay Bars

An activist looks back at Chicago’s fight for equal rights

June 27, 2019

It’s been 50 years since violent protests broke out on June 28, 1969, following a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York. Rioters barricaded cops inside the bar and for several days took to the streets in an effort to put an end to years of harassment. The Stonewall riots helped galvanize the gay rights movement nationwide. 

But in Chicago, even after the riots, activist Art Johnston said police raids of gay bars would continue to make headlines for another decade. Still, like the Stonewall Inn, Johnston said Chicago’s gay activism took place in the bars — including Sidetrack, which he opened 37 years ago in the historic Boystown neighborhood. 

As co-founder of the civil rights organization Equality Illinois, Johnston has been an outspoken leader of Chicago’s anti-discrimination movement. As the country marks the Stonewall anniversary, Johnson recalled key moments over the last 50 years when Chicago’s gay bars have been at the center of the LGBTQ community’s fight for equal rights. 


Early gay rights legislation languishes in City Hall

Ald. Clifford Kelley said in 1973 he proposed a bill that would have expanded protections to gay people, making it illegal to discriminate in the workplace, housing, or in the provision of services based on sexual orientation. The bill was not taken seriously by his legislative cohort at the time, and it would take another 15 years before Chicago would pass legislation protecting the rights of the gay, lesbian and bisexual community.

“Raids [on gay bars] by police were common practice, and newspapers listed the names of people arrested as ‘perverts.’ It was legal to be fired from your job. You couldn’t be out. Gay people just were not welcome. It’s hard to see it from today — hard to remember given all the progress we have made.”
— Art Johnston


Gay rights protesters take on a beauty queen

Thousands showed up to march in front of the Medinah Temple building in downtown Chicago on June 14, 1977, where singer and Miss Oklahoma beauty queen Anita Bryant was scheduled to perform in concert. Bryant was a vocal opponent of gay rights, and said she feared gay people could harm children. “Homosexuals don’t reproduce. They recruit! And they are out after my children and your children,”  Bryant said.

Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign helped turn public opinion against a gay rights ordinance in Miami, Fla., that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. The law was repealed as a result of Bryant’s lobbying efforts, and lawmakers also passed a gay adoption ban that year. Johnston, who helped organize with other activists in the bars, served as a marshal of the demonstration, which many call Chicago’s first major gay rights protest.

“Being gay was something that happened for most people after dark … the idea of being publicly out on the streets of Chicago was terrifying for most people. … It was a moment of great awakening for many of us. … I had done nothing like this, the exhibition is almost impossible for me to describe, and I knew my life was forever changed.”
— Art Johnston


Sidetrack opens its doors for more than just a drink

Less than a year after MTV debuted, Johnston and his partner Jose “Pepe” Peña opened Sidetrack, one of the country’s first music video bars. It was a wildly novel idea at the time, and  during the HIV/AIDS crisis and the legislative fights for equality, Sidetrack became a locus for the community to gather, organize political action and fundraise for causes. The same year the bar opened Mayor Jane Byrne became the first Chicago mayor to become outspoken against bar raids. She issued an executive order banning discrimination in city hiring or the provision of services. “It's time we put it on the books “ Byrne said. It would take another six years before legislation was actually passed.

“I had this incredible experience of coming to activism through the bar scene, [but] we did not set out to become an activist bar. It was just a chance to do things that mattered to us … Gay bars were the only places of refuge. Bars were all we had.”
— Art Johnston


Gay community wins harassment lawsuit

Police raids on Chicago’s gay bars continued long after protesters at the Stonewall Inn in New York rioted in an effort to help put an end to harassment. On Sept.12, 1985, a narcotics unit with the Chicago Police Department busted in with guns drawn into Carol’s Speakeasy, a famous house music club at 1335 N. Wells St. that was frequented by the gay community. Police officers pushed gay men’s faces into puddles of beer on the floor, according to the Chicago Tribune. Some of those patrons filed a class action lawsuit seeking damages and won.

“Gay bars had a reputation for being kind of cheap and ugly. But … if your business was only going to be open two years you didn’t put a lot of money in. For an hour, two hours, every few days..[you were] able to drop the burden of pretending you’re somebody you’re not.”
— Art Johnston


Gay bar owners become a powerful lobbying force

Johnston was part of the “Gang of Four,” a group of gay and lesbian activists that included a newspaper columnist, a political reformer and a Catholic brother who took his vows. The “Gang of Four” helped successfully lobby City Hall to pass the Human Rights Ordinance. The law made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. It took three years for the legislation to pass. Johnston said he rented CTA buses to bring protestors from the Boystown bars to a Daley Plaza rally, where he spoke and chanted the names of dozens of gay bars who supported the bill.

“The moment when the CTA busses surrounded Daley Plaza, it was the first time in our life that we were not in a minority. It was a moment of great magic. After the bill passed, I would get in my little truck and drive all over Chicago and roll down my window and shout out my window, you can't fire gay people any more!”
— Art Johnston


The fight for equality isn’t over

Equality Illinois, the advocacy group that Johnston co-founded, backed a successful education bill passed in March, requiring LGBTQ history lessons be taught in schools. The bill is meant to help students identify LGBTQ role models, Johnston said. It takes effect July 1.  Johnston said gay neighborhoods in cities across the country are disappearing, in part because young, gay men now are more welcome at other bars. But he said neighborhoods catering to LGBTQ people are still important to build community.

“We’re not done yet. We still have issues of racism, of trans treatment, children being thrown out of their homes for being gay. The big issues remain because they’re complicated, sometimes intractable.”
— Art Johnston

Photo credits: Jason Marck, Art Johnston, Windy City Times archives, AP Photo/SED,, and Holabird & Roche (Chicago, Ill.). Chicago City Hall. C. William Brubaker Collection (University of Illinois at Chicago).