by TRACY BAIM
THE GAY AND LESBIAN COALITION OF METROPOLITAN Chicago was formed out of a conflict but eventually turned into an important link between diverse parts of the activist, business, and nonprofit communities. On Oct. 20, 1975, two women, Toby Schneiter and Nancy Davis, staged a sit-in at a Cook County Marriage License Bureau facility and were arrested.
Many activists believed this event would hurt more mainstream efforts to pass a city gay-rights law and that the fight for marriage was years away. They feared a media backlash, especially since one of the women, Schneiter, was still married to a man. The women joined forces with Jeff Graubart and called themselves the Chicago Gay Rights Action Coalition, claiming to represent the community and espousing socialist views. Some activists believed the whole thing was a publicity stunt for a book, Heterosexual, that Schneiter and Davis had written. Bill Kelley wrote in The Chicago Gay Crusader that media reaction was actually generally favorable.
"This political action was done at a time when the Illinois Gay Rights [later: Gay and Lesbian] Task Force was working closely with Ald, Clifford Kelley to get a gay-rights bill passed in the City Council, and many gay and lesbian activists felt their efforts were undermined by the sit-in and subsequent arrest of Davis and Schneiter," said Mark Sherkow, who from 1974 to 1 9 79 represented the Rogers Park Gay Center (which later became the Rogers Park/ Edgewater Gay Alliance) as its delegate to the Coalition. (In 1978 he was the secretary of the Coalition's executive committee.) "Worse, the two protesters had issued a flier proclaiming they spoke for and represented the gay and lesbian community of Chicago.”
Organizers of the Coalition issued a press release denouncing the sit-in and formed an organization that lasted several years. Its first major public meeting was called for Jan. 13 1976, at the Good Shepherd Parish Metropolitan Community Church, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Chris Riddiough and Guy Warner were early leaders of the Coalition.
"In my work with IGLTF and the Coalition, I grew to admire many of the people who made up the community, from Renee Hanover to Guy Warner to Al Wardell and many others," Riddiough said in 2007. "At the time, Chicago seemed in some ways to be more 'backward' than the gay meccas like New York City and San Francisco, but in ways think we were able to build a more solid and diverse community, in part because we needed each other more. Indirectly I think the Chicago organizing tradition also helped solidify the community.
Trying to bring so many diverse voices and interests to the table was difficult, "There had been a number of complaints that African- Americans were being discriminated against by bars by being asked for five IDs at the door and then being denied admittance to the bar," Sherkow said. "The Coalition discussed this issue in the second or third year of its existence. Most of the bars present did not want the Coalition to form the committee, and many of them left the Coalition after the decision was made to form the committee. The committee eventually issued a report which suggested that such discrimination probably did exist. The Coalition continued to exist for a year or two, but eventually disbanded."
But Sherkow said the impact of the Coalition is still felt today: "It was an important meeting place for Chicago gay and lesbian activists…. It was also a place for representatives of businesses to interact with representatives of organizations. We got to know one another and work with one another, and this interaction probably spurred all of us in our activism. Its membership is too numerous to mention, but a few members stand out in my mind: Guy Warner of Mattachine Midwest; Jim Bussen of Dignity; Marie Kuda and Renee Hanover; Gary Chichester of Man's Country and Chuck Renslow of the Gold Coast and Man's Country; David Boyer of Touché and Marge Summit and Delilah Kenney; Jim Edminster of Integrity; as well as Chris Riddiough, Bill Kelley, Rene Van Hulle, Michael Harrington, Max Smith, Al Wardell, Ira Jones, Ron Helizon, Joe Murray, Elaine Wessel and Chris Cothran. The Coalition was one of those places in time where a lot of people got together and reinforced each other in their activism, and probably set the stage for the working together and community-building that, in my mind, has been a hallmark of the Chicago GLBT community since that time."
GL Coalition: Can We All Get Along?, Excerpt from Out and Proud in Chicago, Tracy Baim, Editor, page 111, 2008, Surrey Books.