In 1960s Champaign-Urbana, the state and civil society did not actively approve the existence of LGBTQ people, but gave passive acceptance for them to do as they wished in their own homes. Records of this life have been preserved in articles from various newspaper sources of the time.
In 1966, the Daily Illini interviewed “John Richards” (anonymized name) about his life as a gay man. A twenty-two-year-old university student, John was a member of what was then called the “homosexual community,” or just “the community.” According to John, many of the “40 students, instructors, and ‘one-nighters’” of the community had “taken over” several blocks of a street in Northeast Urbana. The interviewer followed John to a “community” house party in this part of town. About a dozen-plus members of the community drifted in and out throughout the evening. Two drag queens made an appearance, and even two high-school aged boys were spotted by the author “hugging and kissing.” Richards noted, “We didn’t seduce them, or anything. They can come here if they don’t make trouble. Their parents are probably glad, since it keeps them off the streets.” Here, high schoolers, university students, faculty, community members, and “one-nighters” who would normally be “hanging around the shop windows on Green Street in the evenings” could have a safe space to be gay.
A similar story emerged in an interview with four self-identified lesbians documented in an issue of the 1972 Urbana Daily Courier. The four had separated from the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) on campus in 1971. Said one interviewee, “We felt we could deal better with our problems as women.” Three of the four lived in “an old white-frame house near campus.” This safe space to freely express their sexuality was also a meeting space for a lesbian (and possibly bisexual) women’s group. Meetings drew anywhere
from six to 20 women monthly.
To LGBTQ people—some of whom were kicked out from family student housing when they “came out”—houses like this one or those of the “community” in Northeast Urbana were precious. More than housing, these were some of the few safe spaces where their sexualities could be expressed without fear of recrimination.
However, what was passively accepted in the private sphere was often illegal in public. In 1971, two non-students were arrested on charges of “indecent conduct” after a dance by the GLF on campus. Their crime was cross-dressing, which violated a Champaign city ordinance: “It shall be unlawful for any person to commit any indecent or immoral act or to appear in any public place in clothes properly belonging to the opposite sex or not properly or decently garbed.” Urbana had a similar ordinance prohibiting actions “tending to debauch the public morals.” On top of the risk of having one’s sexuality publicly outed and risking violent, traumatic confrontations with police, being arrested under either ordinance could result in fines of several hundred dollars. In addition, the legacy of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Lavender Scare (about 1950-1957)—in which millions of LGBTQ people were labeled “perverts,” and risked losing government employment and never again being able to find similar work—still affected campus life. During this period, one UIUC student was expelled for his “homosexual deviations,” and denied readmission until he could produce a “psychiatric report of progress” on his so-called “condition.”
The issues of public and private expression were in dispute at the time. Some, like Lydia, interviewed in the 1972 Daily Courier article, wished only for tacit acceptance or a type of tolerance, the freedom to do what she wished in her own home; active, public approval was viewed as a pipe dream. This sentiment was shared by John and others of the “community.” They even viewed themselves as more respectable than those who tried to be gay in public, “the kind you see hanging around the shop windows on Green Street in the evenings,” as John put it. They were “disgusted by homosexuals who live in dormitories and houses and carry on ‘one-night affairs’ with anybody they can pick up.”
Some 1960s LGBTQ civil rights organizations, like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitus, shared this aim for more closed-door tolerance and respectability. The former voiced agreement with leading psychiatrists, who classified homosexuality as a type of mental disease or deviancy requiring treatment. Seeking public approval was out of the question—these groups tried instead to focus on helping LGBTQ community members understand themselves and live a more bearable existence in a society openly hostile to them. Again in John’s words, “I’m a homosexual now, and I guess I’ll always be a homosexual. I’m not interested in being helped. I only want to be left pretty much alone” (my emphasis).
In the wake of Stonewall, however, 1970s groups like Gay Illini, Black Gay Liberation Front, Gay Liberation Front, Gay Women’s Caucus, and other LGBTQ organizations began taking the fight to the public sphere. In part to build public approval, these groups hosted public coffee hours, dances, movie nights, lectures, and other public events on and off campus. Connections to national organizations helped normalize their struggle to come into the public sphere; at one point, Daughters of Bilitus co-founder Barbara Gittings lectured on campus to faculty and students.
In addition, these groups tried to secure safe public spaces for themselves. In 1972, they picketed outside the Wigwam (a Champaign bar that once stood on Sixth Street) to protest the harassment of gay men by one of the bar’s managers. While not explicitly a gay bar, the Wigwam was a popular, public hangout for the LGBTQ community at the time, and groups like GLF fought to make spaces like it safe for them.
One key moment of this struggle related to housing was in 1973. Jeffrey Graubart, a student leader of the local Gay Liberation Front, ran for Urbana Mayor that year. GLF and other groups supporting him pushed for a Gay Civil Rights Ordinance, which aimed to criminalize discrimination in housing, employment, and other areas based on sexual orientation. Though Graubart lost his mayoral bid, the act later passed the Urbana City Council in the form of the Urbana Human Rights Ordinance (also providing similar protection against discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or age). Urbana was the first city in Illinois to pass such an ordinance. The new Urbana Human Relations Commission successfully encouraged the Champaign City Council to pass a similar ordinance, and passed resolutions condemning homophobic press coverage of the issue. In the late 1970s, the Urbana and Champaign Human Relations Commissions investigated dozens of cases of discrimination in housing based on sexual preference. Through the commissions, LGBTQ people were able to publicly defend themselves against housing discrimination for the first time, securing more of the precious spaces where they could freely express themselves. The fight for LGBTQ acceptance in their own, private housing was then largely fought as part of militant social movements seeking active approval in the public sphere.
The broader struggle was far from won, however. With the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, many LGBTQ community members who had dared to enter the public scene were once again ostracized. In the last half of 1985, the Urbana Human Rights Commission told the News-Gazette that it had investigated at least three separate cases of housing discrimination “in which AIDS was an issue, though not the only one.” Groups like the Gay Community AIDS Project—still active today—struggled to keep LGBTQ housing access then coming under renewed threat.
While tireless LGBTQ activism has yielded great progress, many LGBTQ people still feel that there are few truly safe spaces. With few publicly LGBTQ spaces in CU, it is unclear if this trend will change soon. The struggle for active, public approval of LGBTQ people continues.
Sources will be provided upon request; use the “Have a comment?” tab at publici.ucimc.org.
Nick Goodell is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied history and philosophy. He co-hosted The People’s History Hour on 104.5 WRFU for two years, and currently organizes with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Central Illinois Jobs with Justice, and CU Food Not Bombs.