Each June, more than 1 million people gather en masse on Chicago’s north side to revel in rainbow and show off their pride. The last weekend of Pride Month marks the marquis queer event for Chicago, an elaborate and colorful cavalcade of floats, dancers, musicians, and rainbow flags — waved by members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies alike. Now one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world, it’s come a long way since its origins in 1970, from a small march to the Chicago Water Tower. Nowadays, it’s the biggest celebration of Pride in the Midwest, celebrating LGBTQ+ history and culture in a city that’s long been a haven for it.
Long before Chicago’s Pride parades were drawing crowds equivalent to the population of Austin, before its neighborhoods were lined with rainbow pylons, and before the city had its first lesbian mayor, LGBTQ+ history has helped mold it into the modern, progressive, and inclusive metropolis it’s become, teeming with loud-and-proud art, nightlife, drag, film, music, and more.
A year after the Stonewall riots in New York City, activists in Chicago were boldly forging a bath forward in their own way. In 1970, the same year that a small Pride march would materialize downtown for the first time in the city’s history, the Liberation Dance was held to urge local gay bars to drop their policies of banning same-sex couples from dancing together. By boycotting these bars for one night and hosting their own dance in a public forum, the hope was they’d strong-arm these businesses into doing the right thing, and they did so with the help of a Black Muslim insurance agent, the only one brave enough to insure the dance venue, the colossal Coliseum, for the event. Why? Because LGBTQ+ people and Black Muslims were both all too aware of police brutality, as witnessed a year before at Stonewall. 2,000 people showed up to dance on the night of April 18, 1970, and it went off safely without any arrests or raids.
Billed as the first queer dance party in Chicago history, and surely paving the way for the nightly gay dance parties along North Halsted Street nowadays, it was held five months after the police assassinations of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panther Party, stoking an urgent need to fight back, be heard, be seen, and band together. It was an incident of marginalized communities — in this case, LGBTQ+ people and Black Muslim — uniting for a common goal. Also on the heels of the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Chicago’s LGBTQ+ community witnessed the importance of standing up to police harassment, and they followed suit.
The Liberation Dance was a symbolic victory. Devoid of practically any customers on the night of the Liberation Dance, and subsequently met with protesters rallying against discrimination, gay bars like the Normandy Inn quickly dropped their policies against same-sex dancing. Police raids still ran rampant, though. Although Illinois’ discriminatory sodomy law was repealed in 1961, harassment from police in bars was a common occurrence, even into the early 1980s, well after the success of the Liberation Dance. The first lawsuit filed against police harassment came in 1968, but it took years for politicians to acknowledge the importance of the gay vote, for the media to soften their stance, and for the courts to address the obvious bigotry. By the time a police raid of a gay bar, Carol’s Speakeasy, occurred in 1985, social tides had shifted and restitution was awarded to those who were harassed at the bar — not the ones doing the harassing.
Around this same time, as they did with the Liberation Dance, queer activities in Chicago were continuing to align with progressive Black politicians and anti-racism activists. By following similar strategies, particularly when it came to defending against police harassment and discrimination, they were able to safely forge a path forward, little by little. By 1986, when Chicago city council was voting on a gay rights ordinance for the first time ever, a Black alderman was the key vote that made it pass.
Of course, in a city as infamously segregated as Chicago, these social alliances have not been without turbulences — through the ‘70s and ‘80s, the predominantly white north side calcified as the epicenter of the city’s queer culture, establishing the stereotypical link between gayness and whiteness. This was cemented in the late-‘90s with the creation of Boystown (recently renamed Northalsted, to be more inclusive), lined with rainbow pylons and an increasing array of LGBTQ-owned bars and businesses. In more recent years, though, concerted efforts have been made to unify the two marginalized communities again, starting with the Legacy Walk, a half-mile outdoor “museum” of plaques and dedications along North Halsted Street, many of which are reserved for Black figures in queer history, like James Baldwin, David Kato, and Lorraine Hansberry.
Elsewhere, one of the country’s most enduring Black-owned gay bars, Jeffrey Pub, continues its own legacy on the south side, while a newer entry in Andersonville, Nobody’s Darling, is a bar owned by Black lesbians. And back in Northalsted, in a rainbow-clad neighborhood lined with iconic gay bars like Hydrate and Sidetrack, and where the epicenter of the colossal Pride parade takes place, change continues, as it always had. The same street as the parade route has become the route for the annual Drag Mach for Change, an event led by Black drag queens and transgender people demanding racial justice in Chicago’s greater LGBTQ+ community.
More than 50 years after Chicago’ first public queer dance party, and three years after Lori Lightfoot broke the mold as the city’s first Black lesbian mayor, protest and progress continue to shape the city, and it’s all thanks to those unafraid to get loud, to dance, and to march.