Gays and Lesbians in Oak Park - A Progress Report - June 20, 2000

 Note - This is a work-in-progress and represents my knowledge and thinking in June, 2000. I had originally written this report in January and circulate it along with the other progreee reports for comments. I got back the most response to this section in terms of corrections and disgreements. As I felt the need to make some modifications and clarifications, this preliminary report will undoubtedly be in a continual state of revision. It is made available for comment, criticism, correction and suggestions. Email me.

Like all communities, Oak Park has always had people whose sexual preference was for people of the same sex. They were simply silent about their preferences. An exit poll taken in 1996 in New York reported in the New York Times discovered that 5 percent of the voters were willing to state to the strangers taking the poll that they were gay or lesbian. Other estimates range from ten to one per cent. Whatever the percentage, gays and lesbians have become a public part of U.S. society and a major political, economic and social force in Oak Park. Some have suggested that gay and lesbian civil rights issues such as the expansion of anti-discrimination laws to include sexual preference, the legalization of gay and lesbian marriage together with the expansion of all spousal rights, liberalizing school curriculum to include a discussion of the gay and lesbian life in non-pathological ways, the expansion easing of adoption laws to include same sex partners will be the major civil rights issue of the new century. People opposed to these rights see them as part of what is called "The Gay Agenda" and regard these changes not as civil rights issues but as the undermining of the moral fiber of the U.S. I intend to focus a large part of my research on the gay and lesbian community in Oak Park. I believe that my interest in how Oak Park maintains itself as a diverse and tolerant community can be richly illuminated with an ethnographic study of gays and lesbian. I hope in this brief essay to explain why and what I have learned so far. At the present time (Jume 21, 2000), I am exploring the possibility of making a videotape of a gay couple with children as a way of getting at some of the issues I wish to explore. While one video could never represent the whole of the gay and lesbian community it will provide some insights into what I am beginning to call the "Oak Park Experiment" in diversity.

While the Stonewall Riot in the late 1960s is usually regarded as the beginning of a public gay male lifestyle or sub-culture, the stirring of such a movement can be found much earlier particularly with emergence of a gay and lesbian press immediately after World War II. Stonewall simply caught the attention of the mainstream press and the public in general. Consequently, many people came out in the 1970s, that is, admitted their sexual orientation. They ceased being homosexuals deeply closeted for fear of the consequences and became gay people celebrating their sexuality and demanding equal rights and equal protection under the law. Initially the public gay life was predominately male. A lesbian sub-culture recognized by the public appeared a bit later as chronicled in Lindsy Van Gelder and Pamela Robin Brandt's The Girls Next Door (1996 Simon & Schuster).

There is some debate within the gay and lesbian community about how different gays and lesbians should be from the straight world. At one end of the argument is Bruce Bawer who argues that once gays and lesbians have equal rights, sexual orientation will simply be like ethnic or religious identity. There will be no need for a subculture.

"Gays exist as a group, then, largely because there is anti-gay prejudice. If gay relationships were taken for granted by everyone and accorded the same legal and moral status as heterosexual marriages, and if gay children were educated to be as comfortable with their sexuality as straight children and given courtship rituals comparable to those of straight children, much of what we think of as the "gay subculture" would disappear. Individual gays would still gravitate to each other because of sexual or romantic attraction, but there would be nothing to bind homosexuals together en masse in gay bars or restaurants, gay churches or synagogues, or Gay Studies programs. It is precisely because anti-gay prejudice does exist that some gays, in the interest of self-protection, plunge into the gay subculture, cling to their sexual identity, and (in some cases) accordingly become preoccupied with sex." (from Bawer, Bruce, A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society. New York: Poseidon Press. 1993 pg. 86)

Bawer is at the extreme end of what might be characterized as the assimilation debate. Queer theorists as can be read in Brett Beemyn's and Mickey Eliason's 1996 book, Queer studies : a lesbian, gay, bisexual, & transgender anthology (New York: New York University) make the opposite argument. They celebrate the differences between the straight and gay/lesbian worlds and work to maintain those differences. Just to complicate matter, an article by Cindy Patton - "Tremble Hetero Swine" (from Social postmodernism : beyond identity Politics / edited by Linda Nicholson and StevenSeidman New York : Cambridge University Press, 1995) challenges this distinction.

It should be obvious to anyone spending time in Oak Park that the majority of gays there do not support the "in-your-face" approach of the queer theorists. I have never seen a drag queen in public here and most of the people wihtin the community that I have spoken to support my assumption that it is a rare occurence. Gays and Lesbians in Oak Park "blend in" most of the time emerging only to celebrate themselves as seen in the annual Oak Park Area Gay and Lesbian Association Gala or when they believe they are being discriminated against. As most straight people seem to lack the so-called "gaydar," that is, the ability to discover the orientation of strangers, gay and lesbian people are more or less invisible and unlike other minorities can "disappear" into the mainstream if they so choose.

I have heard the unsubstantiated rumor, that one of Oak Park's most famous "characters" from the turn-of-the 19th century and photographic chronicler of village life was pre-disposed toward boys and sometimes got into trouble with the police in Austin for prowling the parks in that community. According to Doug Deuchler, the Warrington Opera House on Marion street in Oak Park (where the Mar-Lac Banquet hall is today.) hosted the Grace Haywood Troupe from 1909-1915. There were several gay men in the troupe who were apparently accepted by the community. I'm certain the list of closeted folks is quite long.

The emergence of a large, public and politically active gay and lesbian community came as a bit of a surprise to me in that it violated my clichéd assumptions about Oak Park as too conservative a place to tolerate gays. In high school I knew one young man who was a homosexual. He is ridiculed and taunted and, in general, made miserable by the silly macho boys of the 1950s. I, unfortunately, was one of them. I have lost track of him and our class reunion rooster has no current address. It would have been nice to find out what happened to him. When I conducted a questionnaire survey of the high school class (class of 1953), two classmates wrote to me about the homophobia they experienced in high school. I'm certain there were others who suffered in silence. Apparently I am not alone in making a mistaken assumption about the number of gay people in Oak Park. In 1991 John Clark, a former Oak Parker and gay man was quoted in the Oak Leaves (January 19, 1991) as saying "I would never have thought any kind of gay and lesbian movement would start here."

In more recent times there were several businesses owned by lesbians who did nothing to hide their sexual preference but also did not flaunt it. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been the norm for many gay people until recently. Adult women have been able to form close relationships with other women sometimes even living together in a so-called "Boston marriages" without raising any suspicion about their sexual preferences, making it impossible to determine their sexual preferences. Marie Kuda, an Oak Park resident and scholar of the gay movement, has raised the possibility that Grace Hall Hemingway, might have had such a relationship in a recent article "in "Was Hemingway's Mother a Lesbian?"Outlines. Given a greater public awareness of the gay movement, the era of the Boston marriage is probably over. As Kuda and other historians of gay and lesbian America uncover the evidence of prominent people who were closeted gays, I'm certain the history of many places including Oak Park will have to be rewritten.

The public emergence of gays and lesbians in Oak Park occurred a little over ten years ago because of the public debate surrounding the possibility of the village passing an ordinance giving benefits to the same sex partners of village employees. As early as 1989, the transformation of Oak Park into a welcoming place began when the village passed a non-discrimination ordinance that mentioned sexual preference. While the benefits ordinance eventually passed in the Village council, the process caused some people to realize the need for an organization that represented the rights and interests of gays and lesbians in Oak Park. A number of gays and lesbians who are not politically involved before became politized once they realized how much opposition there was in the village to what they considered a simple civil rights issue. The Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association (OPALGA) was the result. Many of its founders, such as Mel Wilson, Nathan Linsk and Bekah Levin, are still active today.

Claiming a membership in the hundreds (according to a Wednesday Journal article of June 16, 1999, OPALGA is " of the largest volunteer organizations in Oak Park, with over 300 contributing members and at least 700 on its mailing list."), OPALGA may be the largest political and social organization in the village. I attended their Gala in June, 1999. There was about 380 people in attendance including several straight folk who were seeking the support of OPALGA for their political ambitions. One glance at the advertisers in the Gala program makes it clear that OPALGA is a major force in the village - economically and politically. At the Gala, OPALGA established the Carol Zientek Memorial Fund in memory of one of their founders killed in an automobile accident in 1998. Zientek and her long-term partner, Carol Goodwin, were owners of the Left Bank Bookstall, an Oak Park institution for book lovers. Goodwin, a sociologist by training, was also the author of the 1979 Oak Park Strategy: Community Control of Racial Change. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) which analyzes Oak Park's unique plan for the social engineering of the integration of African-Americans. The orientation of OPALGA sets it apart from other Gay and lesbian groups in Chicago. According to Mel Wilson, one of OPALGA's founding members, "Our orientation is inclusive and directed at bringing the gays into the community and have them participate. We don't want to make a ghetto and we aren't intended to be exclusive." (Wednesday Journal June 16, 1999).

OPALGA sponsored a Cultural festival from 1991 to 1996 and has plans to start it up again. It also sought to counter the anti-gay sentiment in the village with a 1992 public forum on family values "Families in Exile: A Failure in Family Values." In that same year, Prism , a drop-in center for young people was created. Prism was revitalized during the fall of 1999 with the addition of new volunteers (Wednesday Journal October 13, 1999) and assistance of Charna Linsk, an OPRF high school student who has started "A Place For All, a high school club for gay and lesbian teenagers (Wednesday Journal, December 8, 1999). As the result of pressure brought to bear by OPALGA, the local YMCA was denied some of its public money funding until they instituted a non-discrimination policy toward same sex families. Finally the election of Joanne Trapani, an OPALGA member, as a village trustee is a good indication of the success of the organization in getting the community to recognize that gays and lesbians are a significant factor in Oak Park. She was the first lesbian elected to public office in Illinois.

Almost immediately after its creation, OPALGA became a vocal and effective political force. In 1989 in a vote of 7 to 0, the village adopted a non-discrimination clause in hiring and employment and an ordinance that businesses cannot discriminate. A debate began in the same year over the high schools' policies toward openly gay employees that ended in the modification of the school's Human Dignity Policy to include sexual orientation. In the context of these debates, several Methodist churches welcomed gays with a public statement in the local newspapers. The role of the churches in support of the gay and lesbian community has been and continues to be a crucial one. At least three churches have openly gay clergy willing to perform commitment ceremonies (a symbolic wedding because gay marriage is not legal in Illinois). The Euclid Avenue Methodist Church has a minister, Tracy Smith, whose title is "Minister of Outreach to the LBGT Community (Lesbian-Bisexual-Gay-Transgendered). It should be noted that the Rev. Greg Dell, Methodist minister who was censored by his church for performing same sex "marriages" was at one time the pastor of Euclid Methodist in Oak Park. The support for the gay community among the churches is not total. There is a continuum from the Metropolitan Community Church which was founded to serve the LBGT community to the Calvary Memorial Church - the most active religious organization in opposition to what they call "the gay agenda." As Oak Park has always been noted as a deeply religious place, the support or the lack thereof for the Gay community by organized religion is crucial to understand. It is not insignificant that according to Ray Johnson, current OPALGA's co-chair, the oldest establishment church, First United "...has worked very much with us." (Wednesday Journal June 16, 1999)

In 1993 OPALGA asked the village for domestic partnership ordinance. Angelika Kuehn, one of the founders of Community Response, a volunteer organization devoted to assisting persons with AIDS in Oak Park, helped draft the domestic ordinance. While Oak Park did eventually became the first Illinois municipality and the 14th U.S. municipality to enact a domestic partnership ordinance in 1998 and the only community to do so in an election, the acrimonious debate that ensued during the five years of public discussion politicized many gays and lesbians and galvanized Oak Parkers with the anti-gay sentiment. As same sex marriage is not legal in Illinois, the ordinance was symbolic but nonetheless the support and opposition was sufficiently strong as to test the character of the village in terms of the limits of acceptable diversity. The opposition to ordinances such as the extension of benefits to same sex partners and to the domestic partnership ordinances has been most vocal from the Calvary Memorial church and a group of politically conservative Oak Parkers. During the public debate, Thirteen church leaders endorsed the registry in a letter published in the local newspapers. The clergy men and women said the "central issue underlying the debate is whether we as a community will respect and support them in their diversity -- or, alternatively, undermine those homes and families that do not fit certain narrow specifications." While a number of churches opposed the registry only people from Calvary Memorial Church were active and public in their opposition. (See Rev. Pritchard's 1989 sermon "What the Bible Says about Homosexuality" .for details). The argument about whether Christianity forbids homosexuality and whether or not the Bible clearly opposes same sex relations seems complicated to me since the Metropolitan Christian Church (MCC) cites scripture in support of homosexuals sand Rev. Bradley Michelson, pastor of the Oak Park MCC has written a pamphlet "What Does the Bible Say about Homosexuality?" as a refutation of Pritchard's sermon. However strongly felt the opposition to gay rights may be in Oak Park, it has never reached to depths of the rabid homophobia that results eleswhere in gay bashing and killing, overt discrimination in the workplace and in rentals and the real-estate market. The religious objections to the gay life are complex. A generation or so ago, some fundamentalist protestants quoted the Bible to support their racism and anti-Semitism. While it is less common today, one can still find so-called Christians claiming that integration is against God's plan for humanity. Some gays I know have suggested that it is possible that the opposition to gays that comes from Evangelical protestants today who cite Biblical support for their position might also fade in time. It is not my place to comment on or to take sides in this religious argument but instead to try to understand how these differences impact on the social life of the village.

Since the ordinance passed, over thirty couples have registered. Some people feel that while it may not be legally binding it is nonetheless symbolically significant. "'Registering has been a very affirming experience for both Jill and I' says Pam Freese, partner of Jill Allread and mom's to a beautiful son Jared, 'the certificate is up in our bedroom, reminding us daily of our commitment to one another, and about the splendor of excitement we felt the day we 'officially' made a pledge to one another about how we wanted to live the rest of our lives. Many of our friends who do not live in Oak Park comment upon how lucky we are to have this option. It is one of the many reasons why we love this community and have chosen to make it the home for our family.'" (OPALGA Bulletin Summer 1999, pages 1 and 6.).

Some opposition to the registry came from an anonymous "Concerned Citizens" committee that sent flyers to many people in Oak Park denouncing the registry as "unfair" and suggesting it would cause "irreparable harm to the community." Once the referendum was passed, the committee disappeared but the emergence of a conservative movement that might revitalize the local GOP and challenge the liberal reputation of Oak Park and the hegemony of the Village Managers Association in local elections was a more permanent consequence of the battle over benefits and the registry. The disagreement between the gay community and the conservatives mirrors a national battle. Gays and lesbians view the issues as those of civil rights. They feel that discrimination against people because of their sexual preference should be illegal and the same sex partnerships should have the legal status of marriage. Further they wish the schools to stop teaching that same sex relationships are wrong and that instead to suggest that they represent an alternative to heterosexuality that some people choose. The conservatives, on the other hand, believe that the issues are moral ones. Homosexuality is a sin against God. It is likened to drug addiction and alcoholism. They believe that to "normalize" homosexuality is tantamount to saying that it is not a sin. Conservatives see any attempt to pass anti-discrimination laws or legalizing gay marriage or proposals to include discussions of homosexuality as a normal alternative to heterosexuality as part of what they call "the gay agenda" and strongly oppose it on moral grounds. They believe gays and lesbians will recruit young people into the lifestyle if they are given the chance. There is also the mistaken notion that men who are child molesters tend to be gay. The opposite is actually the case - abusers are overwhleming hetrosexual. It is not a civil rights issue for tthe conservatives. As they believe homosexuality is not biologically determined, they assume gays have "chosen" their sexual orientation and could, if they decided, easily become heterosexuals.

The differences between gays and lesbians and conservatives seem insurmountable. The battles over benefits and the registry were as acrimonious as could be found in recent history in the village. But some conservatives like Mike Nevins feel that these two groups can live together successfully. In an October 27, 1999 Wednesday Journal article (page 30) about the registry Nevins "...says he doesn't sense any rancor in the aftermath...since then (everyone) has settled into 'live and let live.' 'I'm not aware of any bad blood." Nevins said." Some members of the gay community I interviewed are still very angry at the "perceived" hastiness of the conservatives. This is a battle that is not over, here in Oak Park or nationally. I am most interested in whether these apparently unreconcilable differences will make it impossible for gays and conservatives to live together in a constructive manner. Because of the public reputation of Oak Park as a liberal haven, the conservatives feel themselves to be the invisible minority when it comes to battling the gay agenda. Is being a citizen of Oak Park more important than these political and religious differences? In most of the U.S. these groups simply square off to do battle and make no attempt to find a way to live together. Perhaps the question is a naive one. As a colleague has suggested to me, can African-Americans and racists live in harmony or Jews and anti-semites? Of course not they cannot and never will. Then why would anyone think that gays and lesbians and conservatives who view the gay and lesbian life as morally wrong work together for common goals in the village? I believe that Oak Park may be one of the few places where this question can be explored.

One further example of the position of the gay and lesbian community in Oak Park is the emergence in 1994 of a branch of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Incarnation (MCC), an organization devoted to the spiritual needs of gays and lesbians. In a September 21, 1994 Oak Leaves article, Rev. Bradley Mickelson, pastor of the church, claimed that Oak Park was selected because it has the highest number of gays and lesbians in the Chicago suburbs. He estimates about 8,100. Within the MCC congregation are gays who are a bit more militant than some in Oak Park. Shortly after the founding of the church (Wednesday Journal November 16, 1999) Mickelson along with other religious leaders lead a demonstration against the Calvary Memorial Church's proposed "Overcoming Homosexuality" a forum devoted to saving homosexuals from themselves, even though the forum had been cancelled prior to the demonstration. More recently Windy City Times, July 15, 1999) reported that MCC was host to Mel White, an MCC minister and former ghost writer for Pat Robertson, in their effort to organize a response to Exodus International's conference at Wheaton College. Exodus is a religious program designed to "convert" gays and lesbians to heterosexuality. The MCC movement is a complex combination of religious conservatism and radical queerness. When I attended services there, it reminded me of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism.

While Oak Park has been characterized as a gay/lesbian-friendly community, it is also a place where homophobia is still in evidence. On October 18, 1999 an anonymous person sent an email from the high school to the MCC web site threatening to burn down the church and kill gays and lesbians from the church and in the community in general. While the threat is unsettling for Oak Parkers who like to think of their village as tolerant, the reaction by some community members was swift, strong and positive. The local police and the FBI immediately responded in an attempt to locate the perpetrator (Wednesday Journal, November 3, 1999). On November 21, 1999 a Vigil Against Hate Rally and Candlelight Procession was organized with the assistance of Susan Bridges, OPRF High School Superintendent and representatives from OPALGA. It was well attended. In January, 2000 both the MCC and OPALGA received death threats again this time in the form of a letter (Wednesday Journal, January 12, 2000). Rev. Mickelson has requested that the village government take an official stand against these threats. Such actions seem to confirm the contention of some gays and lesbians that even in apparently liberal places like Oak Park there is an underlying homophobia that only occasionally reaches the surface. It is hard to argue against that assumption.

In the fall of 1998 and again in 1999 MCC sponsored along with Lesbigay Radio the Annual Rainbow Cotillion. It is held at the Nineteenth Century Women's Club. The image of this "staid" Oak Park institution being the site of an event in which several participants appeared in drag and same sex partner dancing was the rule and not the exception is an excellent symbol for the "new" Oak Park that I am interested in understanding.

So far I have failed to locate other middle-class liberal "straight" communities that have a reputation for welcoming gays and lesbians. For example. while Oak Park was listed among the "gay friendly" small towns and cites by the web site, the other communities were not noted for their attempts to become ethnically diverse. I cannot believe that Oak Park is unique but it may be. The "blending in" of middle-class socially conventional gay couples is not unique to Oak Park as this Doonesbury cartoon suggests. However it is the size of the gay community and its active public presence that is unusual. The question is why don't other diverse communities that have a reputation for being successfully integrated like Shaker Heights, Ohio or University City, Missouri also have significant gay populations?

Oak Park has became very attractive to gay and lesbian middle-class couples with children. They are looking for a place that was tolerant, with good housing and excellent schools. In short, their needs are very similar to many straight couples. One gay couple with two children I interviewed told me that given their busy schedule the only people they had time to socialize with these days were the parents of children the same age as their children. Being a parent is an identity that transcends gender preference. One observer has quipped that Oak Park may be the "straightest" gay and lesbian community in the U.S. I have hear numerous straight people espouse the clichéd assumption that the ideal neighbor is a professional gay couple. They have "good" taste and lots of capital to improve their house. Gay homeowners help raise the market value of the neighborhood. While the cliché annoys some gay and lesbian people, it seems accurate at least in Oak Park.

My interest in doing an ethnographic study of gays and lesbians is focused upon these folks as a test of the limits of diversity in Oak Park. Integration began in the 1970s as an effort to accommodate, in a constructive way, African-Americans who wanted to move into the community. The success of this movement caused a sea change in the character of the village. It became known as a place tolerant of difference that actively seeks and welcomes diversity - a "liberal place." As the advertisement for Joe Langley, a Century 21 Realtor in Oak Park in Lesbian & Gay Pink Pages for Chicago Area suggests "Oak Park, So liberal Even our Exit Ramps Turn Left." (For readers who have not been to Oak Park, the exit ramps off the Expressway do indeed turn left.) In a recent issue (November 17, 1999) of the "HomeStyle" section of the Chicago Free Press, a weekly newspaper that targets the Chicago area gay communities, the lead article was entitled "Pleasantville - Oak Park: Haven for Diversity, tolerance." Author Kerrie Kennedy, had many positive things to say about Oak Park as a great place to live if you are gay. Surrounding the article was several ads for Oak Park realtors. These realtors have weekly ads in the Chicago Free Press and other gay and lesbian publications.

Gay and lesbian people are not visible like African Americans, they blend into the community except when a gay related political issue such as the registry emerges or in an act of public celebration like the Gay Pride Parade or when candidates for office seek their support. Oak Park is a place that almost naturally lends itself to assimilation. I have a strong hunch that we will never see a Gay Pride Parade marching down Lake street. In fact, some gay Oak Parkers find the Chicago Gay Pride Parade a little too queer for their tastes. "But even more tasteful folks like Marrow (a mildly flamboyant participant) did little to win over Robin Shukle of Oak Park. Every year she comes to the parade with a group of lesbian friends. Every year she says she will not come again. She was upset at the sight of some bikini-clad men thrusting their hips to the beat. Then the Dykes on Bikes roared by. 'What makes the 10 o'clock news?' she said. 'This sets us back in America. It is fun for the day, but what does it do to get us same-sex marriage benefits? What does this do to help us adopt to be foster parents.'" (Chicago Tribune for Monday, June 28, 1999, Section 2, page 2)

The gay and lesbian community in Oak Park is not characteristic of what many people assume a gay and lesbian community looks like. Oak Park is not a good place to live if you are gay, single and looking for an exciting night life or even if you are straight and single and wish to have your public social life near at hand. Oak Park is a quiet suburb with little in the way of a night life. There are two well known gay bars in Forest Park, a neighboring suburb where Oak Parkers have gone for generations to drink because their community was dry until the 1970s. There is also a fashion store that caters to drag queens, transvites and trans-sexuals. I know nothing about its clientale or place in the local gay and lesbian community.

The question that must arise is how different do you need to be to have a gay identity? Is being gay only relevant in the bedroom and when it comes to equal civil rights issues as Bruce Bawer suggests? This is an issue with no easy answer and one that has plagued all minority groups since the idea of a melting pot became questioned. What does it mean to be Jewish, Irish-American, Catholic, etc. in the U.S.? How assimilated can you be and still retain your minority identity? (See Barry M. Rubin's Assimilation and its discontents. New York Books, Random House, 1995). Identity politics consumes the consciousness of most of us. For gays it is a matter of overcoming prejudices and unequal laws but that has been and still is the case for many others. I find observing and studying how the issues discussed above will play themselves out in Oak Park to be fascinating especially when most of the social science studies have concentrated on the single life in gay "ghettos" like the Castro district in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York city and the construction of gay and lesbian marraiges and families. The social life of gay and lesbian couples living in a suburb is a topic unknown in the literature. It is my plan to continue this exploration wherever it takes me.

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