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HISTORY Every kick is a boost
by John D'Emilio
2008-12-03

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As the campaign to repeal Dade County's gay rights law headed into its final weeks, Chicago unexpectedly faced its own 'Save Our Children' campaign. In mid-May, the Tribune began a four-part, front-page series on child pornography. The headlines seemed designed to agitate readers. 'Child Pornography: Sickness for Sale,' the Sunday paper announced to homes and families across Chicagoland. 'Chicago is center of national child porno ring,' it told readers heading to work on Monday morning.

The reporters, Michael Sneed and George Bliss, painted a terrifying picture of the dangers facing children. Up to 100,000 were involved, they claimed. The industry not only photographed and filmed children, but also sold their sexual services to adult men. The menace was near at hand. 'Chicago is the headquarters of a nationwide ring trafficking in young boys,' they wrote. 'A nationwide homosexual ring with headquarters in Chicago has been trafficking in young boys, sending them across the nation to serve clients willing to pay hundreds of dollars for their services.'

Law enforcement officials used extreme language to portray the danger. The Cook County state attorney called the industry 'one of the most sordid rackets I've ever encountered.' A detective compared it to 'spider webs strung out all over the nation.' Another described what happened as 'a crime worse than murder.'

The series put the gay community in a difficult spot. To attack the Tribune risked sounding like a defender of child sex abuse. Yet the reporting was irresponsible and unbalanced, and the claims stretched credibility. The paper purported to expose the sexual exploitation of children, yet in the whole series only five short paragraphs mentioned young girls. The writers claimed to have spent three months investigating an industry that exploited tens of thousands; they said Chicago was a major center of it; and they cooperated closely with police. Why then could the police only find two fourteen year old 'victims'?

Over and over, the series fingered the city's gay men as the source of the danger. Major evidence for the existence of the ring of child abusers came from 'an informant in the area of Clark and Diversey,' which was then identified as 'a center of homosexual activities in Chicago.' The commander of the youth division of the Chicago Police charged that the north side office of Children and Family Services was 'a center of homosexuality,' colluding with the sexual abuse of its young clients.

Some details were downright bizarre. A detective claimed he had seized from a national ringleader 30,000 index cards with the names of clients, but the State Department was said to have destroyed all the cards! The mastermind of the biggest network of child porn lovers was supposed to be a convict in an Illinois state prison. How did he manage all this, one wondered?

But sex panics don't require believability. The Tribune had set hysteria in motion. Alderman Ed Burke conducted public hearings. Governor Thompson appointed a state task force on child pornography. The U.S. Attorney opened an investigation and the Cook County state attorney convened a grand jury. Police and building inspectors descended on 34 adult bookstores and shut them down. Legislators in Springfield introduced eight bills to control the menace. Police stepped up their harassment of gay male cruising areas. And the Tribune editorialized about 'the plague' that was thriving right here in Chicago.

The expose provoked a rapid response from gay and lesbian activists. Even before the series ended, representatives from several organizations held a press conference to denounce the reporting as an 'indictment by insinuation of the entire gay community.' Demonstrators chanted 'Stop the witch hunt now!' as they picketed City Hall. Bill Kelley and Paul Goldman spoke at Alderman Burke's city council hearings. At a march in New Town, according to one report, 'the gay community's anger at the Tribune series boiled over.'

A week after the series began, over 4,000 men and women arrived at Uptown's Aragon for the Orange Ball, a fundraiser to help fight the referendum in Dade County, Fla. The one-two punch of antigay crusades in Florida and Chicago made the event the largest queer benefit in the city's history. Businesses displayed posters; bars contributed door prizes; and organizations provided volunteers.

Even the harassing presence of police failed to dampen the crowd's enthusiasm. Chuck Renslow, who produced the event, told the audience they were living through 'a time of war'; he called for 'unity of purpose ... as one family.' Bob Basker, from the Dade County gay coalition, worked the crowd up by reading from ads that 'Save Our Children' had placed in the Miami Herald. Bryant had allegedly recently declared that 'God hates homosexuals because they eat sperm.'

On June 7, as nearly everyone predicted, an overwhelming majority of voters in Dade County cast ballots to repeal the anti-discrimination statute. Anita Bryant danced a jig when she heard the news, and announced that she was preparing to transform 'Save Our Children' into a national campaign to repeal ordinances in other cities. Chicago's editorial pages added to the pain of the vote. 'Miami sends a message,' said the Daily News. 'The people simply aren't ready to accept homosexuality as a constitutional or human 'right,'' in defiance of 'moral codes in effect for millennia.' The Tribune editorial board told readers that 'we share the concern of parents ... who see [ homosexuality ] as a latent threat to society.' It advised gays and lesbians to practice 'discretion.'

For Chicagoans, however, the story wasn't over. Bryant was coming to Chicago the following week to perform at a Flag Day benefit concert for the Shriner's Children's Hospital. Gay men and lesbians descended on the Medinah Temple, located at Wabash and Ohio, to protest the singer's appearance. Marchers six abreast circled the building, as a large contingent of police looked on. 'Anita is McCarthy in drag,' one placard proclaimed. 'God drinks wine, not orange juice,' said another. Afterward, a large contingent marched over to Pioneer Court and the Tribune building, to chants of 'Boycott the Tribune.'

Claims about the size of the demonstration varied, from a conservative police count of 2,000 to one participant's estimate of ten to fifteen thousand. But no one disputed that it was a unique event in the city's queer history. 'Exhilarating,' recalled Linda Rodgers, a bartender who was there. 'One of the biggest things that ever hit Chicago for the gay community,' Grant Ford, the publisher of Gay Life, remembered. 'There was just this feeling in the air that we could accomplish something,' said Rich Pfeiffer, who organized Chicago's annual Pride parade. 'It was an incredible feeling ... a feeling of empowerment.'

Gays and lesbians in Dade County in 1977 lost an anti-discrimination law, but the months of headlines, fundraisers, rallies, and demonstrations—across the nation and here in Chicago—had accomplished something profound. Renee Hanover, an activist lawyer in Chicago who had participated in movements for social justice for decades, expressed it well. Bryant and Dade County had 'unified and strengthened us as a national movement. Never before has one fight stirred the national gay and lesbian community to such fervor.' Or, as one anonymous demonstrator told a Tribune reporter after the Dade County votes were tallied: 'I don't think people should be disheartened ... Every kick is a boost.'

Copyright 2008 John D'Emilio


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