August 5, 2019
How the black press helped pave the way for gay rightsRoundup
Timothy Stewart-Winter is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark and the author of "Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics."
Last month, the Chicago Defender joined the long list of American newspapers that have ceased print publication in response to collapsing circulation and advertising revenue.
Reports on the paper’s transition to an online-only format have focused on its justly celebrated role in shaping the Great Migration and the fight against Jim Crow. But another element of its history is less well-known: Beginning in the 1950s, it provided extensive coverage of black queer life in Chicago, and in the 1970s, even as the paper was declining in influence, it reported sympathetically on the city’s nascent movement for LGBTQ equality.
As the Defender’s coverage shows, the black press played a key role in the late 20th century in expanding democracy and challenging injustice, in ways that went beyond opposition to anti-black racism.
The Defender in these years, as an institution of the tiny but growing black middle class, promoted respectable ceremonies and commemorations held in black churches and schools and framed social deviance, including gay life, as unhealthy. Yet when rigorously compared to contemporary white mainstream press coverage that treated gay life as dangerous, it tended to portray queer life in a more benign light.
Unlike their white counterparts, the editors’ middle-class respectability politics coexisted with three other factors that pushed the paper’s coverage of LGBTQ life in a more sympathetic direction.
First and foremost, the black press sought to show the richness and diversity of African American life in Chicago. Ever since the Great Migration, white politicians had pushed sex work, gambling and gay entertainment into black neighborhoods. As a result, in the 1950s, queer life was often more visible in black districts — including Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, New York’s Harlem and Miami’s “Colored Town” — than elsewhere in America’s cities.
In particular, the Defender began running large photo spreads each year covering Finnie’s Halloween Ball, an intensely competitive contest in female impersonation held before a multiracial audience of thousands annually on the South Side of Chicago. This reporting depicted the events’ glamour and creativity. In 1951, for example, the Defender covered Finnie’s with five large photos depicting the drag queens who “thrilled, shocked, and amused over 5,000 spectators who jammed the Pershing ballroom.” Defender columnists sometimes served as judges for the event, which a 1960 article called “the most talked about and best attended event on Chicago’s Southside.”
A second factor pushing the Defender toward a more sympathetic depiction of gay life was its editors’ growing ethos of skepticism toward police behavior. Notably, in the early 1960s, Chicago’s white daily papers joined in calling for increased police surveillance of gay nightlife. After a 1964 raid on a gay nightclub in which 109 people were arrested, the liberal Chicago Daily News printed the name, age and address of almost every one, and many were immediately fired from their jobs.
The Defender did not join in calling for such raids. Indeed, it had drawn attention to police brutality on the South Side in a high-profile series of articles in 1958, and in the second half of 1963 began covering a sustained campaign of black protest against police brutality. By the late 1960s, the Defender’s writers frequently covered anti-black violence by white Chicago policemen. Incidents of police violence against black female impersonators were covered on the Defender’s front page in October 1969 and again in November 1970.
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