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John D'Emilio Lecture: Chicago's Gay History, Richard Nixon's Accidental Support Of Gays

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Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit

Was Richard Nixon a gay liberationist? Many would scoff at the question. But John D'Emilio, author and professor of History and Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, made a strong case for Nixon being an unintentional liberationist during a Tuesday lecture.

As part of his fellowship with UIC's Institute for the Humanities, D'Emilio's lecture, "Rethinking Queer History. Or, Richard Nixon, Gay Liberationist?" explored Chicago's place in the historical narrative of lesbian and gay life since the 1969 Stonewall riots--and the battle between Nixon and former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

D'Emilio said he chose Chicago as the site of his historical study because Chicago often serves as the representative city for American history texts. Through his primary research, which included newspaper stories, first-hand accounts and historical reports, D'Emilio found that Chicago's gay history, in many ways, parallels the story of defiant, public gay life such as Harlem's in 20's and 30's.

Gay nightlife in Chicago primarily existed on what was then called "the South Side," located just a few blocks south of downtown, which consisted mainly of bars where female impersonators were the main attraction.

Gay life during this period was relegated to small neighborhoods, mostly populated at night by curious locals. Outside of these areas, lesbians and gay men were seen as "moral degenerates" and "unmentionables," as one Chicago Tribune article deemed them.

In the late 60's, gay bars were frequently raided by the Chicago Police Department. D'Emilio's research uncovered an elaborate system of corruption, which contributed to an environment where gay bars were frequently raided and gay men and lesbians were routinely harassed and arrested.

As one bar patron stated, "To go to the bar was to take your future into your hands."

The culture of corruption surrounding Chicago nightlife was fostered and perpetuated by Chicago's mayor, Richard J. Daley, who rewarded business owners and officials with favors to gain their support.

D'Emilio, in his forthcoming book, uncovers the partisan political rivalry that developed between Richard Nixon, the new Republican president elected in 1968, and the "second most powerful Democrat in the country," Mayor Daley.

D'Emilio's research shows that Nixon's desire to discredit Daley and undermine his political power led to FBI investigations of corruption and police misconduct evidenced by the city's relationship to nightlife industries. D'Emilio explained that one Justice Department and FBI investigation led to the indictment of four dozen police officers on corruption charges, resulting in trials where scores of lesbian and gay bar owners and patrons publicly testified.

Ultimately, D'Emilio argued that the political rivalry between Nixon and Daley led to a decrease in police raids on gay and lesbian bars, allowing lesbians and gay men to gather publicly in gay-friendly bars without constant threats of raids and enforced bribery.

By examining Chicago as a site of gay and lesbian history, D'Emilio demonstrated that in some circumstances, national political action fostered unintended liberatory opportunities for gay and lesbian entry into public spaces in a way that individual gay resistance could not secure.

D'Emilio is also the author of "Intimate Matters: The History of Sexuality in America" "The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics and Culture" and several other books on LGBT issues.