THE BLOG

LGBT Community Is a Poorer Place Today

05/18/2015 02:55 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

The LGBT community is a poorer place today with the loss of William B. Kelley of Chicago. Bill, as his many friends knew him, was a friend and comrade in the battle for full equality of rights before the law. He is survived by his partner of 36 years, Chen K. Ooi.

Born in Missouri, Bill moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago in 1959. By 1965, he was a member of the Chicago branch of the Mattachine Society, an early gay organization, founded in 1950. In 1966, he helped organize the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations and helped found the Chicago Gay Crusader newspaper. In 1967, he, along with some of the great names in LGBT history, picketed Independence Hall in defense of equality of rights before the law for gay people.

In 1977, Bill was one of the representatives of the LGBT community to meet with President Carter at the White House.

It was around this time that I first met Bill. I had recently dropped out of a very anti-gay college and came out on radio in opposition to the Anita Bryant crusade. I left a relatively rural part of Indiana and was living in the Chicago area. I quit working for an evangelical organization and took a job at Chicago Gay Life newspapers, and it was there that I met Bill.

I clearly remember him coming into the office the first time we met. Over the next few years, we'd run into each other numerous times. We both were among the thousands of protestors greeting Anita Bryant when she came to town. When Chicago police were harassing the gay community, we were both involved in the response.

I remember us both spending a day testifying before a select committee of the House of Representatives that was holding hearings in Chicago. We sat at the table next to one another. The matter under discussion was anti-gay regulations that impacted gay immigrants. One's homosexuality was considered sufficient cause to deny immigration -- or even a tourist visa -- to someone. This many years later there isn't a lot of that I remember, just Bill sitting with me, and us looking at the Representatives on the panel, who did their best to simply ignore every witness. I concluded such hearings are for show, not substance.

In 1980, I ran for state representative and was the first openly gay person on the general ballot in an Illinois state election. In the mid 80s to attend the University of Connecticut, then lived on Castro Street in San Francisco and, as so often happens, lost touch with Bill.

Over the next few decades I travelled a lot, including 10 years in Africa publishing a gay newspaper in Johannesburg. And, while access to the internet was not readily available for me Bill kept up with what I was doing.

When I returned to the US, after living for a few years in Europe, Bill contacted me. I was surprised to hear from him after so many years, and a bit pleased he had kept up with my trials and tribulations. I wish I had done the same for him.

When we met, he was the Chair of the Illinois Gay Rights Task Force. He chaired the Cook County Commission on Human Relations, was involved with the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of Illinois, he was on the board of directors of the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union, served on the Chicago Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues and the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties.

When Bill first moved to Illinois, it was illegal to be gay in all fifty states. By his death it was legal for gay couples to marry. Bill was instrumental in this battle.

Many younger members of the LGBT community have little idea of the struggle that got us where we are today. They may chuckle at people only "coming out" in college, or later -- while many of them are coming out in junior high or even grade school. Their coming out was made easier, perhaps possible, because people such as Bill were standing up for LGBT rights before they were born.

Bill helped change the world and millions are his beneficiaries because of it. Much of what the great orator, Robert Green Ingersoll said of his brother, applies to Bill.

He was a worshiper of liberty, a friend of the oppressed. ...He believed that happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest. He added to the sum of human joy; and were every one to whom he did some loving service to bring a blossom to his grave, he would sleep tonight beneath a wilderness of flowers.