Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics

Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics

Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics

Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics


In postwar America, the path to political power for gays and lesbians led through city hall. By the late 1980s, politicians and elected officials, who had originally sought political advantage from raiding gay bars and carting their patrons off to jail, were pursuing gays and lesbians aggressively as a voting bloc--not least by campaigning in those same bars. Gays had acquired power and influence. They had clout.

Tracing the gay movement's trajectory since the 1950s from the closet to the corridors of power, Queer Clout is the first book to weave together activism and electoral politics, shifting the story from the coastal gay meccas to the nation's great inland metropolis. Timothy Stewart-Winter challenges the traditional division between the homophile and gay liberation movements, and stresses gay people's and African Americans' shared focus on police harassment. He highlights the crucial role of black civil rights activists and political leaders in offering white gays and lesbians not only a model for protest but also an opening to join an emerging liberal coalition in city hall. The book draws on diverse oral histories and archival records spanning half a century, including those of undercover vice and police red squad investigators, previously unexamined interviews by midcentury social scientists studying gay life, and newly available papers of activists, politicians, and city agencies.

As the first history of gay politics in the post-Stonewall era grounded in archival research, Queer Clout sheds new light on the politics of race, religion, and the AIDS crisis, and it shows how big-city politics paved the way for the gay movement's unprecedented successes under the nation's first African American president.


In 2013, the chief justice of the United States suggested that the gayrights “lobby” was so “politically powerful” that gay couples denied equal access to marriage should not be considered a disadvantaged class deserving protection from the courts. And yet, only fifty years ago, gays and lesbians were social and political pariahs, facing harassment wherever they gathered. This book traces that trajectory—from the closet to the corridors of power—and chronicles the rise of gay politics in the postwar United States.

The path of gays and lesbians to political power led through city hall and developed primarily in response to the constant threat of arrest under which they lived. Their eventual victory over police harassment, secured by allying with other urban residents who were policed with similar vigor, especially African Americans, was the prerequisite for their later triumphs. By the late 1980s, in cities where politicians had only recently sought political advantage from raiding gay bars and carting their patrons off to jail, gays and lesbians had acquired sufficient power and influence for elected officials to pursue them aggressively as a potential voting bloc—not least by campaigning in those same bars. Gays now had clout.

Gay migration to cities was a major feature of postwar urban life, one that consequentially shaped urban liberalism. After World War II, unprecedented numbers of émigrés from smaller cities, towns, rural areas, and suburbs left their families of origin and joined urban gay society, where they learned they could find both anonymity and community. As Carl Wittman wrote of San Francisco, in the most influential manifesto of the gay-liberation movement, “We came not because it is so great here, but because it was so bad there.” In subsequent decades, the gay-rights movement flourished and drew in predominantly white and middle-class city dwellers. As urban gay communities swelled with newly out and newly arrived gay people, their desire for recognition and their need for government protections began to realign the political . . .

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