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Who had the power to define morality?

Members of McLean County’s gay and lesbian community faced discrimination, hateful rhetoric, and physical harm long before the Town of Normal or the City of Bloomington began to consider adding sexual orientation to their discrimination ordinances.

Gay and Lesbian Communities

Members of McLean County's gay and lesbian communities kept to themselves at first, knowing that others judged them and that public openness would only draw attention that could result in further discrimination and possible violence. But as circumstances began to improve in larger cities across the U.S., they began to organize and take a stand against the hate and discrimination they faced.

Illinois State University's Gay People's Alliance was the first gay and lesbian organization in McLean County. Founded in 1971, the group brought in activists who presented public programs to educate the community about gay and lesbian rights and issues.

In 1975, the National Organization for Women (NOW) and its McLean County affiliate resolved to support equal rights for gays and lesbians.


Elected Officials

For many years, both members of Bloomington and Normal's city councils declined to consider an ordinance on sexual orientation, believing it was an issue of morality, and that such an ordinance would give the gay and lesbian communities special rights and deny the religious rights of others.

Many area Christians, citing the Bible as their source, believed that gays and lesbians chose their sexual orientations, and feared that their lifestyles would have a bad influence on the community.

Who had the power?

In 1984, local gay rights activists worked with Bloomington and Normal’s Human Relations Commissions to draft their first proposal for an amendment to the local discrimination ordinances.

The amendment focused on problematic realities—that gay and lesbian members of the community were being denied their rights to open housing and employment. 

The proposal met stiff opposition from Bloomington’s alderpersons, and never went beyond council work sessions.

“If a gay wants to live gay, that's his business, but personally I don't approve of that lifestyle.”

— Alderman George Kroutil 1984
Alderman Steve Simms

“That is what the council is about—to bring out public debate. What the hell are they on the council for if they don't want a public debate?”

— Alderman Steve Simms 1984
Alderman Jesse Smart

“Gay rights issues are something you just don't debate on in public.”

— Alderman Jesse Smart 1984
Alderman Jesse Parker

“[It's] better to allow the pros—professionals in the legal sense, to make decisions involving discrimination because of sexual preference.”

— Alderman Jesse Parker 1984

Eleven years later, in October 1995, the Bloomington Human Relations Commission presented a revised draft of their sexual orientation amendment to the city council.

This is not a matter of whether you agree or disagree with homosexuality. It is an issue of whether you agree or disagree that discrimination is acceptable. . . . How much violence is acceptable to you? The answer should be none!
— Peggy Ann Burton, Bloomington Human Relations Commission
October 29, 1995

Members of Bloomington’s newly organized Gay Rights Advocacy Council circulated a petition in support of the 1995 proposed amendment, which was openly debated in the Bloomington Pantagraph.

Individuals both for and against the amendment attended the January 1996 meeting at which the Bloomington City Council voted "NO."

A man holds a piece of paper with the words "Vote NO! Corinthians 6:1-10" written on it.

Tom McCulley and Ron Frazier reacted to the "NO" vote in Bloomington. The couple had devoted much of their time to public discussion on the need for the amendment.

Passionate views from both sides of the argument brought Bloomington into the national spotlight.

Stories and editorials regarding the upcoming vote were featured in the New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and USA Today.

When “GAY PRIDE” and a pink triangle (often seen as a symbol of the gay community) was painted on the garage door of Jesse Smart’s home, opponents shouted “vandalism.” 

But gay rights proponents believed the vandalism was done by anti-gay activists in an effort to make gays look like criminals — the symbol was painted upside down.

On January 22, 1996 Bloomington’s City Council voted “NO” on the amendment. Three months later, on May 6, the Town of Normal also voted “NO.”

Mayor Jesse Smart points at the words "Gay Pride" and a pink triangle spray-painted on his garage door. He was not happy about the damage. Gay rights proponents believed the vandalism was done by anti-gay activists in an effort to make gays look like criminals — the symbol was painted upside down.

Despite failing to pass the sexual orientation ordinance, members of Bloomington-Normal's LGBTQ community had reason to believe they were making serious progress.

Between the Bloomington and the Normal votes Jerry Pope, co-chairman of the Action Committee of the Advocacy Council for Human Rights, and Bloomington Mayor Jesse Smart both appeared on the Phil Donahue show

Pope, an admissions counselor at IWU, was beat up after leaving a gay bar in Bloomington. He was afraid of losing his job if he came out as gay, and he lied and told his co-workers his injuries were from a bicycle accident. Fortunately, after he came out as gay, Illinois Wesleyan did not fire him, but instead added homosexuality to their non-discrimination policy. The City of Bloomington, however, was not ready to protect homosexuality by law.

Mayor Smart asserted that he was against a proposed ordinance protecting homosexuality because it was "protecting a behavior." Smart implied that being gay (unlike being Black) was a choice and not an identity, and said that "I can name you some former gays." He also stated that City staff considered the proposed ordinance "an infringement upon religious freedom." He added that the "gay community in our city is treated very well."

By the end of 1998, local support for LGBTQ rights had grown considerably.

On June 21, 1997, over 600 people attended the first Central Illinois Pride Festival held in Bloomington. 

The Open Door Youth Center, which provided positive social interaction for gay and lesbian youths, was established. 

Gay rights non-discrimination policies had been established at ISU, IWU, State Farm Insurance, and Normal Community High School. 

Attitudes were changing within these organizations and the community, but the protections ended when the workers or the students left the place of coverage. But there was still work to do. 

1997 Pride Festival flyer

In 1998, the horrific murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard did much to increase public awareness of hate crimes against gays and lesbians.

But Shepard's murder did not stop local hate crimes and discrimination. Illinois began recording specific instances of gay and lesbian discrimination in 1999. In the first six months, 30 cases were recorded.

In August 2000, ISU student Chris Wieninger was hospitalized after being severely beaten on a street near campus for being gay. Just one of over 60 hate crimes investigated by ISU since 1998, ISU students responded with a rally against the presence of bigotry, hatred, and intolerance on or near the ISU campus.

On October 15, 1998, candlelight vigils were held in cities across the nation in memory of Shepard and as a unified statement against intolerance. Over 200 people attended the vigil held on the ISU campus.

In September 2001, Normal's Human Relations Commission again asked the Normal Town Council to add a sexual orientation amendment to its discrimination ordinance.

This time the community support was there. On Monday, October 1, 2001, Normal passed the sexual orientation amendment 5-2. The following day the sexual orientation amendment to the City of Bloomington's discrimination ordinance was back on the agenda.

The vote was delayed by Mayor Judy Markowitz for seven months, while she waited for a council meeting when all would be present. Finally, on October 28, 2002, the vote went before the Bloomington City Council and was approved 6-2.

Reflection Questions

Why were council members at first unwilling to publicly discuss gay rights?

Was the question of moral behavior a proper argument against a sexual discrimination ordinance?

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