In 1989, at a political coffee organized to question local candidates in Oak Park about their stand on gay and lesbian issues, Mel Wilson and Nathan Linsk started something big in their small apartment on Humphrey Avenue in Oak Park.
Back then, as the lead co-founders of the Oak Park Area Gay and Lesbian Association (OPALGA), Wilson, now 71, and Linsk, 65, strategically recruited a small group of gay and lesbian activists who would be unafraid to stand up and speak out in Oak Park for gay rights.
Now as the group marks its 25th anniversary it is both celebrating real accomplishments and assessing its future in a changed world.
"Brian Findley decided we should send a questionnaire to the candidates on what their concerns were regarding HIV, other gay rights issues, and particularly on adding nondiscriminatory language to the village's Human Rights statement," says Linsk, a retired University of Illinois professor. "Back when we started OPALGA, gay and lesbian people were very often invisible and OPALGA was the only real connection point, initially."
A quarter of a century later what has evolved is one of the largest community-based, multi-purpose lesbian and gay membership organizations in Illinois.
"Oak Park was not a difficult field to plow," says Jim Kelly, another co-founder, as is his partner of 26 years, and soon-to-be husband, Bruce Broerman. "All we had to do was remind Oak Park of the ideals it had… and shift the focus to adding sexual orientation to the village's diversity statement, which happened without much fanfare at all."
Early on, that happened, and much more. OPALGA succeeded in having the Village of Oak Park's Human Rights Ordinance amended to bar discrimination-based on sexual orientation in employment (by village and village contractors), as well as in housing and public accommodations. The group also proposed and supported the village government in extending Domestic Partnership Benefits to same-sex partners of village employees. OPALGA successfully convinced the village board to pass the Domestic Partnership Registry for same sex couples in Oak Park, in spite of pushback, Kelly recalls.
After the registry was established by the village government, opposition led by Calvary Church gathered enough signatures to place a non-binding referendum on the ballot to rescind the registry. The referendum was narrowly defeated. "At the time, Calvary Church put a nonbinding referendum on the ballot to repeal it, but we squeaked by," says Kelly. "Now, it has become such second nature for gays and lesbians who live in Oak Park to be involved in Oak Park, as it should be for any citizen."
Coming of age or aging out
Even so, in recent years fewer 20 and 30 year olds have been joining this iconic social and political activist group.
In part, says Broerman, its membership chair, the aging roster may be related to recent strides, including social gains, and the legalization of gay marriage. Another factor, he adds, is the reality of people juggling issues of work and family.
Yet, their monthly newcomer networking potlucks are still well attended by people of all ages who are interested in that kind of social activity.
"I am sure that many people perceive the organization now as a 'why do we need it,' and I guess my answer to that is that we still do serve a purpose," Broerman says.
Oak Parkers Charlie Yingling, 36, and his husband joined OPALGA in 2005 to extend their social reach here.
"I enjoy that we as a community have an organization that gives a face to the LGBTs in Oak Park [because] even though Oak Park is an extremely progressive and welcoming place, there are times in our situations when the voice of LGBT people needs to be heard collectively, and I believe in having that shared identity," says the former board member. "When the marriage bill was put before the legislature last year, OPALGA chartered a bus so members could go to Springfield and lobby lawmakers, which was a lot of fun. Perhaps now the new face of LGBTs in Oak Park are young families, and in the future, why can't OPALGA become a resource for that demographic?"
OPALGA's co-chair Colette Lueck, also an Oak Park village trustee, notes the group is now focusing on being a social outlet, as well as a grant making organization that raises funds for small nonprofits that provide direct services to the LGBTQ community.
Another new focus for the group has been the establishment of its scholarship fund for LGBTQ students; children of LGBTQ parents; and allies of the LGBTQ community interested in furthering their education.
"I am very invested in the scholarship program [because] it is unique and important and the grants go to kids who would not otherwise be getting scholarships" says Lueck, adding that the "best party in town" is still the annual Opal Gala banquet, which is set for Oct. 25 in commemoration of the group's 25th anniversary.
For co-founders Linsk and Wilson, there are memories of genuine accomplishment all preserved for posterity in binders. But it is still in the looking forward that they see purpose, knowing that despite much progress in Oak Park and the broad society, that being an LGBTQ still holds challenges.
"OPALGA has enabled people to take their first baby steps out into clear air without fear," says Wilson. "Until there is a point in time reached where gay people can grow into adulthood and be encouraged to function in a community responsibly – and be freely given responsibilities -- there will be a need for some kind of structured organization that can carry on and help kids understand that there is something to look forward to and the reign of hell that is adolescence will be over, and there will be a time in their lives when they will be happy, have friends, possibly be married with children, and that the world will be good to them. Somebody has to do that."
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