To look at Oak Park’s history of inclusion of people of all sexual orientations is really to look at the history of the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association + (OPALGA ).
Without OPALGA championing such causes as inclusion, education and, of course, broadened civil rights legislation, Oak Park may never have become the welcoming village it’s viewed as today.
“If you’re going to live in a diverse community, you have to accept differences and that’s what the gay movement was all about,” said Bob Trezevant, one of OPALGA founding members. “We’re different. That’s all. We do not deserve to be discriminated against because of that difference.”
The 30-year-old organization and its contributions is currently being honored at the Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake St. The exhibit, titled “Proud Oak Parkers: OPALGA at 30,” chronicles OPALGA from its inception in 1989 to the present.
“It’s a classic Oak Park story of a relatively small organization that has had a very big impact on policy in the village,” said Trezevant. “And it’s significant that a local museum would then take on a project involving gay history.”
Trezevant, a longtime member of the Historical Society which sponsors the museum, helped the museum coordinate the exhibit.
As expansive as it is poignant, the exhibit is available for viewing until Feb. 29.
“I did not anticipate it being as beautiful as it is,” said Rebekah Levin, the first co-chair of OPALGA , of the exhibit. “It was delightful to see.”
At the time of its founding, the organization was simply called Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association.
“We wanted to be inclusive. We wanted the word lesbian to precede gay, which is why the name was chosen,” said OPALGA co-founder Nathan Linsk.
“We wanted it to be what we called a ‘co-sexual organization.’ There were always straight people on the board, who were our allies,” he said.
Beyond that, the OPALGA board has always had a male and female co-chair.
“Being a co-chair was not the big deal for me,” said Levin. “The big deal was having an organization that was identified as a lesbian and gay organization, which is all it was back then, and being out. And doing it with the mindset that this was not to be a secret organization or one that flew under the radar.”
Inclusivity and openness are still top priorities. The name has changed and grown slightly over the years to recognize and represent people of all orientations and also neighboring communities.
Linsk is the only living co-founder left. His late partner Mel Wilson, who died in 2017, was also a co-founder. The third co-founder was Bryan Findlay, who died at 34, just three years after the founding of OPALGA .
Together, the three men founded OPALGA in March 1989, but sowed the seeds of the organization months before.
“Somehow, we became aware that the village was going to make revisions in its human rights ordinance, and this was in 1988,” Linsk said. “They needed to add people with disabilities to the code, and so that provided an opportunity for us to go and say, ‘Well you should also add sexual orientation as a protected group.'”
At that point, the village board didn’t have staggered terms and an election for an entirely new board and clerk was right around the corner. To generate support for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the human rights ordinance, Linsk, Findlay and Wilson met with every candidate.
“It was Bryan’s idea to do the candidates,” Trezevant said.
“They tried to convey there were lots of gay people out there and we are really organized. Well that was not the case,” Trezevant said with a laugh.
He added, “There were lots of gay people and we were in all kinds of organizations in the western suburbs and in the city, but nothing in Oak Park.”
Findlay, a Republican, created a questionnaire about lesbian and gay issues for board candidates.
“We sent out the original questionnaire under the letterhead of the Chicago-Area Republican Gay Association and that stirred up a lot of interest in the political parties,” Linsk remembered.
Findlay would not have been a “Trump Republican,” Linsk was quick to note. “He was just very conservative about his views in economics,” Linsk said.
To cover their bases, they met with the dominant political group, the Village Manager Association, and its opposition, Common Sense, on the pretense that, regardless of who won elected seats, sexual orientation would be added to the human rights ordinance. Both sides committed to adding it.
“By that time, people opposed to gays and lesbians had organized, particularly from Calvary Memorial Church and other more fundamental churches in Oak Park,” Linsk said.
Sexual orientation was added, months after OPALGA had its first official meeting at the Maze Library.
“The ordinance change happened on June 5,” Trezevant remembers. “It was a big important meeting. And it’s all on tape.”
Footage from the meeting can be viewed at the museum.
“It’s chilling if you’ve never seen it because you hear the opposition and they came out in force,” Trezevant said. “But, so did we.”
Founding members Jim Aull and Jeffrey Smith met at the hearing and were married for 30 years, until Aull’s death this past August. The couple hosted the organization’s first potluck. Potlucks still take place today.
The group didn’t bask in its victory. The founding members immediately started working with other institutions, including the schools and police department, to include policies barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and to educate them on the unique issues faced by the lesbian and gay community.
Not long after, Oak Park became one of the first communities to implement a domestic partnership ordinance and a registry of homosexual couples.
The great strides didn’t come easily. A group called “Concerned Citizens” tried to repeal the legislation, albeit unsuccessfully.
“When you’re constantly under attack, it’s stressful and you need to have a community to work with together,” Linsk said.
Levin felt similarly.
“There was still at that time so much discomfort with anything to do with queer life. There was so much fear,” Levin said.
She remembers the uncomfortable stares as she walked down the street, holding hands with her partner.
“People would turn around a lot and look. We would hold tighter, just to reinforce each other,” Levin said.
Levin remembers the fear and liberation she felt during the early days of OPALGA .
“It was very exciting, and it was a wonderful time in many ways, but we also had people whose lives were on the line, who could lose their jobs, who could lose their housing, they could lose their families,” she said.
The exhibit is bittersweet for many of those who were with OPALGA from the start.
“It brings back tons of happy memories because of all the wonderful friendships that we made through the group, but it’s also very sad because those of us who were around 30 years ago, were living through the AIDS epidemic and we lost scores of friends,” Trezevant said.
According to Linsk, the exhibit was so powerful that it moved some OPALGA members to tears.
“I know that some people came and left in tears because there are pictures of people who are no longer here,” he said. “These people were my family. The ones who have passed on, it’s hard to go back and look at all that.”
He wishes that those who died could have seen the exhibit, particularly Wilson, whom he loved deeply.
“He would have loved it,” Linsk said.
Levin and Trezevant also believe the friends OPALGA have lost would have been thrilled to have seen and been a part of the exhibit.
The exhibit itself is a visual symbol of the progress OPALGA and Oak Park has made in relation to understanding different sexual orientations.
“In 1989, personally and professionally, in many instances, it would be hard to imagine that change could happen,” said Trezevant.
The world has changed considerably since then.
“When we were creating OPALGA and when we were working in it, we were the vanguard. We were the ones who were pushing the envelope and taking the risks and creating new language and new understandings,” Levin said.
“There is a whole generation that has come after that has really taken this to a new level; they are taking the lead and that’s a good thing.”
OPALGA is still going strong, even after 30 years.
“It’s amazing that the organization is still so vibrant and still focuses on important agendas,” Trezevant said.
There is still much to be learned from, and greater appreciation to be had for, the organization’s past and the museum’s fine work in preserving it.
“The kind of visibility we’ve had, the kind of credibility we’ve had – it’s a unique story,” Linsk said. “But that story disappears if it’s not told. The exhibit is a way of telling the story, so at least if someone is interested, it exists.