As we are into another election season, we recall that an Oak Park village board election, in April 1989, provided the impetus for a previously hidden community to emerge. Up until then, there was no way for gay and lesbian people to gather, outside of some very discrete social groups and a couple of Forest Park bars. Most of us travelled to the North Side of Chicago to socialize and find support. Gays and lesbians were totally invisible to the larger Oak Park community, which was then noted, as it is now, for diversity and community involvement.
This began to change as the numbers of HIV and AIDS cases were reported and the disproportionate numbers of positive gay men in Oak Park revealed that indeed many gay men lived in Oak Park and surrounding areas. Community Response, Inc., a newly formed social service organization, started to provide support.
My partner, the late Mel Wilson and I were asked to join their board, as representatives of the gay population. Mel was already advocating for gay and lesbian rights and education at Oak Park and River Forest High School. I was a social work professor at the University of Illinois Chicago Medical Center and also had just started the federally funded Midwest AIDS Training and Education Center, where I am still involved, although I’ve been retired as emeritus professor at UIC since 2011.
As the village planned to update the human rights ordinance to include disabled and other groups, Community Response founder and CEO Angelika Kuehn engineered meetings with village board candidates to ask for consideration of people living with HIV/AIDS. This led to a campaign to include sexual orientation among those categories of people needing protection and successful inclusion in the ordinance.
Mel and I, along with longtime Oak Parker Bryan Findlay, then decided that a visible community group was needed, which led to the formation of the Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association. The name of the organization was modified in 1994 to the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association (OPALGA) as the group increasingly included participants from surrounding communities. In 2019 a “plus” was added to be more inclusive of the wider range of gender and sexual identities.
OPALGA+ has just completed the celebration of its 30th anniversary. Early achievements of the group are well known, including the human rights ordinance, persuading each government unit to adapt protections for LGBT citizens, being among the first domestic partnership registries established in the state, electing openly gay officials, creating services for youth, and myriad cultural and social events. However, current members were not aware of the stories of how this happened.
So I contacted a number of early OPALGA members, and we met several times last summer, deciding how to document the early history. We wanted to focus on our own experiences — how it felt, why things happened and how this changed not only for us as participants, but the larger community.
We hoped to capture these stories while we still had collective memory, while some of the early leaders could contribute, as some have moved out of the area or died. This coalesced with OPALGA ‘s 30th anniversary and is a counterpart to the exhibit that was recently displayed at the Oak Park River Forest Museum.
The result is the new book, The Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association: Stories from the History-Making First Decade. I served as editor-in-chief, but the book is truly a joint effort. Eventually 20 authors contributed, including founding members, members of the youth groups, recent OPALGA co-chairs, and community members who were involved over the years.
The book highlights the first decade, with its advocacy efforts and successes, linkages to other groups, and a number of programs including cultural arts, educational programs, social events, and youth programs with a timeline, early strategic plan and some press material as appendices.
The book is available as a web publication, downloadable for free at opalga.org. A limited print run of hard copies allowed us to contribute copies to the OP-RF Historical Society, the University of Illinois Chicago Library and the Oak Park Public Library.