Illinois Holocaust Museum makes history in presenting its first LGBTQ exhibit

Exhibit debuts Oct. 17

aestonewall image
An overview of the Rise Up: Stonewall and the LBGTQ Rights Movement exhibit, which opens at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on Oct. 17.

When Skokie's Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center opens Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement on Oct. 17, it will be "a big moment for the museum," said Arielle Weininger, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions. That's because it will mark a first in the museum's history: while the museum's programming in the past has touched upon the oppression that gay men, lesbians, transgender people, and other sexual minorities experienced during the Shoah, the upcoming show will be the first time that the 12-year-old museum has devoted an entire exhibition to the struggles of the LGBTQ community as a whole, Weininger said. 

Rise Up , a traveling exhibition of the now-defunct Washington, D.C.-based Newseum, offers a special twist. As it chronicles--through newspaper clippings, posters, photographs, and other artifacts--the decades-long history of the LGBTQ community's struggles to achieve equality in employment, marriage, the military, and other aspects of life many now take for granted, it reminds museumgoers that gains never would have been realized without the exercise of First Amendment guarantees of free speech, press, and peaceful protest.


Among those exercising their rights were a number of LGBTQ Jews, all of whom figure prominently in the exhibit: Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco Supervisor, one of first openly gay politicians in this country; Barney Frank, the liberal United States Congressman from suburban Boston; and the late Larry Kramer, author and founder of ACT UP, the AIDS activist group. 

But there are, and were, other LGBTQ Jews who, while not household names, have played a critical role in the advancement of equality--and they get their due in Rise Up as well. 

Frank Kameny was a career civil servant who was fired because he was openly gay. While he lost judicial appeals to get his job back--he was an astronomer with the United States Army's Map Service--his is the first known case of an LGBTQ individual pursuing legal recourse based on discrimination due to sexual orientation.


And then there's the late Edie Schlain Windsor, who was saddled with a whopping tax bill when her wife, Thea Spyer, died. In 2009, Windsor was forced to pay federal taxes on Spyer's estate because the government, invoking the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), did not recognize their marriage, which had taken place in Canada a few years before. She took her case to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 overturned DOMA.

To add a Chicago dimension to Rise Up , the museum will be projecting the images of all inductees into Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame over the past three decades, a good proportion of whom have been Jewish. They include psychotherapist Bruce Koff, who served as head of LGBTQ-focused Horizons Community Services; journalist Tracy Baim, who co-founded the Windy City Times ; and Dr. Ross Slotten, a physician who has been a longtime advocate for patients with AIDS.

One of the earliest honorees, inducted posthumously, was Chicago attorney Pearl M. Hart, née Harchovsky, a rabbi's daughter who became one of the first female attorneys to defend gay men and lesbians on morals charges in the early part of the 20th century, when homosexuality was still considered a crime. (Illinois was the first state to repeal its sodomy law--in 1961.)  


Pearl Hart was "attracted to the radicalism of the 1930s and grew up in an environment of social justice," said LGBT historian John D'Emilio, author of numerous works, including Queer Legacies: Stories from Chicago's LGBTQ Archives . Because of rampant homophobia of the times, D'Emilio said, Hart did not publicize her own lesbianism, but "she didn't pretend" to be other than who she was. Chicago's LGBTQ-focused Gerber/Hart Library and Archives was so named to honor her and the late Henry Gerber, an early Chicago gay rights leader.

Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement runs through May 8, 2022. For more information, visit ilholocaustmuseum.org .

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago. 


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