‘‘When I look back, I realize I'd made that connection with civil rights even before I came out,’’ he said. ‘‘That was like a turning point ... To me it felt right. I didn’t feel ashamed.’’
Much of the activity in the ‘60s unfolded out of the national spotlight. But the movement broadened — and public awareness grew — after police harassment of patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar, sparked three days of riots in June 1969.
Emboldened by Stonewall, Edelman decided to promote gay activism at the University of Chicago, where he recalled gay student life as ‘‘basically one restroom where people had sex.’’
Through an ad placed in the student newspaper, he and friend convened a meeting to launch a gay liberation group, which started with a handful of members and grew steadily,
‘‘We came to the conclusion that, before we could do anything else, we had to come out,’’ he said. ‘‘We decided to wear buttons — ‘Out of the closets, into the streets.'’’
By the summer of 1970, the activists had hosted some well-attended public dances and organized Chicago’s first gay pride parade on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The incident with David Reuben followed a few months later, turning gay liberation into a topic of public conversation for Chicagoans.
It was a far cry from Edelman’s youth — growing up in a Jewish household in Chicago where sexuality was not discussed. Even as a 20-year-old jobseeker in Washington, he was confused and insecure about his sexual identity.
‘‘I was trying to figure all this out,’’ he said. ‘‘There was no support, no place I could read about someone like me. I was totally alone.’’
Edelman, now 69, went on to earn a doctorate in human development, work for CBS News and serve as editorial director for Voter News Service, the consortium that conducted exit-polling during several presidential elections.
What did he and his colleagues accomplish four decades ago in Chicago?
‘‘It was a whole new consciousness for gays — we made it OK to be gay,’’ he said. ‘‘We thought that we had strength in each other, that we could define ourselves differently from how society defined us.’’
COPING WITH CRISIS
The 1970s brought a rush of milestones as gays came out of the closet and started demanding equal rights — the first openly gay people elected to public office and ordained as ministers, the first municipal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the first national gay rights march in Washington. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.
With those winds of change at his back, 27-year-old Tim Sweeney moved to New York in the fall of 1981 to become executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay legal advocacy group.
A few months earlier, The New York Times had published an article under the headline ‘‘Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.’’ Sweeney worried this mysterious illness would give the public another excuse to denigrate and discriminate against gay people at a time when he and his colleagues were feeling hopeful.
‘‘Once we sort of got the government out of our lives and shed some of the stigma of criminalization and mental illness, we were allowed, because we had the safety to do it, to dream about the world we wanted for ourselves,’’ he said.
He couldn’t have conceived of the pain, losses and political challenges that lay ahead.
It would be a year before the cluster of strange ailments afflicting not only gay men, but intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs and some women would have a name — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS — and another year after that before the virus that caused it, HIV, was isolated.
Sweeney had come to Lambda Legal planning to oversee challenges to state laws that criminalized gay sexual activity, to fight police harassment, to represent people fired from or denied jobs because they were gay. That work continued in the earliest years of the epidemic while volunteers and community clinics performed the day-to-day task of caring for the growing numbers of terminally ill.
Soon, though, the scourge became all-encompassing.
In 1983, Lambda took on the case of a doctor being evicted from his rented Manhattan office because he treated people with AIDS. A court blocked the eviction, ruling that it violated state laws protecting the disabled; the decision provided a template for securing insurance coverage and other basic rights for the afflicted. As panic and prejudice spread in the general population, gay lawyers also sought to protect the confidentiality of patients who were being tested or treated for the disease.Continued...