Activists go to jail for marriage equality[Description: Blurred out text frames a photo of Nancy and Toby in the upper right corner the Headline: “Free Nancy Davis and Toby Schneiter Gay Marriage Now” dominating the middle.]
Today, most of us in the U.S. show our support for political causes through “clicktivism”: we “like,” “share,” and retweet stories on our social media feeds. Sometimes we’ll sign an online petition. A few of us might write a letter to our elected representative and, if the weather is not too terrible, we might even attend a march or rally. The reality is, the better we are served by the existing political and economic system, the less likely we are to take to the streets and demand justice – in any area, racial, gender, economic or otherwise.
Sometimes, though, people stand out for their willingness to go that extra mile, or in the case of Chicagoans Nancy Davis and Wolf Schneiter, miles.
In 1975, Wolf, whose name was Toby* and who identified as lesbian, met Nancy. Then 20, Toby fell hard for Nancy whose dynamic energy and intellectual sharpness were impossible to resist. Just two years her senior, Nancy seemed much more experienced in life. Although Toby didn’t agree with everything Nancy said, she was swept up in the storm of her intensity.
Nancy’s politics were driven by a desire for revolutionary change. Raised in a white, middle-class enclave on Chicago’s south side, she was righteously enraged by homosexual oppression, and cast heterosexuality – and heterosexuals – as the enemy. Toby, who is also white and was raised by her single mother and her grandmother in a ghetto in Uptown, saw things from a different angle. She tended to get along with straight men, for example – which made her an outcast from the separatist-leaning lesbian-feminist community in Chicago. Despite Nancy and Toby’s differences, they embarked on an ambitious plan to challenge homosexual oppression by demanding the right to marry.
Nancy and Toby used three non-violent political strategies common in the early 1970s: the media press release, the sit-in, and the hunger strike. The press was there when they arrived at the Cook Country Marriage Bureau office and requested a marriage license. The application was apologetically declined, and so the sit-in began. Bureau staff were remarkably accommodating, even ordering in lunch for them.
Following in the tradition of peaceful protest they refused to leave at closing time and had to be escorted out by the police who charged them with trespassing. Once before a judge, they were released and told to return to court the next day. Instead, they resumed their sit-in and were arrested once again. And again. And again.
Interestingly, each time they appeared before the same judge, and each time he released them. Wolf suspects he was ‘a sister’ [slang for gay, for those unfamiliar with the terminology] – he appeared to enjoy the case a great deal and was openly in favour of their action. His obituary describes him as a life-long bachelor.
Eventually the pair were made to appear before a different judge who did what Nancy and Toby had hoped for all along: he put them in jail. They were free to leave prison if they agreed to stay away from the marriage license office. They refused. Nancy and Toby spent close to a year in prison for the cause.
Nancy believed that once the injustice was known, gays would rise up and launch a revolution that would overthrow heterosexual domination and liberate the masses. Toby simply believed that it was an injustice that needed to be addressed.
“I was raised in my grandmother’s lap and she would read to me the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence,” and Pastor Niemoller’s poem:
First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
“I came away from my childhood [feeling that] if you believe something is wrong, you stand up for it, and if there is nothing you would stand up for with your life, then your life is not worth living.” (I’ve gotten less black and white over the years, he adds.) For Toby the right to marry was a simple matter of justice, equality, and civil rights.
Widespread support for their campaign never materialized, in part because they lacked the organizational ability to mobilize large numbers of supporters, but also because more moderate Chicago activists aggressively worked to undermine their legitimacy as activists. At the time, lesbian and gay community energies were heavily invested in getting an anti-discrimination ordinance passed at city council; Nancy and Toby’s demand for marriage equality threatened the success of the bill.
The attacks by some of their opponents were vicious. Tomatoes were thrown at their apartment windows, death threats made over the phone. Wolf’s personal archive includes one particularly revealing letter, from October 16th 1975:[Text:
Nancy David and Jeff Graubert
1059 West Lill Ave
Chicago IL 606014
Please be advised that we will be watching to see what damage your half-baked scheme does to the gay rights bill and the ERA, we suggest you abandon your actions for Monday. Dont kick [sic] yourself, you do not have the support of the gay community. We assure you, however, if you go through with it we will give you a great deal of national coverage. We also assure you that the coverage will not be favorable. Your [sic] backing up and the gay community against a wall. Consider this a warning.
Michael A. Bergeron, Editor The Chicago Gay Crusader
Given what happened in Colorado where clerk Clela Rorex did issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, it is unlikely that Toby and Nancy’s actions would have changed the history of the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. However, their story tells us a great deal about just how far some people are willing to go to fight for what they believe is just. It also shows how internal opposition can be even more ugly than the opposition we receive from our anti-gay opponents.
How far are you willing to go for what you believe is just?
*When asked what name he would prefer I use when talking about the past, Wolf indicated I should use Toby since that was his name at the time.