It was the fall of 1987. The Flyin’ Illini were still a year away from being anointed, but the building they were born in was buzzing, with sold-out shows starring Whitney Houston in September, U2 in October and REM in November.
“It was a different time,” says Kane County Circuit Court Judge John Dalton, who was about to wrap up law school. And not for the better, he’s quick to add. “Homophobia was still socially acceptable, but times were changing. Slowly.”
And so, on Oct. 2, as Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” tour was about to play the Assembly Hall — gay jokes and all — a small group of protesters greeted the masses on their way inside. Dalton breezed right by them — not wanting to miss what he remembers was “the entertainment highlight of the year on campus” but “profoundly conflicted,” he admits now, 30 years later.
“As a deeply closeted gay man,” he says, “I felt that supporting the show with my presence, and the price of admission, was a betrayal. I watched the show anyway. The gay jokes were deeply offensive, but I have to admit, the rest of the show was funny.
“As the first openly gay circuit court judge ever elected in the history of Illinois outside of Cook County, I feel a responsibility to be a leader in the community that I serve, but I didn’t have the emotional and other resources to do that as a law student. It wouldn’t be until five years after I became a lawyer that I would begin the process of coming out and taking personal responsibility for advancing equality.”
Few knew it at the time but Dalton believes that protest that night outside the former Assembly Hall represented a turning point — both for the LGBT movement and himself. He still thinks about it often.
“Students today may not be aware of the history of the struggle for LGBT civil rights and the hard work that was required to secure the progress that has been achieved thus far,” he says. “They may take the greater social acceptance they enjoy today for granted.
“But I would have them know they stand on the shoulders of the multitudes who came before them to secure those rights, just as I surely stand on the shoulders of those brave souls standing in lonely protest outside Assembly Hall so many years ago.”