When Art Johnston recalls how difficult life was for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the early 1970s when he arrived in Chicago, several examples immediately come to mind.
He said back then the police made a sport out of raiding gay bars. Employers could fire gay workers on a whim. And hardly anyone was openly gay.
"I remember there was only one funeral home in the city, maybe in the state, that would dress the bodies of transgender people in the clothes of the sex they perceived themselves to be," he said.
Johnston, 69, is a founder of Equality Illinois, the state's largest advocacy group for LGBT people. While he would never suggest that gay people have no more battles to fight, he does marvel at how far public opinion has shifted in support of marriage equality in a relatively short amount of time.
National polls taken since the beginning of the year consistently show that more Americans support same-sex marriage than oppose it.
Johnston said it's nearly impossible to understand why that's so remarkable without understanding recent history.
"Public opinion has moved so radically on this," he said. "I can remember when the highest thing most gay people could aspire to was to get home at the end of the day and not be fired or beaten up."
Johnston came to Chicago in 1972 to attend graduate school at Northwestern University. He was 29 and taking a sabbatical from a job as a teacher at a Virginia boarding school. He said the only place gay people could meet each other was in bars.
"There were no openly gay attorneys or doctors," Johnston said. "You could be a hairdresser, a clothing designer or an interior decorator, but that was about it. Everybody else had to hide. We were second- and third-class citizens."
A year after Johnston arrived in Chicago, he visited a bar on Clark and Surf streets that was next door to the funeral home that honored the lives of transgender people. He met a bartender, a Cuban emigre named Jose "Pepe" Pena. They fell in love. Until then, Johnston's family members — who were in upstate New York, where he grew up — didn't know he was gay.
"I was head over heels in love, and by then it was easy to tell my family," he said. "They were country people who moved to Buffalo to work in the factory jobs. They didn't know anything about being gay. But they knew how happy I was and accepted it, and they came to love my partner."
Johnston and Pena own Sidetrack, a gay bar on North Halsted Street. He said that in 1982 when Sidetrack opened, the average life span of gay bars in Chicago was two to four years because they were often the subject of police raids, especially around election time.
"In the 1970s, the police would come in and haul everyone to jail," he said. "And the newspapers would list the full names and the professions of people arrested in what they called the 'pervert bar.' The charges would be dropped, but the administration wanted to send a message that they were moral and tough on homosexuality."
Johnston said patrons would lose their jobs because, back then, it was legal in Chicago to fire someone on the basis of his or her sexuality.
But in 1988, the City Council passed an amendment to the city's human rights ordinance forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment, public accommodations and credit transactions.
"I recall clearly the work we did to get the human rights ordinance passed," he said. "Until 2005, in other parts of the state, you could still fire somebody for being gay. To think that, in 2013, we're now rounding up the votes to pass marriage equality in Illinois."
He said for many in his generation, the idea of getting married was as remote as taking a stroll on the moon. The same was true of adopting children.
"The thought never crossed our minds," said Johnston, who's been with Pena for 39 years. "I was focused on things like, 'Would we have trouble renting an apartment? Would I lose my job?' It's a shame because my partner would have been one of the great parents of the world."
He said that early on, he and Pena, who's also 69, were even "oddballs" among some gays because the idea of being a couple seemed pointless since it could never go anywhere. They're now in a civil union.
Johnston told me that he believes the most important factor in increasing support for gays has been men and women coming out.
"When you know somebody, it's hard to demonize them," he said. "They're no longer the scary 'other.' Gay people, who could pass, stopped passing, and when you look at the numbers on acceptance, the people who are supportive, the percentage of them who knows somebody who's gay is enormous."
And then there's the way gay people have been depicted in popular culture. Think about NBC's "Will & Grace," which offered gay characters who were complex and smart and hilarious.
"People no longer worried about gay people kidnapping their children or trying to convert them to the gay lifestyle and all of that nonsense. They realized what we want out of life is not so different from what other people want — to find happiness."