The legacy of Pearl M Hart, a fierce lesbian lawyer and “Guardian Angel” of LGBTQ+ rights

Pearl M Hart famously fought for the rights of minorities including Chicago's LGBTQ+ community.

Black and white photo of Pearl M Hart. She has short dark hair and looks down the lens of the camera.
Image: X @LGBTHallofFame

A fierce lesbian lawyer, Pearl M Hart was known for tirelessly defending the rights of oppressed minority groups, like children, women, immigrants, lesbians and gay men, at a time when it was not so easy to do so. Posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1992, we explore her legacy and 61-year career as a “Guardian Angel” of her city’s queer community.

Born Pearl Minnie Harchovsky on April 7, 1890, she was the fifth daughter of Jewish immigrant parents. She spent the first two years of her life in Traverse City, Michigan, before her family moved to Chicago in 1892. Hart reportedly remembered being a much-loved child and credits her early exposure to poverty and her mother Rebecca and father David’s dedication to helping others with forming the basis of her lifelong commitment to social justice.

When she began her professional career, Pearl adopted the surname Hart as she found it easier and more convenient, but she did not wish to distance herself from her immigrant roots. She studied at John Marshall Law School and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1914, becoming one of the first female attorneys in Chicago to specialise in criminal law.

From 1915 to 1917, she served as an adult probation officer, and shortly after, she met Blossom Churan, the daughter of a law officer whom Hart shared an office with. The pair began a relationship, which became more serious after the deaths of Churan’s father and Hart’s mother, as they had tried to hide their connection while their parents were alive. 

Although Pearl Hart never denied she was a lesbian, she tended to be subtle about it, especially during the early years of her career as she tried to build her reputation. 


She was the first female lawyer to be appointed as a public defender in the Morals Court and dealt with cases related to prostitution, immoral or homosexual conduct, child abuse and adultery. According to her friend, journalist Studs Terkel, she achieved an acquittal record of over 90%.

She was a founding and board member of the National Lawyers Guild, the Committee to Defend the Foreign-Born and the Portes Cancer Prevention Clinic, and in many cases represented clients for free or a nominal fee. In the 1940s she was a fully-fledged civil rights activist serving on the board of the civil rights bail fund which worked towards legally challenging racial segregation and discrimination in housing, healthcare and more. 

In her personal life, by 1947 Hart wanted to live with Churan in the epicentre of gay Chicago. Churan, however, was then in love with physician Dr Bertha Isaacs, but instead of separating, Hart suggested that the three of them live together. They did so until Churan’s death, with the lawyer’s later lover, Valerie Taylor, calling it a “rather gothic existence”.

In the ‘50s she focused on defending immigrants in deportation proceedings. She took one of the cases to the Supreme Court in 1957, ultimately winning and boosting her platform on a national scale.

As her life went on, Hart increasingly lived more openly as a lesbian, and from the 1960’s, she focused on fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. She worked for anti-entrapment laws to combat what’s known as the Lavender Scare, a witch hunt that exposed closeted queer folk in order to dismiss them from the government, civil service and military. She also fought for the right to privacy and co-founded the Mattachine Society in the Midwest which sought to ensure LGBTQ+ people were aware of their legal rights.

Pearl Hart practiced law for over 60 years but was unsuccessful in being elected to the City Council of Chicago and being appointed a judge, as she remained unpopular with the establishment. She worked until a few weeks before her death on March 22, 1975, and is credited by the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame with inheriting “the love and respect of thousands of men and women whom she helped, and a society somewhat better for her effort – which is all she wanted.”

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