Nowadays, it’s strange to remember that it wasn’t that long ago when gay men who wanted to be out and proud—who wanted to dance and flirt and fuck without facing violence or death threats or worse from the straight community—had to seek safety in numbers and hide out in their own rainbow-colored ghettos. But we live in a kinder age, where Lady Gaga can sing “Born This Way” during the Super Bowl halftime show, same-sex couples can get married, and even straight boys can dance at Roscoe’s. We should be past the need for “gayborhoods,” as Amin Ghaziani argued in his influential 2014 book There Goes the Gayborhood. Don’t areas like Boystown, fun as they are, only remind us of the bad old days?
Nope, they’re still necessary, sociologist Jason Orne argues in his new book, also called Boystown, and for one very important reason: sex.
What distinguishes Boystown from Wrigleyville or Logan Square or any other gentrifying neighborhood with good nightlife is its sense of what Orne calls “sexy community,” defined as “a network of people, bound together through sexual intimacy.” He believes that open sexuality should be embraced and encouraged: straight people should be adopting queer habits, not the other way around. “By shedding its queer elements,” he writes, “Boystown trades sexuality for normalcy. It trades queer sexual connection for legal equality.”
In other words, it would be a damned shame if the men of Boystown stopped hooking up on the dance floor or disappearing into certain basements for sex. And it’s hard to do those things when you’re surrounded by gawking tourists and straight women celebrating bachelorette parties—although the neighborhood’s bars and clubs rely on straight money to stay open. Orne also acknowledges that the bachelorettes have their own reasons for going out on Halsted instead of Clark, namely that they’re not interested in straight bros hitting and grinding on them when they just want to go out and dance and have a good time.
Throughout Boystown, Orne explores the neighborhood’s various fault lines: race, class, gender, queer culture versus gay culture versus straight culture, hookup apps. He’s a responsible sociologist, faithfully taking field notes even when he’s out clubbing, and he’s transparent about his methodology, but he’s by no means an impartial guide. He shares his nicknames for various factions—the wealthy “plastics” who hang out at Minibar and on boats off Hollywood Beach, the “good gays” who disapprove of promiscuity and want to meet nice boys in the real world and settle down like straight people—and his various prejudices, not just political, but also personal. For instance: “I fucking love brunch. I don’t care if it makes me a basic bitch.”
Asides like that, by the way, are part of what makes the book so much fun to read, even for nonsociologists. (And have no fear: Orne frequently pauses to explain academic terminology and theories.) Boystown is an engaging portrait of a neighborhood in flux, where different communities are trying to work out a way to inhabit the same spaces, and the questions Orne raises about identity and privilege are relevant far beyond the boundaries of North Halsted. v