For almost two years, self-described “pansexual dress-to-sweat party” Soft Leather has used Logan Square bar East Room as its home base. Founded by DJ Zain Curtis (aka Teen Witch), David Beltran of Chicago label and arts collective FeelTrip, and producer and promoter Johnny Love (probably best known these days from #HealthGoth and Deathface), Soft Leather is locally famous for its queer-friendly atmosphere, non-gender-conforming aesthetic, and boundary-pushing fashions, which start with assless chaps and ball gags and get wilder from there. It was “the hottest party up until it stopped,” says Beltran—the last event at East Room was January 30.
Beltran, who also makes music as Starfoxxx, heard from Love last week that the party’s run at its longtime home had come to an abrupt end. Love says that Zack Eastman, one of four operating partners at East Room, called him on Wednesday, February 3, to tell him that the two-year-old bar had chosen to sever its ties with Soft Leather.
In an e-mailed statement, Eastman didn’t explain East Room’s reasons for ending its affiliation with the party, but he did take pains to say that the decision had nothing to do with Soft Leather’s LGBT orientation. “Our door has been and always will be open to anyone and everyone (that’s over twenty one years of age),” he wrote. “Our strong commitment to a positive and safe environment extends to those we employ and with whom we contract. Decisions to sever such relationships are always difficult and never lightly made.”
Soft Leather launched in March 2014, and the first East Room event happened that same month. For two years, Love says, “we brought all the weirdos and the queer kids together.” The party often happened twice a month, with one event at East Room and a second at any of several other venues, among them Debonair Social Club, Door no. 3 (downstairs at Double Door), and the rooftop bar at Virgin Hotels Chicago.
Soft Leather’s relationship with East Room was hatched during a meeting with Eastman, says Beltran, where the organizers pitched the idea for a monthly dance party open to all, “no matter flavor, taste, or color.” Love and Beltran say they threw parties at the bar even when East Room didn’t have the PPA license it needed to host live acts, circumventing that restriction by prerecording mixes a few days before each event and playing them from an iPod at the venue. (Eastman didn’t comment on those claims.)
“Part of the thing I really liked about Soft Leather is we would take over a space [East Room] that wasn’t supposed to be ours in a neighborhood that used to be pretty cool,” Love says. “And we’re losing it along with every other neighborhood we’ve lost already.”
Love and Beltran attribute the ejection of Soft Leather from East Room to a “culture war.” Love says Eastman told him the split was happening because of something Love had said in a brief December DNAinfo story about East Room’s quest for a 4 AM liquor license. Love had explained that he was on the fence about the possible change—he liked the idea of two more hours of bar sales, but he was also “wary of East Room becoming a meat market-type bar a la Owl or Estelle’s and the type of crowd that will bring.”
Eastman, Love says, also cited complaints from East Room patrons about the clientele the party attracts. Love also claims that several months ago, security at the bar approached him to say they’d heard from disgruntled patrons about men using the women’s restroom. Love says he subsequently steered transgender hosts and attendees to a “secret” restroom elsewhere in the bar.
Eastman neither confirmed nor denied that he’d told Love about any complaints, but in an e-mail to the Reader he addressed the restroom issue. “This is the first I’ve heard of a transgendered person having an issue with their choice of restroom,” he wrote. “We take gender equality very seriously at East Room. Because of that our team is taking action. We are scheduling a mandatory sensitivity training with a professional within the next week to ensure we continue our work in maintaining a safe and positive environment.”
Jack Collier, who makes music as Chemise Cagoule and has hosted Soft Leather as Jack the Lad, identifies as male but puts together party looks that span the entire gender spectrum. “Of course there were incidents where some of us would use the women’s bathroom,” he says. “You just learn when you grow up queer that you’re more likely to have an ally in a woman.”
Collier credits East Room’s staff for welcoming Soft Leather with open arms. “Anytime someone was harassing us—one of the patrons was being drunk, touching us or following us or being homophobic—we never really had a problem getting security to kick them out,” he says.
Frequent Soft Leather DJ and host Claudia De Chalon, who identifies as a transgender woman, says she was never approached by security about using any particular restroom, or about any other issues related to her gender identity. But she remembers her confusion at the final East Room event when a group swept her into “the further bathroom.” She also says she witnessed a growing tension between Soft Leather patrons and the bar’s regulars. Eastman didn’t comment on those observations, or on speculation that such tension might’ve sealed the party’s fate.
“There was always a little bit of that Slippery Slope spillover crowd,” De Chalon says. “But it really got that way a little less than a year ago. There was definitely more and more of a yuppie crowd coming in, and Soft Leather was evolving into much more of a spectacle.”
The point of radical display is “to trigger people,” says Jimmy Hassett, a former resident DJ for Soft Leather (he spins under the name Virtual Brat). “People show up in thongs and platform shoes,” he says, so it’s understandable that the uninitiated or uninformed might make comments about patrons’ appearances. “Even if they’re making fun of you, you’re putting yourself out there in a club at night.” (He says his choice to leave Soft Leather was a “personal decision” based on a need to leave the party scene.)
Beltran, Love, and De Chalon say that somewhere along the line, the regular clientele at East Room must have taken priority over the patrons of Soft Leather parties.
“I kind of saw it coming, but at the same time, like [Love] said, it feels like a culture war,” De Chalon says. “That was kind of one of the last things in that area of Chicago—Logan Square, Wicker Park area—that had a queer party like that. It feels like we’re just being totally pushed away by this new culture of Chicago, I guess, which I don’t like at all.”
Hassett can’t get behind the idea that sexuality had anything to do with East Room’s decision. “That just seems like a reach to me,” he says. He meets “a lot of people who are gay or trans or queer” on other nights at the bar.
Beltran, who says he hasn’t spoken to Eastman about the Soft Leather eviction, hypothesizes that complaints from customers might “possibly be why someone doesn’t want to deal with the night.”
Collier remembers a Soft Leather party when an East Room employee intervened about his outfit. “I wore something pretty offensive,” he says, and a staffer at the bar asked him to cover it up. “I told him I would sooner leave than fix my shit,” Collier says. He characterizes the conflict as “a difference in business practices,” and it was resolved when the employee said he’d rather Collier stay at the party than change his clothes. All the same, Collier thinks it’s possible that such incidents might’ve swayed East Room ownership.
Now that Soft Leather has lost East Room, Love says that “the only place for weird kids to go to is Berlin and Exit and sometimes Debonair.” (He prefers not to talk about Soft Leather’s new regular home because it isn’t a licensed venue.) To describe Soft Leather’s forced exit from East Room, he returns to the language of “culture war.”
Collier acknowledges Love’s point, but he puts it in perspective: “Many of us in Soft Leather have been fighting that culture war since we were toddlers,” he says. He doesn’t believe East Room “is against our culture or trying to stamp us out.”
Beltran thinks the best way to create tolerance is through integration, though, and he laments Soft Leather’s loss of East Room because the venue provided such a good opportunity for different groups of people to interact and experience one another.
The problem, he says, has to do with Chicago as a whole, not just East Room. “That’s why a lot of people from the city end up leaving,” he says. “They always end up moving to New York or LA.” Cultural movements tend to reach Chicago a little later than those bigger metropolises, he explains, and “if this city is not ready for it, it’s not ready for it.”