From left Jacob Muñoz, Jhony Negron, and Chris Williams at Kathy Osterman Beach Credit: Kathleen Hinkel

On the southernmost corner of Edgewater’s Kathy Osterman Beach, the usual sounds of children laughing and waves crashing are drowned out by the thumps of a pop song, usually the vocals of a diva. By noon regulars have staked out spots along the shoreline, put up tents, and are well into sandy festivities. 

You can expect to find a large and lively crowd between the Kathy Osterman Beach House and the rainbow beacon that serves as the beach’s southern border, especially on warm weekends. Though most come in small groups or alone, the collective is like a beehive, each person doing a separate but connected activity. Here the queers have both officially and unofficially made the space theirs.

If Sidetrack and Roscoe’s are weekend nighttime staples in Northalsted, Osterman Beach (aka Hollywood Beach) is the daytime counterpart, serving as both a precursor to evening festivities and a balm the morning after. 

More than a few beachgoers told me that running into familiar faces is just a part of the experience at the beach. Mo, an Afro Arab bodybuilder, says the beach feels less claustrophobic and more relaxed than the queer bar scene in Andersonville and Lakeview. Johnny, a salt-and-pepper Daddy bear and Hollywood Beach regular, agrees. “It’s kind of like going to the bars without the pressure or bureaucracy,” he says.

Crowds at Kathy Osterman Beach, also commonly known as Hollywood Beach or the “gay beach” in August 2021 Credit: Kathleen Hinkel

Queer beaches, of course, exist outside of Chicago. In Miami there’s the clothing-optional Haulover Beach, Fort Lauderdale has Sebastian Street Beach, and in New York City committed queers congregate at Jacob Riis Beach in Queens, and on Fire Island in Long Island. New England harbor town Provincetown has long been known as a seaside haven for queer artists throughout generations, including Tennessee Williams, John Waters, and Ryan Murphy. Rehoboth Beach in Delaware is sometimes seen as a lesser known counterpart to Provincetown.

While Hollywood Beach is the more contemporary version of Chicago’s queer beaches, the Belmont Rocks serves as its historic predecessor. Local writer and historian Owen Keehnen fondly remembers the time he spent at the Belmont Rocks. Keehnen cofounded the Legacy Project in the city, which memorializes historic queer people on pylons throughout Northalsted. 

Keehnen says the beach was a revolutionary haven for gay men to take up physical space, to be queer in public, and to be among others like them.

“This was at a time when our bars all still had blackened windows,” Keehnen says. “It just feels to me like the history of it is very tied to our liberation.”

On his website, in a 2017 piece titled “A Place for Us: LGBT Life at the Belmont Rocks,” Keenhen writes of his time at the Rocks: 

“The Rocks were just as important to my socialization as a gay man in Chicago during that time as the bars were. Those memories were seared into my mind. The thought always brought a smile, and so many of the friends I had from my Rocks days are no longer around. Some have moved, but most died. Mostly from AIDS. The epidemic was brutal to the Rocks demographics. Not eager to show the ravages of illness in a speedo.”

Hans Devereaux at Kathy Osterman Beach Credit: Kathleen Hinkel

The Belmont Rocks became such an institution in the local queer community that a feature about the limestone slabs and its visitors graced the cover of the Reader in 1980. The article was a personal and fascinating glimpse into the gay male community in Chicago at the time, with echoes of the same struggles and intercommunity strife still alive today.

The female reporter who penned the piece, Marcia Froelke Coburn, details overtly racist and sexist comments by patrons. One man accused her of wanting “punks from the south side to come beat [them] up” and another man reportedly told her to “take her tits somewhere else.” She notes a conspicuous lack of women at the space save for a few topless sunbathers that earned similar sneers and jeers from Belmont Rocks regulars. 

An article in the Reader from 1998 details the decline of the Belmont Rocks as Hollywood Beach became popular beginning in 1990, but whittled down the Belmont Rocks’s main attraction and its likely downfall to the anonymous sex that the article says was rampant on the beach. The official death knell was a 2003 decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to bulldoze the jagged rocks and replace them with smooth concrete, a sanitization of the space. What was once the Belmont Rocks will soon be the site of a long-awaited AIDS Garden, which has been in the works for more than a decade. After being delayed due to funding issues, construction of the garden broke ground earlier this year in June. 

While Keehnen notes that Hollywood Beach is the Belmont Rocks’s chronological successor, he says the spirit of the two spaces is fundamentally different: the newer hangout is a space of assimilation, rather than liberation. He admits he doesn’t go to Hollywood Beach, at least partly out of nostalgia for the Belmont Rocks. 

As much as Hollywood Beach feels like queer paradise, many remarked that the space still has its shortcomings. For one, the beach’s location far up on the north side is an inherent barrier to Black and Brown queers on the south and west sides. Hollywood Beach, with its mostly white patrons, suffers from many of the same issues of access that Northalsted has been grappling with for years.

“I think it is reflective of people like me and that’s just any queer space on the north side,” says Kalob Gossett, a local HIV/AIDS educator who is a white, cisgender gay man.

As far as gender diversity, queer women seem to find it far less antagonistic than the Belmont Rocks. But women like Kathleen Hinkel are still the minority, followed almost invisibly by trans or gender nonconforming people. 

“It’s definitely not a queer woman scene and so watching from afar I could see how someone like me would feel like they don’t fit in,” Hinkel, who took photos for this story, says. “Hanging out there I do feel a bit like a voyeur in a world that isn’t mine, but I’m not too shy and also work in bars so it’s a scene where I probably feel more comfortable and at home than a lot of other queer women.”

Still, Hollywood Beach is novel in its proximity to Chicago neighborhoods, and the ease with which many can access the beach from the north side or by public transit. Most queer beaches, like many longstanding gay bars, were purposefully difficult to get to or outright hidden. Jacob Riis Beach in New York City is flanked by an abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium and—as detailed in the Cut—requires a bus, ferry, or generous car owner to reach; Fire Island is an even further trek.

Even the Belmont Rocks, as close as it was, was visually unappealing and hardly conducive to the beach going we know and enjoy now. Hard, uneven rocks served as the shore, and the surrounding grass was patchy and full of weeds, as Froelke Coburn wrote. 

Ameer Roberts and Shawn Black at Kathy Osterman Beach Credit: Kathleen Hinkel

Why do we need our own beach? It’s both simple and complicated. The easy answer is we want to be around our own people. But the longer answer is that these beaches exist as a reminder of how revolutionary it still can be for queer people to gather, particularly in public.

As debates still rage over the validity of trans people’s identities, as Black trans women are still targeted with violence and murder, as I still get stared at by straight people in Andersonville, sometimes we just need a break. A break from being on the defensive, a break from worrying about whether you’re going to get yelled at for how you dress, a break from feeling under attack.

There are pockets of Hollywood Beach crackling with sexual tension, without much (if any) action. As shirts and shorts come off, as beachgoers strip to their bathing suits, it feels like everyone is on their own personal runway, to see and be seen, to ogle and be ogled. 

There’s power in a gay man being able to wear a thong without the glares of nearby straight families; in a butch woman feeling safe wearing board shorts and a compression top, rather than a bikini; in a trans person proudly displaying surgery scars like badges of honor; in having a space where we decide the rules of engagement.

I remember my first time at Hollywood Beach. I had worn a skimpy swimsuit to get in the spirit of the queer beach, but felt familiar pangs of nervousness. I walked past the beach house and the volleyball nets, closer to the rainbow beacon. I felt myself stand taller, my anxieties eased by the sight of fellow queers. Two friends joined, and we sat next to a gorgeous Black woman who was there by herself. After a drink or two, we talked about piercings, Northalsted, and our next tattoos. I remember very little else of the day, thanks to a dangerous combination of liquor and searing sunlight. But phone numbers were exchanged, along with the promise to come back.

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.