New signs replace the “Boystown” banners in the north side neighborhood.
New signs replace the “Boystown” banners in the north side neighborhood. Credit: Adam M. Rhodes

More than six months after the Northalsted Business Alliance said it would abandon the name Boystown for the city’s principal queer enclave, business leaders in the community have made few changes and continue using the moniker that many have called misogynistic and transphobic.

The NHBA, the chamber of commerce in the neighborhood, in late September 2020 released the results of a survey about the community name after a petition calling for the Boystown name to be changed, led by local queer activist Devlyn Camp (also a past Reader contributor), made national headlines. The petition offered up the name Legacy Walk instead, in recognition of the outdoor queer history exhibit of the same name in the neighborhood.

In response, even though the chamber said at the time that survey takers mostly supported keeping the Boystown name, it would be using “Northalsted” to refer to the neighborhood, though any official change would have to come from city officials.

“To acknowledge and welcome all members of the LGBTQ+ community, the chamber will discontinue using the name Boystown in marketing and revert to the long-standing name Northalsted,” NHBA said at the time.

But banners bearing the Boystown name were removed from light poles throughout the neighborhood only days ago. Businesses still use the name in marketing materials, even those seemingly disseminated by the chamber. Some critics also told the Reader that the group has privately encouraged businesses to continue using the purportedly retired moniker.

And when the chamber announced this year’s PrideFest celebration, slated for October due to the ongoing pandemic, NHBA called it “a love-filled celebration of diversity, equality, and the Chicago LGBTQ+ community . . . in the Boystown neighborhood” until scrubbing the name from the website late last week, after the Reader spoke with NHBA President Ramesh Ariyanayakam.

The PrideFest website lists the NHBA as a beneficiary, rather than a sponsor or corporate partner.

Camp tells the Reader that the decision to continue to use the Boystown name is “disappointing” but “not at all surprising.”

“They clearly don’t have an interest in having a radical change of heart,” Camp says. “I don’t think they even fully understand that the problem that we are speaking about is that they need to change their hearts and their minds.”

But in response to criticism from Camp and others, Northalsted Business Alliance President Ramesh Ariyanayakam, who runs the Kit Kat Lounge in the neighborhood, tells the Reader that the chamber was focused on weathering the pandemic rather than scrubbing Boystown from the streets and its websites as quickly as possible.

“Our focus was on maintaining and keeping communications intact for the 100 or so businesses that we have as members, and they rely on us for as much information, as much guidance as possible as to how to pivot in their particular industry,” Ariyanayakam says.

He adds that the aforementioned website is also from 2019, and just wasn’t updated before the launch in order to save money and because the PrideFest particulars are still being worked out with the city.

But Camp and others still harshly criticized the decision to keep using the name, particularly in light of past promises.

“It’s understandable that COVID issues would keep them from making these changes quickly,” Camp says. “However, one of the things many activists are asking for is just a list of what actions they’re going to take.”

Camp also says the decision to change the neighborhood’s nickname isn’t separate from the ongoing struggle with racial equity and misogyny in the mostly white neighborhood.

A spate of racist incidents shook the community in 2019, after a local bar said it planned to ban rap music and the owner of local costume shop Beatnix called the police on a Black man who complained about Confederate flag merchandise. The Center on Halsted also came under fire around that time over its now-scrapped contract with a security firm owned by a local police officer with a racist and violent past in the community.

After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, local Black and Brown entertainers took to the streets in the queer enclave to lead the massive Drag March for Change, which drew thousands to the neighborhood. During the event, speakers including celebrated drag performers Lucy Stoole, Shea Couleé, and Jo MaMa repeatedly blasted ongoing racism in the neighborhood’s nightlife scene.

Stoole tells the Reader that the board’s inactivity merely exemplifies their true focus, profit over people.

“It just reinforces some of the ideas that I already had about them, which is that they couldn’t really care less about the actual community involved in this community,” Stoole says. “And all they really care about is the money.”

Camp and other critics say that while they are upset by the board’s decision, it’s not surprising given the makeup of the mostly white board, and its own struggles with diversity. Out of 11 members of the NHBA board, only one is a woman, who is also one of only two people of color.

Last summer, the board hired Jes Scheinpflug, of Praxis Group, to facilitate diversity training for the board and business leaders. But in a recording of a training obtained by the Reader, board members can be heard making numerous transphobic and otherwise offensive comments that call into question the body’s ability to represent the spectrum of the queer community.

Additionally, in June 2020, the Black, trans-led south side LGBTQ+ community center Brave Space Alliance accused the chamber of tokenizing the group and its leadership “for clout” as part of a NHBA-sponsored Black Trans Lives Matter protest that was eventually canceled.

Ariyanayakam tells the Reader that since then, the board engaged with another consultant and has had several diversity training sessions and seminars for the board and its members. But without more meaningful efforts, Camp says the training does little good.

“It’s not about just sitting down for an hour of training, they need to do a lot of introspection and reflection and growing,” Camp says. “Maybe they do realize that it’s going to be a lot of work. And that’s why they don’t want to do it.”

Despite what activists have called the board’s refusal to reform, many say the neighborhood can be a place for every member of the queer community. It’s just going to take serious, and tough, work. And it’s not work that will be done in a matter of months.

“When we started doing this shit, we knew that we were committing ourselves to a lifetime of doing this work and that it was going to take more than a few months or a few years to actually see some lasting change in the community,” Stoole says. “So, I am very hopeful for it, but I’m also not letting myself get too happy or forget about the work that is yet to be done and the people who are still disenfranchised and not receiving the help and the support that they need.”   v

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.