All photos are from the Drag March for Change in June 2020, a Black, queer-led protest down Halsted Street, Boystown’s main drag. Performers Jo Mama (left, in blue) and Lucy Stoole (right, in the red mask) co-chair the Chicago Black Drag Council. Credit: Vern Hester

The north-side LGBTQ+ enclave Boystown is known for many things: its promenade of popular gay bars, a rotating roster of talented drag performers, and for what many say is a decades-long underbelly of white supremacy that persists to this day.

Last year, a Confederate flag vest was found at local vintage costume and clothing store Beatnix; that same week, a leaked e-mail showed that the owner of Progress Bar had tried to ban rap music, a plan many said was aimed at keeping Black patrons out of the establishment. And multiple business owners in the community have been accused of underpaying Black and Brown employees, making racist comments, and favoring white, male, and athletic employees over others.

Amid ongoing, historic uprisings for racial equity across the globe, the ways that white residents and business owners in Boystown ensure its stark segregation mirror methods used by their predecessors decades ago in the same neighborhood.

Jason Orne, author of Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago, says the significant racial divide here and in other LGBTQ+ enclaves exemplifies what he calls a “Disneyland kind of gayness” that focuses on affluent white gay men instead of the entire spectrum of the community.

People pushing for change want the neighborhood to be a safe, diverse, and inclusive haven for all LGBTQ+ people as residents, visitors, customers, workers, and performers. But after decades of systemic and rampant racism in the community, some people of color have found safety outside of Boystown.

Boystown-focused activists are also pushing the neighborhood to be more inclusive, and that effort includes a recent petition to rename Boystown to better reflect the LGBTQ+ community’s diversity. That petition has been met with criticism that organizers are trying to take away a community that critics say has been “for the boys.”

Credit: Vern Hester

Revisionist history

They are absolutely profoundly misremembering [the history],” says Reader publisher Tracy Baim, author of Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community. “But on top of that, they are also playing into the whole stereotype of sexism in the gay community.” Women were instrumental in establishing Boystown as a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community, Baim says. And people of color have always been central to advancing LGBTQ+ rights.

The first known gay community center in Chicago was a project of the local chapter of landmark lesbian civil and political rights group the Daughters of Bilitis. And the city’s first feminist bookstore and a related women’s center opened in the early 1970s—in a space now occupied by an Allstate insurance branch, just steps away from where the popular gay bar Sidetrack now sits. The center eventually was renamed the Lesbian Feminist Center, and relocated to a space that’s barely a block away from what is now Center on Halsted, which opened in Boystown in 2007.

Lakeview, the neighborhood that houses Boystown, is predominantly white and affluent, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1980, the neighborhood’s Latinx population was more than 18,300, and fell to just more than 8,100 between 2014 and 2018, according to demographic data from consulting firm Rob Paral & Associates. The Black population fell from roughly 6,500 in 1980 to 3,600 between 2014 and 2018. During that same period, the white population steadily increased.

That same data shows that the median income of Lakeview has also nearly doubled since the 1970s. According to the data, which has been converted to 2018 monetary figures, the median household income in Lakeview in 1970 was nearly $48,000, but between 2014 and 2018, it had increased to almost $88,000.

Boystown caters to roughly 146,000 adults in the city who identify as LGBTQ+, according to city data from 2018. For scale, according to demographic data released in June, the entire population of the Lakeview community area between 2014 and 2018 was 100,547; the data also states that of those more than 100,500 Lakeview residents, roughly 78 percent are white.

Of course, even in the 1970s, Black and Brown people were met with racism in the burgeoning gay enclave. Black lesbian activist Pat McCombs led a period of activism against local lesbian bar CK’s, which later became Augie & CK’s, over more stringent ID policies that only applied to Black and Brown patrons. McCombs also spoke of what she perceived as a limit to the number of Black people allowed in the bar.

“It was like they had to have a certain quota,” McCombs says. “It couldn’t be too many of us in there at one time.”

McCombs says she formed the Black Lesbian Discrimination Investigation Committee to confront the racism in the community, and as part of her efforts, she reported the bar to the state liquor commission. According to Out and Proud in Chicago, the bar narrowly dodged losing its license after the owner agreed to hold everyone to the same standard and to publicly post the bar’s ID requirements.

But as McCombs recognized, similar tactics are used today.

Lucy Stoole, co-chair of the Black Drag Council
Lucy Stoole, co-chair of the Black Drag CouncilCredit: Vern Hester

Different bars, the same discrimination

Jae Rice, a Black queer DJ, is all too familiar with those tactics. Rice says they and their wife, who is also Black, have been forced to open tabs to buy drinks and have faced what they called “oppressive dress codes” and higher scrutiny of their IDs.

As a performer, Rice says Boystown club managers and promoters are reluctant to hire them because of the crowd they think Rice will attract. And when they do get hired in the neighborhood, Rice says they face coded language and thinly veiled racism, including an insistence that they not play hip-hop. Progress Bar owner Justin Romme eventually reversed his plans to ban rap music after protests. Romme was not immediately available when contacted by the Reader on multiple occasions.

“Right off the bat, the treatment that we got at Boystown was extremely oppressive,” Rice says. “If it wasn’t from the establishments, then it was from the people that actually went to Boystown.”

Black and Brown performers, entertainers, and hospitality staff have been among the most vocal about the racism they face in Boystown.

Performers Jo Mama and Lucy Stoole co-chair the Chicago Black Drag Council, which was established this summer following protests for racial equity in Boystown. At a virtual town hall discussion in late June, the council took white performers, show runners, and bar owners to task for actions that have made it hard for their colleagues of color to make a living in Boystown.

“I think that a lot of decisions are being made in this community based on race, and a lot of people have been able to get away with it for a very long time,” Stoole told the Reader. “And now with everything that’s happening, a light is being shown on all of this stuff. So everyone’s taking a closer look at who’s actually in charge, and who’s doing what, and why they’re doing it.”

One of the most significant impacts of the town hall was the meteoric fall of Chicago drag darling T Rex, who previously hosted the popular Drag Matinee event at Berlin Nightclub. Town hall speakers repeatedly blasted T Rex for using her power at Berlin to discriminate and blacklist performers of color. Shea Couleé, who appeared on season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race and won season five of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, took T Rex to task for one incident in particular in which T Rex made a racist joke about whipping Couleé as part of a performance of the Britney Spears song “I’m A Slave 4 U” for Black History Month.

On social media during and after the town hall, many also said T Rex seemed uninterested and apathetic until it came time to discuss issues that would cut into her personal profits, like sharing hosting duties with Black and Brown performers. After the town hall, Berlin and Roscoe’s Tavern severed ties with T Rex.

Black and Brown performers detailed incidents and an atmosphere of hostility at nearly all of Boystown’s biggest bars.

Armand Fields, who performs as Cleo Pockalipps, won the Miss Roscoe’s 2018 drag pageant but told the Reader that their opportunities in Boystown were stifled even afterward. “I just felt like if you weren’t a Drag Race girl, you really didn’t have much of an opportunity to do much other stuff, you know?”

In June, roughly a week before the town hall, Black LGBTQ+ leaders in Chicago organized the Drag March for Change, a Black, queer-led march up Halsted in Boystown to protest national and local racial inequality. The Chicago Black Drag Council was established after the march, which drew thousands of participants to the queer enclave.

Despite the strides the Black Drag Council is making in holding the community to account, the pushback against its work has been racist and vitriolic. In a particularly disturbing response to the council’s efforts, a YouTube account with the name “Gays Sick Of BS” uploaded a video on October 24, 2020, in which the faces of the Black Drag Council’s leaders are superimposed on the faces of Nazi leadership in a scene from the 2004 film Downfall. In the clip titled “Mein Lucy,” Stoole’s face is placed on Hitler’s body.

Credit: Vern Hester

Nothing new in the neighborhood

But, as many activists and Boystown patrons have said, racist incidents are not isolated to the neighborhood’s bars and represent an attitude toward people of color in the community.

Jamie Frazier, local activist and lead pastor of Lighthouse Church of Chicago, a United Church of Christ congregation in Lincoln Park, says the recent examples of racism in Boystown prove that the community “is racked not only by structural racism but also an unwillingness to fix it.” Frazier protested anti-Black racism in Boystown last year alongside an activist group he runs, Lighthouse Foundation.

Tensions over racism among residents in Boystown came to a head in 2011 after a pair of highly publicized stabbings. Orne, who is a Drexel University assistant sociology professor, wrote in Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago that a Facebook page devoted to a quasi-movement known as “Take Back Boystown” was home to racist, vitriolic posts that blamed the stabbings on “black a-holes who live in other neighborhoods” and “the blacks tearing the neighborhood apart.” Orne’s book also details a heated July 2011 community policing meeting following the stabbings. At the meeting, Orne wrote, many white residents blamed LGBTQ+ youth of color for crime in the neighborhood, while some youth said they felt scapegoated for the attacks.

At the time, Bonsai Bermudez lived in Boystown and worked at the Broadway Youth Center, a space for LGBTQ+ youth facing housing insecurity. “There was so much harm happening to them throughout that time, like police brutality or literal harassment, both from cops and also from neighbors,” Bermudez says. Bermudez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, is now the executive and artistic director of Boystown-based Youth Empowerment Performance Project, which also serves LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness.

Bermudez says that around the time of the Take Back Boystown movement, he broke up multiple fights between youth of color and white community members and would have to protect the youth center at times from irate white people. “Many times, I had to be shielding the main doors to deal with community members that just wanted to come and fight with young people, you know, and many times the escalation was so huge that I also feared for my own physical safety.”

Even today, some say local parking rules are another example of how those in power enforce the stark segregation of the community. On a portion of Halsted Street, Boystown’s main thoroughfare, parking is prohibited between midnight and 4 AM on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays between April 1 and September 30.

Critics of the parking rules have said the ban reinforces a stark racial divide in the area by putting a limit on how long visitors, often Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people who drive to the area, can stay. “When you have that no parking rule after midnight, you are essentially telling Black and Brown people that you need to get out of Boystown before midnight,” Frazier says.

A former representative for 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney told the media in the past that the parking rules were designed “to improve vehicular and pedestrian safety on Halsted and to discourage public drinking and loitering.”

Alderman Tunney’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests.

And at the shop Beatnix, Dennis Byrd, a Black man, says he was with a group shopping for a party in May 2019 when a friend, Dan Shade, who is white, called him over in hushed tones. Nestled among the leather vests and pants was a bright red vest emblazoned with the white stars and blue stripes of the Confederate flag.

Byrd says he had always seen Beatnix as a welcoming and inclusive space, pointing to the LGBTQ+ and transgender pride flags that routinely hang in its windows among mannequins donning ostentacious and oftentimes gender-bending costumes. When he and Shade complained about the vest to Beatnix owner Keith Bucceri, who is white, he says Bucceri became angry, called him “just another Jussie Smollett,” and threatened to call the police.

“When folks call the police on you, they know exactly what they are doing,” Byrd says. “They’ve seen it in the news, and they are consciously making a decision to participate and to abuse their right to call the police to put fear in the minds of Black people.”

In the aftermath of the Beatnix incident, Byrd says former workers told him they were instructed to profile Black patrons and follow them around the store. Fields, the drag performer, used to work at Beatnix and confirmed that, and says Bucceri also made disparaging remarks about transgender women.

“I was like, ‘It doesn’t feel right working here,’ and so I left,” Fields says.

Fields says when he visited Beatnix in 2017, Bucceri chased Black youth out of the store, ordered employees to call the police, and again used racist slurs against them. “I was standing right there, and it took so much strength in me not to say something or do something,” Fields says. “I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna walk out.’ And I just walked out and never came back.”

Stoole, of the Chicago Black Drag Council, says Bucceri used the N-word during a confrontation with them at the western-themed gay bar Charlie’s in Boystown in July 2019. Stoole wrote in a Facebook post that Bucceri drunkenly confronted them and threatened to “call the police on [Stoole’s] Black ass” after accusing Stoole of talking negatively about Beatnix.

Bucceri and managers at Beatnix did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Safety beyond Boystown

In light of these longstanding issues, many people of color have sought safe, inclusive, and intersectional spaces outside of the Boystown LGBTQ+ enclave.

LaSaia Wade, executive director of south-side LGBTQ+ center Brave Space Alliance and a Black transgender woman, says a large part of her work involves educating LGBTQ+ people of color about safe spaces outside of Boystown, including Jeffery Pub, which Wade says is “the oldest-running gay club on the south side,” and Club Escape in the South Shore neighborhood. Wade says she is focused on supporting new communities rather than trying to dismantle the racism in Boystown.

“That, for me, is very much so a waste of my time, when we know two or three days later, they’re going to be back doing the same thing,” Wade says of the racism in the community.

Elijah McKinnon, development director at Reunion Chicago, said the decision to create an intersectional space outside of Boystown was an intentional choice. Reunion is a Humboldt Park gallery, event space, and project incubator that focuses in particular on LGBTQ+ people of color. “It was really important for us to really just create this space that operated as an opportunity for LGBTQ+ people in communities of color to come together and create freely without the barriers to access,” McKinnon says.

Unlike white-led LGBTQ+ organizations focused solely on issues such as marriage equality or employment protections, organizations like south side-based Affinity Community Services do that work while also fighting for racial equity for their members. In Affinity’s case, they’re advocating for Black LGBTQ+ people, women in particular.

LGBTQ+ people of color who seek out spaces like Boystown where it’s safe to be queer must also contend with the fact that those same spaces aren’t safe for nonwhite people, says Aisha Davis, the vice president on Affinity Community Services’ board of directors. “We still want to have that sense of community and camaraderie. It just means that there’s this level of vigilance that we almost maintain when we’re trying to make sure that we’re not going to face some other form of discrimination.”

“I remember moving here and hearing about Boystown and Andersonville, and how safe it is and how you can go there, you can go into any place and feel confident that it is a space that is going to be friendly to all queer folks, and then going and frequenting them and not feeling it,” Davis says.

Credit: Vern Hester

Where do we go from here?

For activists who have set their sights on changing Boystown, their efforts have slowly begun to bear fruit. One recent win came when several LGBTQ+ organizations cut ties with Walsh Security, a firm owned by a Chicago police officer with a history of racist brutality.

In late November 2013, officer Thomas Walsh assaulted a Black security guard at the Lucky Horseshoe Lounge and repeatedly used racist slurs against the man during an altercation at the bar, according to a March 2015 report by the Independent Police Review Authority.

After highly publicized activism, Center on Halsted announced in late January 2020 that it had terminated its contract with Walsh Security and had engaged Quantum Security, a Black-owned firm with a history of working with LGBTQ+ organizations, as its new security provider.

In a June 12 e-mail obtained by the Reader, Northalsted Business Alliance board president Ramesh Ariyanayakam said the board had agreed not to renew any security contracts with Walsh Security going forward. This marks a significant departure from the alliance’s commitment to Walsh just months prior. In mid-March, Jennifer Gordon, a representative for the alliance, said that the Boystown business group planned to tap Walsh Security as its security provider this summer.

The Northalsted Business Alliance is a powerful group of local business owners led by an 11-member board currently made up mostly of white men. The lone woman on the board, Dr. Robin Gay-Stafford of Howard Brown Health, is also the only Black person on the board and one of only two people of color.

To help combat the notion that Boystown is just “for the boys,” a recent petition called on the alliance to stop promoting the name Boystown in favor of a more inclusive moniker. “As we all grow and reconsider our roles in perpetuating bigotry, we ask that this board reflect on the growing number of incidents in our LGBTQ spaces,” the petition states. “One form of bigotry perpetuates others.”

The petition’s authors, Devlyn Camp and Jen Freitag, who are both white, say stickers advertising their movement were all defaced soon after they were put up around the neighborhood; and at one point, Camp says that a woman carrying groceries called Camp a “tranny cunt” in front of a photographer taking their photo for an article about the petition.

After the petition garnered national media attention, the Northalsted Business Alliance collected survey responses about a potential name change. After an eight-week period, along with 3,060 comments and 1,350 suggestions for new names the group says it received, the alliance released the results online. Some 80 percent of survey respondents said they did not feel unwelcome by the Boystown name, but the alliance agreed to stop using it in marketing materials nonetheless, though they noted that it would ultimately be up to the city to officially change the name of the neighborhood.

Camp and Freitag say they want the alliance to go further in their efforts. Both said they felt the board’s gesture was hollow, and say that businesses are still permitted to use the name on their own marketing materials. They want the neighborhood to be renamed Legacy Walk, in honor of the LGBTQ+ history project known as The Legacy Project that was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame this year.

The history project includes names and biographies of a number of groundbreaking and influential queer people of color, including James Baldwin, Marsha P. Johnson, Antonia Pantoja, and Sylvia Rivera, among many others.

Many have also said that the alliance’s choice to use the name “Northalsted” for the neighborhood moving forward is merely a marketing ploy to advertise the business alliance and increase its profits.

Diversity training to nowhere

Freitag also expressed concern about the alliance board’s willingness to change given what she says she witnessed at an early February diversity training for the board and some members. Freitag, who is a general manager at the Chicago Diner, says the alliance planned to hold two trainings, but after the first training on gender went south, the remaining training sessions were abruptly canceled and haven’t been rescheduled. “I cannot explain to you how horrifying that meeting was, to the point that afterwards, I went up to the two people hosting it and I apologized,” Freitag says.

Gordon, of the alliance, says the trainings were canceled due to the pandemic and pushed back on allegations that they were called off for any other reason. But according to Freitag and e-mails obtained by the Reader, the trainings were canceled more than a month before the city’s stay-at-home orders went into effect.

Jes Scheinpflug, director of operations and outreach at Praxis Group, which facilitated the board training, also rejected Gordon’s claimed reasoning for canceling the remaining trainings. “Praxis Group has never been fired before so we were baffled by the quick change of plans,” Scheinpflug said in an e-mail to the Reader. “We are aware that our communities—the LGBTQ2IA+ community and communities of color—have been calling for accountability from cis- and white-led businesses/organizations in Boystown for many years. We were excited to work with them to address long-standing issues of racism, transphobia, sexism and fatphobia.”

In a more than two-hour-long recording of the diversity training provided anonymously to the Reader, one participant repeatedly misgenders Caitlyn Jenner, and another participant laments about the difficulty of changing employees’ personal information in a payroll system, namely names and gender markers. According to legal experts consulted by the Reader, not changing personal information of transgender employees could violate city, county, and state human rights laws, as all three prohibit discrimination based on sex and gender identity.

Lake Alen, the alliance’s acting executive director, can be heard criticizing the word “cisgender,” which refers to people whose gender identity matches their biological sex. “So I don’t like using the term cis because it feels like an attack,” Alen is overheard saying. “And people use cis as an attack by saying, ‘Oh, you’re a white male.’ It’s an attack. And I guess there’s a lot of like, ‘OK, you have privilege, you should understand your privilege.’ But it’s being used as an attack.”

Alen owns the Chicago Male Salon and is also treasurer at the alliance. Other training participants expressed concerns about their ability to express discomfort in their bars and clubs without being labeled as racist, transphobic, or misogynistic. “So at what point does making someone else feel more comfortable have to make me feel uncomfortable?” Alen asked.

Many have also said that it will be difficult to push the alliance to do anything meaningful to address the issues plaguing the neighborhood considering serious, repeated allegations of racism, misogyny, and transphobia leveled against the organization and some of its board members.

Brave Space Alliance withdrew from a protest march sponsored by the Northalsted Business Alliance in late June after BSA says it was “being tokenized at the event, and deployed for clout by the organizers.” The event was later canceled, with proceeds donated to BSA and an alternative, trans-led protest. That alternative protest, known as Pride Without Prejudice/Reclaim Pride, took place during the last weekend in June, when LGBTQ+ pride is typically celebrated.

Around that same time, alliance board secretary Mark Liberson, who owns Hydrate Nightclub and Replay Beer & Bourbon, was accused on social media of a number of racist behaviors, including intentionally mispronouncing names of Black and Brown employees, underpaying employees, and removing hip-hop and R&B music from jukeboxes. Liberson’s response to the allegations, also posted on social media, failed to meaningfully address any but one—that he had a habit of not remembering names of the people of color working for him. He says it was due to a neurocognitive disorder impacting his memory.

Neither Liberson nor Alen responded to multiple interview requests from the Reader.

Looking to the future

For Boystown to be a true haven for the queer community, many say the neighborhood needs to not only be more inclusive, but to be more than just an affluent promenade of bars and restaurants fueled by profits and not community.

“What would it mean to actually ask you to stand up for the folks who look and identify like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera?” Davis says. “There’s more to this than just parties and bars. This is about making sure that every person and especially the most marginalized people in this community feel welcome in a space that’s supposed to be for all of us.”

As the neighborhood continues to reckon with the rampant racism in its midst, Black activists say they aren’t asking for much of business owners, residents, or elected officials—or anything that their white counterparts don’t enjoy with sometimes reckless abandon.

“We just want—just as everybody in the rest of the world wants—a level playing field,” Stoole said. “We’re not asking for any more than what we are already deserved.”   v