Racism pushes queer people of color to look for Boystown alternatives

By Adam Rhodes
Medill Reports

Queer people of color are turning away from Chicago “gayborhood” Boystown after two anti-black incidents last year and what some say is a pattern of hostility and racism in the neighborhood.

Last May, a leaked email showed that management at Boystown gay bar Progress Bar aimed to ban rap music at the bar. Around the same time, costume and vintage clothing store Beatnix made headlines when a customer found a Confederate flag vest for sale at the store. The incidents only fueled conversations in the community about whether the queer enclave is welcoming to people of color.

Amid these incidents, queer activists, performers and everyday patrons of color alike said they have turned to other neighborhoods that haven’t been hit by the same allegations of racism, classism and profiling that have dogged Boystown in recent years.

Jae Rice, a black queer DJ in Chicago, said they started their weekly party in the South Loop neighborhood to create space for queer women of color because of the racism they experienced.

As a DJ, Rice said they have been asked by managers and promoters at bars and venues not to play hip hop music. As a patron in Boystown, Rice said they have been forced to open tabs to buy drinks, have faced what they called “oppressive dress codes” and higher scrutiny of their ID.

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

Jason Orne, a Drexel University assistant professor of sociology who wrote a book about Boystown, said last year’s incidents were just the latest in a yearslong pattern of hostility by the community’s mostly white residents toward people of color, especially queer youth of color.

“I think this is a tension that is really at the heart of what we want for the future of gay neighborhoods and the queer community,” Orne said. “Is it going to be intersectional and inclusive? Or are we going to have spaces that it really just matters who has the most money? Which, because of other ways our society is structured, is going to be white people.”

He added that queer enclaves across the nation, such as those in Philadelphia and San Francisco, have faced similar issues.

LaSaia Wade, founder and executive director of South Side LGBT center Brave Space Alliance, said she spends much of her time spreading the word about alternatives to Boystown.

“That’s a lot of work that I do on the South Side — to tell Black and brown people that we have our own clubs,” Wade said.

Two of the clubs she touted are Jeffery Pub — which Wade said was “the oldest-running gay club on the South Side” — and Club Escape in the South Shore neighborhood.

Wade said 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,” she said.

Management at Beatnix and Progress Bar, where the anti-black incidents took place last year, did not respond to requests for comment on the story. Representatives for Ald. Tom Tunney, Chicago’s first openly gay alderman whose ward includes Boystown, also repeatedly declined to comment on the claims of racism in the neighborhood.

Photo at top: The owner of Boystown vintage clothing and customer store Beatnix came under fire last year for having the police called on a customer who complained about a Confederate flag vest for sale at the store. (Adam Rhodes/MEDILL)