Is It Time to Boycott Boystown?

Queer Chicagoans should act to make Boystown a safe and affirming space for all queer and trans persons, youths or adults, and should continue to strive for a community that represents all of us.
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I remember the first time I came to Boystown. I was 17 and on my second day of college, wearing a tight-black Fender t-shirt, even tighter jeans, one of those belts with a seatbelt buckle on it and a tan corduroy jacket that I borrowed from my neighbor in the dorms -- one he insisted I had to wear the collar popped on. I was headed to one of the cafes to meet up with some friends, drink coffee on the patio, smoke clove cigarettes and feel "college cool." When I finally stepped onto Halsted after getting off at the Belmont stop, the street appeared to be something out of a Broadway musical, the greatest Busby Berkeley dream I'd ever had. The neighborhood was dancing with people -- everywhere! -- singing and talking and living the life I wanted. And as the sunlight blinked off my aviator glasses, almost all of them seemed to be smiling at me, welcoming me to this new neighborhood and this new life. I felt home, at last.

For me, this memory stands in stark contrast to the realities of Boystown, and the way I see it now, because a lot has changed in Boystown since I first stepped foot onto its pavements seven years ago. When I first came there, I felt a thriving sense of community and believed it was a space that would take in someone like me, no matter where I came from or what my story was -- kind of like that Backstreet Boys song. Growing up in a small, conservative town in Ohio, I only understood queer community as small pockets of individuals who protected each other from the harm and violence small-town life can bring, and seeing queer community on such a grand scale inspired me to be involved in it. However, I've come to see that there's a drawback in that: that kind of community can be a mirage, one that queer Chicagoans are starting to see through. Rather than being a Queer Utopia, we live in a neighborhood and a city divided, something more out of Dickens (or The Dark Knight Rises) than Thomas More.

Last year's Take Back Boystown events highlighted the extreme racial and ideological segregation in Boystown, when a community was no longer fighting to exist as a space where the marginalized and oppressed could find refuge; rather, the community was fighting against itself, mobs forming to exclude those seen as outsiders and threats to the perceived Boystown "in group." This group included the predominantly white, male patrons of the neighborhood's bar scene, a group which claimed that they were "Taking Back Boystown" from the queer youths of color seen to be the source of violence and conflict in the community. The Center on Halsted, which offers resources and programs for at-risk youth, quickly became a symbol of inviting in this perceived menace, as if the Center were a giant Trojan horse, ready to explode.

But if you are queer and a Chicagoan, most of this news is old hat, as is the controversy over the When In Boystown Tumblr, a blog that made light of the marginalization of people of color in Boystown. Rather than having the intended effect of bringing queer Chicagoans together to laugh at the eccentricities of Boystown, the Tumblr was attacked as being racist, classist, misogynistic and transphobic, among many other things. Instead of laughter being the best medicine, the Tumblr only made the problem worse. We were being encouraged to laugh at systemic racism, rather than critiquing that system.

When I wrote my piece on that account, I didn't do so just out of offense, even if I was personally horrified that damaging minstrelsy was passing as comedy or satire. I felt the issue was necessary and important more because it highlighted the increasing fragmentation of Boystown and queer Chicago as a community, as a space where all could be welcomed and affirmed. Neither Take Back Boystown nor that Tumblr sent a message of unity and inclusivity. Instead, they furthered the notion that Boystown is a space where people of color, women and trans folks are not welcome and their very presence is subject to scrutiny or policing. This idea is still alive and well and must be challenged.

After my post was published, many commenters and friends questioned why I wasn't doing more about it and building safe spaces -- if I had such passionate feelings about fighting for community in Boystown, which I do. Although I'm not much of a barhopper, I will always want Boystown to exist as a space where someone like a 17-year-old me could come and find a space to be ourselves, especially when many don't have physical homes or spaces that could be that for us. We need to be able to find that shelter in this community and fight for the right of youth to take refuge in spaces like the Crib, a LGBTQ youth homeless shelter in the area that closed its doors for the summer because of a lack of funding.

That "doing something about it" resulted in Queer Is Community -- a night of performances and panel discussion at the Center on Halsted that brought 150 people (on IML weekend, of all weekends) to raise money for the Crib. The panelists and our attendees talked about what community is and why we should fight for it. In that discussion, I saw firsthand the frustrations that many queer Chicagoans have with the increasing niche that Boystown is creating -- of a space not for the many but for the few, the few that are old enough and wealthy enough.

However, the problem was that our attendees' anger was largely not heard or acknowledged by the greater Boystown community, especially the bar owners that such critiques of classism, racism, sexism and transphobia were directed at. They were not present. Although our organizers invited the Northalsted Business Alliance (currently the major representative body of the Boystown business community) to join us, the NHBA declined our invitation by not simply responding. Rather than seeking to be a part of a discussion about inclusion and change, they ignored it as if there were no problem. By this logic, the problem continues to be "them" (aka. the "thugs" that have taken over the neighborhood) and not "us."

And the larger problem with the Northalsted Business Alliance is not only their inaction on that one discussion, but also their continued disengagement from their critics. It just deepens the divides that many queer Chicagoans feel.

On Tuesday, the proverbial fecal matter hit the cooling apparatus again when reported that the NBHA would be enhancing its security forces through the end of Market Days weekend -- "at least." Although the article notes that the practice of hiring private security is "not uncommon in Chicago'' and the association has had security in the area for "several years," that's not the way it looks to many Chicagoans who have learned to distrust and fear policing in the Boystown area. That's especially when the increased policing comes from the private fund of an organization seen to be racist and classist. The police force's new green vests are a symbol of the visibility of such "enhanced" tactics, ones meant to protect and serve wealth at the expense of fostering meaningful community. Sure, it might make people feel superficially safe by throwing money and guns at the problem, but at what cost?

When the news went live, my Facebook page (which I learn far too many things from) erupted with activity, and I thought Michael Jackson might have gone and died again. In my News Feed, friends of mine quickly compared the private force to Blackwater, the Gestapo and a police state. It's hyperbole, but this stark comparison makes clear the way many queer Chicagoans feel about the Boystown area, an anger that is causing many to move away from it or out of the city altogether. As a friend of mine recently put it, "Why would you stay somewhere that doesn't want you?"

Last month, Johnathan Fields summed up this frustration with the neighborhood in a HuffPo piece aptly titled "Breaking Up With Boystown," and many are now going so far as to call for a boycott against the neighborhood. In an impassioned plea on local queer website The Qu, staff writer Erin O'Neal eloquently implores us to take action to keep Boystown inclusive. O'Neal writes:

I think it is time to take back Boystown from the self-interests of local businesses at the expense of the greater LGBTQ community. If our community were being attacked by hate-groups and bashed in the street with no response from the police, I could understand taking such drastic measures. However, I will not stand by as supposed allies and community businesses hire enforcement thugs against our own people. I am calling for a boycott against all members of the Northalsted Business Alliance and of the North Halsted Market Days. The NHBA is putting our community at risk for their own financial gain and operating with racist, classist and transphobic motives. It is imperative that members of the greater queer community of Chicago meet as soon as possible to organize a protest in Boystown and create groups to monitor the actions of the NHBA's private security firm to create awareness and accountability by an outside party. The youth in our community are not the enemy and we cannot sit silently by as they are treated as such. We need to fight for inclusion in Boystown, not policing.

I agree with O'Neal that queer Chicagoans should act to make Boystown a safe and affirming space for all queer and trans persons, whether youths or adults, and should continue to strive for a community that represents all of us. However, if these Chicagoans are going to fight to make the myth of togetherness a reality, they cannot continue to do so alone. As we have seen from the Occupy protests, bottom-up anger only goes so far in creating the change our segregated city so desperately needs; it needs to be met with a willingness to listen to that frustration and do something about it -- from the people at the top.

As an example of how power can act as a force for good, the mayor of Boston, Thomas M. Merino, recently penned a letter to Chick-Fil-A explaining his reasons for blocking the openly homophobic restaurant chain from opening new locations in the city. Merino writes, "Here in Boston, we are full of pride for... our work to expand freedom to all people... There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it." Just as Mayor Merino stated that bigotry does not have a place in the city of Boston, the Northalsted Business Alliance must also show that there is "no place for discrimination" on the streets of Boystown, especially a discrimination upheld at the expense of its own people.

Organizations like GenderJUST have long been fighting to enact Restorative Justice models in Boystown and make the neighborhood a safe space for the marginalized, and the recent We Are Halsted event sought to bring the issue of youth homelessness to the bar scene though a fundraiser for the Crib at Sidetrack, a Boystown bar establishment. The latter is a step at bringing the issues to the attention of the "1%," but this is not enough. To create lasting change, the bars and establishments involved in the Northalsted Business Alliance need to intentionally engage with these bridge-builders in order to build a better Boystown, invest in its future and protect all of its people. And the residents of our community need to be engaged in making the NHBA and themselves accountable for envisioning a Boystown beyond reactionary violence.

Instead of fighting each other, the Boystown "1%" has to finally cross the battle lines and fight with the those working for social justice and equality -- rather than continuing to value profits over community. Because in building a space for themselves and their own interests, the Northalsted Business Alliance continues to show us that they are building a space for no one. And if the boycott is successful, they might just get it.

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