When did I first fall in love with Chicago's Boystown neighborhood?
It was a mid-summer's night when my then-boyfriend and I went looking for a quick spot to eat. At 15, I wasn't aware the locals referred to our chosen spot as Gay-HOP. Walking down the aisle to our seats, I saw men caressing, cruising and the largest congregation of queer folks I had seen up to that point in my life.
During my teenage years, Boystown represented a space to break down closet doors, live visibly and release shame. At 15, Boystown appeared to be the 'perfect lover;' one who would support you when you needed comforting and would bring so much joy to your life.
Before coming out, my friends and I would sneak into the city to walk up and down the Halsted strip since none of us were old enough to get into the clubs. At first I would pretend like I didn't know we were in this supposed gay Mecca, which was actually the first nationally recognized LGBT neighborhood. And as we walked, I would soak up the attention I received from men and act as if I didn't enjoy it.
After coming out to those same friends, our dynamic in Boystown changed. I started feeling more comfortable flirting with the men on the street, acting goofy with friends, laughing, and occasionally having an older man follow me down the street trying to pick me up. This 'perfect lover' made me feel desirable in a world that tried teaching me to hate myself. I loved him for making me feel better about myself.
Fast forward to now, several years later, I have gained a new consciousness about the homeless queer youth and youth of color being policed and criminalized for 'loitering.' I see the hostility these youth are met with as they participate in the very same acts I had committed years earlier, and still sometimes participate in. The main difference between their story and mine is that I do not need to potentially trade sex for money to survive or have a place to sleep that night. Certain class shields and white skin protect me -- an unfortunate reality many in Boystown are unwilling to admit.
How could these youth be targeted and scrutinized for doing little more than what I had done almost 10 years earlier: trying to find a sense of belonging and having fun with the few friends I had? Perhaps Boystown wasn't as good of a lover as I thought he was. Or perhaps he was only attracted to men like me.
As I wondered, I began to see the abusive relationship I found myself within. I recalled the moments where my Boystown friends, the men I would only hang out with at bars and clubs, would be extremely judgmental and drink their sorrows into the night. Or the moments when white gay men targeted the men of color in my group and questioned their sense of belonging in the neighborhood.
As I've grown up connected to Boystown, I've found myself becoming a person who I don't like whenever I enter the neighborhood. Someone who is hypersexualized, increasingly judgmental as criticisms are tossed my way and drinking excessively to forget that this is where I'm 'supposed' to find a sense of community. This is where I found the root of my abusive relationship with Boystown.
All along I have been married to this fairy tale that Boystown is supposed to be where I find my personal sense of belonging and community. In my mind it was a space where everyone would be accepted for who they were. Growing up in Boystown, I realized it simply is not the case. Certain people are welcomed and others are snubbed. I realize now that I have little in common with the space and many of the people outside of being gay. My love for Boystown began chipping away with each non-loving act I witnessed. The end of our relationship began when I realized the idea that Boystown was an 'inclusive space for everyone' is a myth. There are certain people who are favored and others who simply will not be tolerated.
For me, community doesn't necessarily come attached to one's identity. Community can come in one's politics or values. Similarly, a neighborhood does not necessitate a community. For this to be so, a neighborhood needs to intentionally work to create community.
So, I think it's time for me to break off my relationship with Boystown. It doesn't mean that I don't understand why others will fall in love with him. It just means that my feelings have changed. Just like with other exes, I know that he'll call soon and want to catch up. Maybe I'll answer. Or maybe I'll move on to the grander things that I know are waiting for me outside of the Boystown bubble.