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Chicagoans have a long legacy of creating spaces that celebrate and center Black queer people. Reset heard about this history from dr. nick alder and Pat McCombs, who have both organized pop-up parties, as well as Chicago Reader social justice reporter DMB.

Max Lubbers / WBEZ

How Chicagoans have celebrated Black queer joy across history

Until 1970, dancing with someone of the same gender was illegal in Chicago. It wasn’t so long ago that gay bars were facing police raids, and today, LGBTQ+ spaces continue to come under threat.

Those spaces are deeply connected to a history of LGBTQ+ resistance and protest. There is a long legacy of this celebration in Chicago, with Black queer people leading the way.

The tradition of Black queer nightlife is marked with creativity and resilience. And there are plenty of lessons that can be learned across generations.

To learn more about this history and discuss the future of Black queer spaces in Chicago, Reset host Sasha-Ann Simons sat down with a panel:

  • DMB, a Chicago Reader journalist who chronicled this history
  • Pat McCombs, longtime co-organizer of Executive Sweet, a party primarily centering Black lesbians.
  • dr. nick alder, co-founder of Party Noire, an inclusive cultural hub celebrating Black femmes, queer women of color and Black womanhood along the gender spectrum. 

Below are some highlights of their conversation.

Pat, you would have been first visiting gay bars in the late ’60s. What are your first memories like?

Pat McCombs: We did a lot of stuff underground, so it's not like it's written. Most of the time we did stuff in people’s houses, in their basements, where you can feel free and dress any way you wanted to. But when you left the party, you had to really watch out. Because if a woman had a zipper in front of her pants, they arrested her.

1969 was when police raided Stonewall Inn and patrons rose up and fought back. That was a gay bar in New York, but talk about how that reverberated into Chicago.

DMB: Just as there was a Gay Liberation Front group in New York City, we had a chapter here in Chicago. And their first goal was: Let's boycott the Normandy, this 500-(person) capacity bar that is not allowing us to have same-sex dancing. They boycotted it for about two months, and they forced the bar owners to go and get a permit to let the attendees do same-sex dancing, to wear shorts, to wear sunglasses, to let women sit at the bar.

The Stonewall riots were in June. And that's why we celebrate Pride this month. How do you keep the roots of pride in mind as you're approaching creating space for Black queer joy in this day and age?

dr. nick alder: It feels particularly contentious to hold this question about how to be committed to the “riot” or the movement of the work. Because as we see in recent years, pride is corporatized. There are corporations who are bringing in lots of dollars to support pride in a very superficial way without being committed to the work in a real and substantial way. And I think it really is for us to continue to question and to push back and to demand more from these entities who want to profit off of the work of Black and brown queer people.

In the ’70s, Pat, you organized a protest against a white-owned lesbian bar for discriminating against women of color. What happened there?

McCombs: I was at a gathering at a friend's house, and she stated that she had a hard time entering the bar, because they asked for certain identification – which at the time was identification for people on public aid. And (the bouncer) assumed that people of color were on some type of public assistance. So I felt strongly insulted by it. I spoke with some of my white ally friends. And we decided to picket the bar on a weekend, when they were making the most money. During the time we picketed the bar, I passed out flyers to let people know what to do in case they were discriminated against. We put the bars on North Side on notice.

Later you got involved in organizing Executive Sweet. Describe the atmosphere of that party and the mission there. 

That came about because of the discrimination. I said, “Why pay our money where people don't want us? Let’s start our own thing.”

So my friends and I, we would carry briefcases and dress up in suits, and go to various establishments. […] We asked to speak to the owner and say, “Oh, we see that you're not doing very well, you know, could we rent this establishment for the night?” And usually, they were very agreeable about it because they weren't making money anyway. And I didn’t let them know we were lesbians. I told them we were a sorority. Because, at the time, I was in the closet.

nick, how does Pat's experience resonate with you decades later?

alder: The times have changed, but they haven't changed, when you talk about starting a space because of discrimination, or not seeing yourself represented in the space. At the time that Party Noire started in about 2015, the center of queer life in Chicago's in Boystown. And it's very white, it's very male centered. And for us, we wanted to see a space that represented and really centered and affirmed Black, queer, trans non-binary people. We wanted that space to feel like when you walked in, you felt the care of Black femmes.

DMB, as you were tracing this history, how did you see it impacting party organizers today?

DMB: When you're going out, you're looking for somewhere to go — a space that is catering to you, as a trans person, as a Black person, as a Latinx person — maybe you have this sense that, “Oh, this array of parties I can choose from is pretty new. This is a 21st century thing.” (But) these parties were crazy back in the ’60s, even if they were underground. And there's still a consistent timeline, you're always able to find (Black queer spaces) in Chicago history.

As a new party organizer is starting, maybe the folks that they might have learned from closed their party a few years back. And they learn it a few years into their party like, ”Oh, this actually, what I'm doing isn't new, even though I kind of felt alone when I was making this.” And that's even a bigger testament to how voracious these Black queer organizers are — even when we're not able to be totally in tune with what that history looks like, we're still recreating it.

What do you hope for the future of Black queer spaces? 

McCombs: My hope is that they're more of them, and that they are more inclusive in terms of age – to interlock that community, so we don’t feel left out. Just because we age, doesn’t mean we no longer want to party. Just being able to have those types of spaces where we can feel comfortable, and yet we can share a lot of different things with each other.

DMB: I hope for the diversity of Black queer spaces to expand — the gender diversity, the genres of bands and music that are playing, for people to continue to see us on the wide spectrum that we exist on. And then I hope for sustainability, financially.

alder: There's that question of ownership and what it means to have access to physical space here in Chicago. And it's very hard, it's a challenge. And I'm thinking about some imaginative ways to kind of be in ownership, whether it's co-ops or us being able to have resources that don't necessarily sort of map on to the very kind of capitalistic, landlord, owner (relationship). But there are ways for us to kind of be in community and to cultivate the space and be stewards of the space together, whether that's sort of like brick-and-mortar or some wild thing that I haven't yet thought of. It could be a homestead or some piece of land that we are all kind of stewarding together to create space for Black, queer, trans non-binary creativity.

This transcription was edited for clarity and brevity by Max Lubbers. You can listen to the full interview by clicking the red audio player above.

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