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Morning Shift

The Backstory Behind 'The Rocks'

Even into the 1980s, queer culture in Chicago was confined to a few night spots in a neighborhood that had not yet been dubbed “Boystown.” But there was one spot where gay men felt comfortable being out and proud in broad daylight. It was an area around Belmont Harbor known as “the Rocks.”

While photographer Doug Ischar documented the scene over two summers in the 1980s, it’s only now that author Owen Keehnen is gathering stories for an oral history of the area and what it meant to the community at the time.

Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia talked to Ischar and Keehnen about “the Rocks” and why it was important to the LGBTQ community. Here are some highlights from their conversation.

On what being at the Rocks meant

Owen Keehnen: The Rock and being out and gay and proud in the the sunshine — rather than in a darkened bar, which, even at the time, the bar windows were darkened — it was a political statement. It was an assertion of a right to claim a place, of our right to be here and to be ourselves and to have fun.

On taking photos at the Rocks

Doug Ischar: My MO at the Rocks was to kind of be the resident nuisance, just to stick it out there many hours a day, almost always six or seven days a week. And people would just sort of ignore me. I was simply buzzing around with my Leica (camera), and that’s how I was able to make a lot of pictures that don’t really seem to acknowledge the presence of a photographer.

Tony Sarabia: Were there moments when you approached people who were saying to you, “Look, no, because I’m actually not out”?

Ischar: That certainly happened and it happened at other moments in my career.

I’ll tell a very brief anecdote. I showed these photographs to Sandra Phillips, who was the chief photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. And she loved them and was excited about the possibility of showing them, and then she saw a member of her board in the background in one of the photographs. And she said, “I can’t touch these.”

So there is this kind of insurance policy that privileged gay men have against being represented. And that’s a very, very complicated ball of wax, and it’s something I’ve wrestled with for years.

On police harassment

Keehnen: There were raids at the Rocks periodically. But the thing about the Rocks, too, is they’re also somewhat separated from easy access. So in other words, a (police) cruiser would have to go through a parking lot, get on the grass, drive across the grass, and then when you got to the Rocks, not all the rocks were visible because they were irregular and staggered.

So they were a safer place than a lot of places for being discovered, but at the same time, police were aware of activity there.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.

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