Phillipe Thao was getting a drink at Berlin nightclub in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood last spring when he noticed a white man glaring at him.
“He turned to my partner, who was also white, and said ‘Your Asian boy is waiting for you,’” Thao said. He said it wasn’t the first time he’d experienced racism in the neighborhood, but it was the most explicit.
Several LGBTQ people of color told WBEZ about similar experiences. They came to Boystown, starry-eyed and yearning for queer acceptance only to realize the neighborhood wasn’t made for them.
According to advocates, that’s nothing new, but they’re saying this moment is different.
As the larger Black Lives Matter movement has inspired widespread protests, activists have organized marches for Black queer and trans lives that have brought thousands to the neighborhood. Black drag queens have challenged what they say is a racist club culture that excludes them.
Like the rest of the county, the gay community — and its neighborhood in Chicago — are in the midst of a racial reckoning.
During a protest last month, renowned Chicago drag queen Shea Couleé invoked a 2011 movement called “Take Back Boystown” that targeted Black queer youth in the neighborhood.
“Years ago y’all wanted to say that you would take back Boystown from the South Side trash, well guess what?” Couleé said. “South Side showed up, and we’re taking it back now.”
A history of exclusion
In 2011, homeless teens were singled out by the Facebook movement Couleé mentioned: “Take Back Boystown,” which followed a series of robberies. At the time, the movement was seen as exclusionary.
White gay men and other neighborhood residents online accused them of loitering, smoking, drinking and making loud noise — on a bar strip. Even a controversial parking ban was implemented on Halsted Street to prevent people from congregating outside. Some saw that as a way to exclude low-income or minority people from hanging out in the neighborhood.
Last year, Progress Bar was criticized for instituting a “no rap” rule.
And last month, people protested outside Spyners Pub, a popular bar among lesbians in Lincoln Square, after the owner wrote racist remarks about recent protests on Facebook.
Bonsai Bermúdez is a genderqueer Boystown resident that founded the Youth Empowerment Performance Project for homeless queer youth. They remember the “Take Back” movement and said like other Black and Brown people, those kids are still not welcome in the neighborhood. Bermúdez recalled a time where young people were laughing and dancing on the street, until residents and cops started targeting them.
Ire from the “Take Back Boystown” movement spurred Chicago police to step up stop and frisks — targeting mostly Black men in an almost all-white area.
Bermúdez said that change is going to take action from business owners.
“It’s a combination of resistance and lack of action,” they said. “Black drag queens are not a new conversation, it’s pretty old actually, but bars keep hiring white identified folks … and even when you hire Black folks, you make their lives hell.”
Bermúdez said that queer people of color find themselves in a double bind. In Boystown, they are accepted for their queerness, but othered by race.
Queer history in Chicago is rife with discrimination and even erasure of queer people of color. Lake View itself used to be a Latino neighborhood, but is now almost 80% white, according to recent Census data.
Chicago Reader publisher Tracy Baim is an LGBTQ historian who literally wrote the book on Chicago’s gay history. She says that flare-ups over race happen every few years in Boystown, but rarely resulted in any kind of lasting change. But now, activists are being heard more than ever before, she said.
Last week, the Black and trans-led LGBTQ center Brave Space Alliance pulled out of a march organized by the Northalsted Business Alliance. They criticized ties to white-owned businesses that perpetuated anti-Blackness in the neighborhood, and the march was canceled. A trans-led march called “Reclaim Pride” took its place.
“I do think the protests are working in ways we haven’t always seen,” she said.
In the mid 1970s, Black lesbian activist Pat McCombs organized a demonstration outside lesbian bar Augie & C.K.’s, which asked Black women for multiple forms of identification. The state liquor commission intervened and put an end to that practice.
McCombs would later co-found Executive Sweet, a floating party for queer women of color who didn’t feel welcome in the mainstream bars.
“It’s both sad and ironic that a lot of Black gay clubs were the first to be more welcoming of a diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity compared to the white clubs,” Baim said.
As the specter of AIDS ravaged the gay community, fights broke out over access to care and resources. Even today, HIV/AIDS resources are centered on the North Side, Baim said.
Nightlife comes to terms
Joe Lewis, who performs in drag as Jo MaMa, moved to Boystown over a decade ago. Lewis said in that time, the neighborhood has changed. Rents rose and many heterosexual families moved in.
But the racism has been consistent. Joe, who is trans/nonbinary, said that for Black people, you often had to keep your mouth shut about racist incidents to participate in the community — or advance your career.
When they first started performing and working in gay bars, Lewis said club management and performers encouraged them to apply lighter toned makeup. They saw coworkers swear at and throw trash at Black people walking down the street. They alleged that one former manager spit at Black people from a balcony during a festival.
When checking coats, a man told Lewis he had something on his face, and laughed when Lewis tried to wipe it away. There was nothing on their face — the man was mocking Lewis’ skin color.
For Lewis, the breaking point was during the current Black Lives Matter movement, when they saw this play out in the virtual drag space: Sets stacked with white performers, while Black queens struggled for a token spot.
“[In drag] it’s very, ‘Be Black, but don’t be too Black,”’ they said. “Specifically they’d say, ‘Don’t be too ethnic.’”
Lewis organized the “Drag March for Change” earlier this month to protest racist policing and the treatment of Black queer people.
Lewis is also on the brand new Chicago Black Drag Council, which has held discussions to address racism in the drag scene.
The council confronted Benjamin Bradshaw, the popular drag queen T Rex, for discriminating against Black performers. After the conversation, clubs dropped Bradshaw.
The council also filmed a yet to be released conversation with more 20 general managers at several North Side venues about their behavior.
“We as a group feel there really is a way to rehabilitate,” they said. “I’m extremely hopeful. I have this Sesame Street, golden, shiny vision of what we can be because I believe very much in the capabilities of the human being.”
Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ. Follow her @MVivianMcCall.