Boystown, Chicago’s historic gay neighborhood, has played a central role in the LGBTQ community’s fight for equal rights. What began in the 1970s as a strip of gay bars in East Lakeview eventually became an institution — cemented with rainbow-colored pylons, thriving gay-owned businesses and organizations, and a large, active gay population.
Just in time for Pride Month, Curious City decided to revisit a panel discussion we held last month for a question on the history of Boystown. Their conversation raised questions about whether Boystown is inclusive to people of different races and gender identities, how the neighborhood can adapt to better serve a diverse community, and whether it will survive as an LGBTQ haven.
The panel included longtime activist and bar owner Chuck Renslow, queer researcher and photographer Andie Meadows, and drag performers Abhijeet Rane and J Wilson, who both identify as non-binary and trans.
Here are some highlights from that conversation.
On the impact of Boystown
J Wilson: Boystown is the backdrop in front of which I’ve been able to find myself and express my identity. There's something about having a landmark. It's sort of a beacon that you can see, even from the other side of the world. It's so visible with the pylons, and it's so easy to find. I really craved that growing up.
Abhijeet Rane: Even before you can express your queerness to anyone else, just knowing you can look a little weird, or feel a little weird, and walk down those three miles and not have every eye looking at you is really important. Literally the first day that I came to Chicago, I just flew in after 24 hours of flying, and I was really jet-lagged. But I felt so alive. I couldn't sleep that night and I took the CTA Red Line from my dorm to Boystown. I was underage, so I couldn't go out anywhere, but it felt so belonging to be there, just to walk there. I didn’t know anyone but it just felt right.
Chuck Renslow: When you walk into Boystown, you can let your hair down. And it’s great. You can’t do that in most other neighborhoods. Any guy going into Boystown is going to feel at home and can say, “Wow, here I am.”
Andie Meadows: Even being a queer woman and it being called Boystown and being pretty clearly not built for me, I still lived there for three years and felt the draw. I think it was a gateway to finding spaces that are actually for me because it is so visible. I wouldn’t have found places without it.
On whether Boystown should be more inclusive
Meadows: I look at Boystown, and there's a lot that I feel very fondly about. But I'm also excited for what it has the potential to become because if it stops now — if it doesn't continue to expand to accommodate the full LGBTQ spectrum — then it cannot continue to masquerade as an LGBTQ neighborhood. I am just full of expectations. And it's disappointing when they're not met. But it's also encouraging when I see things moving in the right direction.
Renslow: Why can’t we have a couple lesbian bars there? We don’t have them. Why can't we have a bar for bisexuals? I think that's what the expansion should go to. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. It's hard to say.
Rane: For Boystown to be an LGBTQ inclusive neighborhood, there still need to be a lot of steps taken. One of them is making it a safe space for LGBTQ youth — people under the age of 21, people that don't have access to bars and nightlife.There is no overtly visible racism from institutions or owners in Boystown, but that status quo is maintained in small ways of dress codes, the kind of music that's played there, through the way people touch and interact with you. There's still racial prejudice in that neighborhood. I don’t think it needs to be there. I think we're all educated enough and living through enough discrimination to recognize when we, ourselves, are promoting that. We aren't there yet, but we can be there.
Wilson: There’s ways in which it's very white. It should be inclusive of people of all races. It should be a space where people can come, and LGBTQ people from different neighborhoods in Chicago feel welcome, and where their body won't be policed because they are black or brown. We should all be able to be together in a community and enjoy each other’s company and share our different backgrounds.
On intergenerational differences within the LGBTQ community
Renslow: Being a gay activist since the ’50s, I have a problem with the word “queer.” I really do. I've lived most of my life where that was considered a derogatory term. Now suddenly it's not. That makes it at times very difficult. As far as intergenerational, what has surprised me is that when somebody today is interested in an older man … it does not carry the stigma that it did before. I'll be honest with you, I'm hit on quite a bit. That's pretty good when you consider that I'm 87 years old.
Meadows: I’ve had a number of baby boomers assume that I’m going to be hostile with them because a lot of what I care about has to do with changing things that they built, like Boystown. What we have today was built on walls enforced by binary, and we have to totally restructure that. But I can't do that without knowing Boystown's history, and without Boystown being as visible and existing as loudly as it does now. So in wanting and calling for change, there's still an enormous amount of respect and gratitude there.
Wilson: So many gay men and so many trans people put themselves on the front lines for us to be able to live freely. I think the struggle is very different now. We are dealing with totally different problems. We're questioning, “Are we going to assimilate into mainstream culture? Can we assimilate? What will we lose if we do that?”
Rane: I always expect going into a conversation with an older queer person that I am going to be hostile or aggressive, but then I have to take a step back and remember that I have access to very different resources than they had when they were growing up queer. I think it’s a very humbling moment of remembering that no matter who these queer people are and what their politics are, I would not be able to express myself in the same way without them having taken that first step.
On what we should keep in mind moving forward
Wilson: I would say to anyone just starting to learn about queer people: Don't get frustrated, don't get stuck on the language, don't get stuck on someone's attitude that you feel is too confrontational. You have to be willing to open yourself up to learning because it's always a learning process for anyone at any age. It's worth it because people deserve respect. Everyone in the world deserves a fundamental level of respect, and it's worth it to find out what it takes to respect each individual where they are.
Rane: Something that's very important to remember, something that's always been a part of queer culture, is that partying and protesting go hand in hand. And we have to put in our biggest efforts to do both of them. That's the only way that the queer community grows and moves forward.
Meadows: I think that it's very important that change be a constant and that we expect it. Even when we build something we might be happy with, and it's comfortable and we like it, it doesn't stop when I, myself, am happy and comfortable. It stops when my entire community is.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.
Chuck Renslow has been a force in Chicago’s gay community for more than half a century as an activist, business owner, and photographer. He founded The Gold Coast Bar in 1958, the first dedicated gay leather bar in the country. He is also co-founder of the Leather Archives & Museum.
J Wilson (left) and Abhijeet Rane (right) perform together under the name Not Twins. Wilson is a non-binary trans person and a drag performer, based in Boystown. Follow them here.
Rane is a non-binary trans drag queen and a club promoter. Originally from Mumbai, India, they have been living in Boystown for the past four years. Go here to learn more.
Jason Nargis is Special Collections Librarian in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University, which is a member of Chicago Collections.