Gay Disneyland

Adam and I were stuffed into a small booth in a local greasy spoon. The waitress in her oversized grey T-shirt sauntered over to ask us if we wanted anymore coffee. Against my better judgment, I took another cup, although Adam waved it away.

“It’s like a mall.” He told me. “You go to shop at the mall. You go to hang out at the mall. You don’t live at the mall.”

This is a sentiment that I’ve heard in several of my interviews. It crosscuts two emerging themes that I’m seeing about Boystown as a neighborhood: Boystown as a destination and “Be careful what you wish for.” I’m going to cover the first in this post with a post next week covering the second theme.

Both themes relate to the overarching change in the relationship between queer people and the rest of society in the United States over the last 10 years. Simply put, we are accepted.

Of course, substantial discrimination and violence remain and queer people still do not enjoy the same legal rights as straight citizens. Even with the president of the United States coming out in support of marriage equality, 61% of the citizens of North Carolina voted to ban all forms of legal recognition for same sex couples. Much more importantly, LGBTQ people commit suicide and are homeless at much greater rates than their straight peers, with the percentage of homeless youth that are queer or transgender being as much as 40%.

However, the environment is substantially different than it was 15, 20, and especially 30 years ago. Gay neighborhoods developed because there was no where else to be safe. As Adam put it, we went to the places that no one else wanted to go, the neighborhoods that were hidden or abandoned enough that no one would mind. Someone with an eye towards racial politics and gentrification might also say that we went to the places that the residents didn’t have the power to resist us.

The gay bar, and the gayborhoods in which they congregated, fulfilled a number of functions beyond serving alcohol. They were the center of community life. There was no where else to meet other gay people for friends, relationships, or sex. Certainly, you weren’t going to meet someone at work, through straight friends, or online as you can do today.

When Boystown first formed, all the bars had blackened windows or wooden planks blocking the view inside. Buck’s used to have a window so small that it only let someone get a quick peek of the street outside, perhaps to check that no one was waiting to get you.

As the windows began to clear—Roscoe’s was the first—it meant that things were changing. Queer people were out. No longer afraid if someone saw through the window that they were in a gay bar. This led to two changes in the role of the gayborhood.

The first of these changes is that Boystown has become a destination. Ryan told me that he was disappointed when he finally got to Chicago, after moving from rural Illinois at 17, because it did not turn out to be the “gay Disneyland” that he fantasized. He thought that the neighborhood was going to be a place where he could finally find a community, a chosen family. Boystown would not only let him find a partner, but it would be a complete package of entertainment, activism, and residence. Boystown was a destination, one that he could not afford.

Like many youth, most of the attractions in the neighborhood were ones that he either could not pay for or were completely closed to him because of his age. Rent in the neighborhood priced him out immediately. The main entertainment centers were barred to him without a fake ID. Similarly, the Center on Halsted attracts youth from all over the city because of its services. Standing in Buck’s at happy hour one Friday afternoon, I had a conversation with a late 40s white gay man who told me definitively that if he saw queer or transgender youth on the Red Line, he knew that they would be getting off at Addison to visit the Center.

Adam reminds me though that, “most of the people that live here don’t need those services.” Is it surprising then that residents would characterize the people that frequent the Center as being “outsiders,” since they don’t fit the class status of the neighborhood?

Of course, there are more questions that I have to understand this emerging theme. For instnace, I am seeking interviews with straight residents to understand the increasing numbers of straight families that choose to move to the gayborhood, a demographic shift often assocaited with late-stage gentrification.

There is also some disconfirming evidence. Sam, for example, discusses in his interview how he only goes to Boystown for work. Like Ryan, he doesn’t live in Boystown. Instead, both of them live in “up and coming” neighborhoods that have substantial gay populations: Logan Square, Andersonville, Rogers Park. Sam though doesn’t go to Boystown for recreation or shopping. He doesn’t need to. Boystown doesn’t offer the kind of gay experience that he wants.

In next week’s post, I’m going to cover the change that I think underlies Sam’s reasons for Boystown not offering the experience he would need to go there: acceptance has led to assimilation and heteronormative values have changed the experience of the gayborhood. Be careful what you wish for.

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