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Center on Halsted, museum host 'Boystown' event
by Molly Sprayregen
2017-05-24

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On May 18, the Chicago History Museum held an event at the Center on Halsted ( "The Center" ) that both explored the development of Boystown and debated the positive and negative ramifications of the changes the neighborhood has undergone throughout the gay rights movement.

This particular event, the first ever held outside the museum, featured speaker Jason Orne, author of Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago and an assistant sociology professor at Drexel University. Orne's presentation, titled "The Consequences of Heritage Commodification in Boystown," explored the social and economic tensions that have arisen in Boystown as a result of an increasing ability for LGBTQ people to live, work and play outside of what he calls "gayborhoods."

Orne explained why Boystown has endured as a gay village despite the fact that it has undergone gentrification and a large majority of gay young people have moved away from the neighborhood. One major reason, he said, was the City of Chicago's formal declaration of the area as an LGBTQ space. The Center's size and role in the LGBTQ community has also helped Boystown last. The Center's CEO, Modesto "Tico" Valle, who spoke at the event, said The Center has served 3.5 million people since opening its doors 10 years ago.

Orne explained, however, that LGBTQ young people's decisions to live elsewhere has required Boystown businesses to partake in what he calls "heritage commodification," making Boystown a destination for LGBTQ and straight people alike who are interested in experiencing a taste of gay culture. Boystown is no longer necessarily a place people desire for daily life and identity, but rather a fun place to explore for a day or night out.

Orne did acknowledge one blatantly negative consequence of gentrification in Boystown: the feeling by many new inhabitants that queer youth of color are out of place and not welcome. Although few have lived in Boystown, queer youth of color have always traveled to the neighborhood to spend time in a safe, accepting environment—yet now it is they who are seen as outsiders.

In a conversation preceding this event, Valle explained that the way homeless queer youth in the neighborhood have recently been treated was an issue he hoped would be prioritized during the talk. He said he is appalled when he hears people saying that these youth do not belong in Boystown when they have been coming to the neighborhood for 30 years to, as Valle said, "celebrate who they are." This is their neighborhood, Valle emphasized.

Following Orne's presentation was a panel discussion, moderated by queer femme activist, photographer and historian Andie Meadows. The panel was made up of a diverse range of voices: Art Johnston, co-owner of Boystown nightspot Sidetrack; Pat Cummings, a lesbian photographer who currently lives in the Town Hall apartments and also lived in Boystown as a young woman; Lucy Stoole, a drag performer who calls herself "Chicago's Black, Bearded Beauty;" and Orne.

The panel discussed issues such as their feelings about the word "queer," the changes they have seen in the neighborhood over the past few decades and the various forms of activism in which one can partake. Another important discussion throughout the evening centered on whether Boystown is truly an inclusive space or if it is mostly a haven for gay white males.

One large issue the panel debated was the effects of the exchange the LGBTQ community has had to make: becoming more mainstream in order to gain legal rights. They also discussed the current necessity of LGBTQ neighborhoods—a point with which Johnston strongly said was needed. The reason LGBTQ people are gaining important rights like healthcare, he said, are because the community is perceived as a powerful minority, and a neighborhood to call our own is vital to maintaining that power.


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