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Community forum discusses Boystown experiences and solutions
by Matt Simonette
2019-06-10

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Several dozen community members gathered the evening of June 5 for a meeting to discuss follow-up engagement in the wake of recent racist incidents in Boystown.

"Many of our congregants do not feel comfortable and for too long have accepted [racism in Boystown] as a reality," said Rev. Jamie Frazier of Lighthouse Community Church, where the meeting was convened.

The gathering was organized by a coalition of Chicago organizations that included Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus, Lighthouse's clergy and members and Affinity Community Services, among others.

One of the controversies began when Progress Bar management sent out an email the week of May 27 instructing DJs to no longer play rap music. That email was distributed publicly via social media a few days later, igniting a community firestorm.

Many community members noted that Progress Bar had previously been one of the most welcoming Boystown bars for Black gay customers, and read the rap ban as de facto ban on them as well. Progress Bar owner Justin Romme apologized May 31.

But community advocates have said that Romme's apology was not enough, and that Progress Bar's rap ban was emblematic of racist treatment of Black individuals when they visit many Boystown establishments. A protest was held at the corner of Halsted and Roscoe Streets the afternoon of June 2.

In late May, community member Dennis Byrd alleged via social media that the owner of Beatnix threatened to call the police after he and a friend asked him to explain an article of clothing that was adorned with the Confederate flag.

Participants at the June 5 meeting acknowledged what they said were larger-scale issues of racism against LGBT persons of color both in Boystown and Chicago as a whole. But Frazier and meeting facilitator Keron Blair urged the gathering to keep later comments and suggestions focused on the Progress Bar incident and Beatnix allegations. As such, audience members were asked to consider where Black LGBT activists and community members should focus their attention next, both to leverage the current attention to the issue and hold business owners accountable.

One audience member, Bashia Clark, said that she'd patronized Progress Bar on a number of occasions, so reading Romme's email "was like losing a child."

Clark added, "Do I not matter? Do I not have a voice?"

Erik Glenn of Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus said that, for many Black LGBT folks visiting or residing in Boystown, microagressions "stacked up."

He explained that when he was living in Boystown, "It was nice not to be called a fag on a regular basis, but it was not nice with all the other stuff that was adding up."

Byrd, the patron making the allegations against Beatnix, said that persons of color "feel targeted and followed" in Boystown; he added that the store owner told him that he was being "like Jussie Smollett, making something out of something that was not a big deal."

Police, he noted, are frequently "weaponized" in the area against persons of color.

Most participants concluded that an immediate call for a boycott of businesses was best saved as a last resort. Frazier, for example, suggested that business owners be required to pay into a fund that could assist persons at risk. Others thought that owners and staff should perhaps be required by the city to attend diversity and cultural competency training sessions as part of licensing requirements.

Blair noted that Romme had requested a meeting with stakeholders in an effort to rectify the situation.

But one audience member wondered aloud why such an incident and backlash have to occur in order for a business owner to make such overtures.

"Why didn't you come to us, the people who come to your establishment?" asked the audience member. "Maybe we can have the owners be honest about what the heck they're so upset about."


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