Political activism and businesses helped shape the city's gay neighborhood, but there’s a debate about its future.
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Editor's note: This piece was produced in partnership with Chicago Collections, which provided research, expertise, and other assistance during its development.
Jack Floyd came to Chicago in 2010 to attend Loyola University and when he wanted to go out, he often ended up in the neighborhood called Boystown. “As a gay person, I just started going there with friends to be with other people like myself,” he says.
Questioner Jack Floyd (left) at Sidetrack gay club in Boystown alongside owner Art Johnston (second from left) and Curious City reporters Jason Nargis (second from right) and Steven Jackson (right). (Courtesy Sidetrack Bar)
Boystown is a gay neighborhood located within the larger Lakeview East area and it’s hard to miss — it’s marked with giant rainbow pillars. Boystown stretches roughly from Belmont Avenue up to Addison Street, and it spans from Halsted Street to Broadway.
“There’s this gay neighborhood in Chicago that’s not really like anything else in America, or in the world, so it made me question what kind of forces are at play — whether they be geographical, cultural, demographic — that came together and allowed this neighborhood to become officially recognized as some sort of gay entity and destination,” Jack says.
His question for Curious City: “What is the history of Boystown? What made it become and gain traction as an LGBTQ neighborhood?”
The answer is tied to persecution, perseverance, and slow societal change.
Even though it’s not the only Chicago gay enclave, the neighborhood has played a central role in the LGBTQ community’s struggle for legal equality and social acceptance. It’s been home to many successful businesses and has been at the center of important civil rights battles. But as it has grown, the neighborhood has struggled to be a place where all members of the community feel included.
Gay enclaves before the '60s
Before Boystown there were many other centers of gay life.
“Chicago has always been a queer town, and the historical evidence is pretty clear that queer people live all over the place,” says Jennie Brier, director of the gender and women’s studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
An early 20th century cartoon of Chicago's Levee District, or vice district, shows same-sex couples walking in pairs down the street. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, ICHi-062276; John T. McCutcheon,artist)
Tracy Baim, a gay historian and co-founder and publisher of Windy City Times, one of Chicago’s LGBTQ newspapers, says the gay areas were dispersed across Chicago but “a lot of it was centered around downtown, River North, and Tower Town in the mid part of the last century. And then, slowly, as rents went up and other things happened, the community was forced out.”
As gentrification pushed both individuals and businesses out, the community moved generally up the eastern side of the city. “For the most part,” says Baim, “it started to move north and then it was centered around the Diversey or Broadway/Clark Street area.”
The ’60s and ’70s: The politics that helped create Boystown
The Boystown we know today has roots in the activism of the 1960s and 1970s and resistance to homophobia and transphobia. At the time, cross-dressing was illegal and simply being gay was reason enough to be fired, denied an apartment, or even institutionalized.
In keeping with the “criminal” treatment of homosexuality, most gay bars were run by the mob, since they had the power and bankroll to pay off the police and keep the bars open. Still, police raids were a common occurrence. Often around election time, candidates would seek crackdowns on establishments, even in areas thought to be exempt from raids, to show they were tough on homosexuality.
A 1972 poster from the Gay People's Legal Committee. (Courtesy Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries)
The consequences of being caught by police were sometimes more serious than simply being arrested. Newspapers would publish the names, addresses, and employers of people picked up in raids, which could lead to people losing jobs, families, or even their lives through suicide. Many people would not carry IDs and would not use their real names in gay bars to avoid being outed. Eventually, activists pushed back against this discrimination.
A Chicago Gay Alliance poster announcing a march against police harassment of gay people. (Courtesy Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries)
The protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago had a profound influence on some early gay activists. Allen Ginsberg, the openly gay beat poet and peace activist, led crowds in chants of “om” to calm protesters. Gay rights were starting to have a place in the counterculture movement and in the public eye.
In June of 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar run by the mob in New York City’s Greenwich Village. For the first time, a substantial group of gays, lesbians, and trans people fought police oppression over the course of several nights. This pivotal moment was the catalyst for the modern gay rights movement nationwide.
The first Chicago pride parade in 1970 marked the anniversary of the first night of the Stonewall events. It started in Bughouse Square and went down Michigan Avenue to the Civic Center. Over the years, the parade moved north to the Clark and Diversey area and Belmont Harbor, and then it eventually found a home in the Boystown area in the early ’80s, where it currently takes place.
The political and social work grew beyond just the march. The Chicago Gay Alliance opened the first, albeit short-lived, gay community center just south of Division Street in 1971. A few years later, four medical students from the University of Chicago transformed their support group into a medical clinic to combat venereal disease within the gay and lesbian population. This organization would eventually become the Howard Brown Health clinic and offer full health care services in Boystown and beyond.
The first gay establishments on Halsted Street north of Belmont also opened in the mid-1970s; they included Augie’s lesbian bar, Little Jim’s gay bar, the Women’s Center, and the Gay Horizons community center.
The '80s: Boystown begins
The early history of Boystown is in some ways a story of gay bars.
“Coming into a bar, for a gay person, was really the only moment you were home,” says Art Johnston, a community organizer and political activist. “So bars played a really, really important role in our history. It’s all we had.”
Johnston co-founded Sidetrack bar on North Halsted Street in 1982. It was the third gay-owned bar in the area at the time and was a windowless, signless, single room space with beer crates for seating.
Jose "Pepe" Peña (left) and Art Johnston (right) co-founded Sidetrack on 3349 North Halsted Street in 1982. (Courtesy Sidetrack)
“Halsted was better than what we had before, but it was nothing like it is today,” Johnston says. “In the very early days of the bar, when someone was leaving, we would ask customers very specifically not to leave by themselves. That was just part of it, just to be safe.”
When Sidetrack opened, Johnston says, the average life of a gay bar in Chicago was two to three years. “Because of the pressures from the city, from police … it just was so clear we were not welcome,” he explains. So having a cluster of gay-owned establishments in the Lakeview neighborhood was important. It helped gay people feel like they had a place where they belonged. The North Halsted Street area continued to attract gay businesses and residents, and within a few years, the street was developing an LGBTQ identity.
A third expansion of Sidetrack in the early '90s
included a cherry bar and cherry lounge. (Courtesy Sidetrack)
According to Johnston, this all had a snowball effect.
“As gay people started coming more and more to bars and to this neighborhood, they discovered wonderful housing stock at really inexpensive prices,” he says, adding that more gay residents made Halsted Street “a good place for seeds to be sowed and for other bars to happen. It was clear that gay people liked to have, not only a gay bar, but a gay district.”
The low property prices and early buy-in from gay entrepreneurs helped cement the future direction of the neighborhood.
According to Baim, the Halsted bars had become more anchored by ’83 or ’84. “And the reason Halsted has really stayed that way is because even back then, many of them were starting to buy property, not just rent,” she says.
Property ownership, an expanding merchant association, growing population density, and registered voters meant increased economic and political clout. The community could use its growing influence to lobby local government.
An assortment of gay activism buttons. (Courtesy Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries)
Bars also played a major role as gathering spaces for organizers during the AIDS crisis.
“There’s no question that gay marriage would not exist if we had not been through those horrors which transformed our community,” Johnston says. “We had to change ourselves. We had to learn to become a real community. We had to take care of ourselves, because nobody else was going to. And we did.”
Baim says, “I'm not really a bar person, but I covered so many events in the bars because they were really our de facto community centers.”
During this period, bars also hosted voter registration drives and would offer meeting space to numerous organizations and causes. In 1987, the Chicago City Council was set to vote on the Human Rights Ordinance, which outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, public accommodations, and employment. Gay bars in Boystown banded together to hire a fleet of buses to take patrons down to a rally at Daley Plaza to show the strength and size of the community. The measure did not pass until 1988, but the fight over it shows how a gay neighborhood could be used to mobilize voters and organize demonstrations.
The '90s: Recognition and assimilation
In 1997, Mayor Richard M. Daley issued a public works project that installed rainbow pylons along a stretch of North Halsted Street. (WBEZ/Katherine Nagasawa)
By the 1990s, the strip on Halsted had earned the nickname Boystown. As Johnston recalls, the name came from a popular weekly column called “Boys Town” by Rex Wockner, which ran in the gay Chicago newspaper Outlines.
“Businesses tried a number of plans to get rid of the name,” he says. “We’re going to be accused of being anti-woman anyway, and now we’re going to call ourselves Boystown? It was just awful. We hated the damn name.”
Whatever the name, it was the gay neighborhood in Chicago — mainly catering to gay white men. But it wasn’t just the nightlife that drew people in. There were also neighborhood community centers and social services, like Gay Horizons — later called the Center on Halsted.
The growing financial and voting strength of Chicago’s LGBTQ community during this period meant that politicians had to pay attention to their needs.
“The community as a whole was understood to be a community that has political clout and economic clout, absolutely,” says Mary Morten, who served as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s liaison to the LGBTQ community in the late 1990s.
In 1997 Daley officially recognized Boystown as Chicago’s gay district. The city installed giant rainbow pillars in the area, which was a big deal because it marked the first time a big city bestowed such recognition to a gay neighborhood. The move attracted national and international attention.
“Some people thought it would add a target to the backs of people in the area,” Baim says. “Other people thought it would devalue property. Other people thought it would increase the value of property. So, you had straight people advocating for it and against, and you had gay people advocating for it and against. It was really odd.”
A map of the half mile span of memorial plaques built into the Halsted Street rainbow pylons commemorating the contributions of LGBTQ individuals. (Courtesy Legacy Project Chicago)
There were also those who worried Boystown was losing its outsider identity. They saw the increasing corporate and governmental sponsorship of the Chicago Pride Parade, for example, as a sign the of the community's assimilation into mainstream culture.
Who has been left out?
Today, Boystown is known as a longstanding queer safe space and business district. But some people, especially younger queer people of color, say they feel marginalized by the area’s focus on white, gay, older, affluent men.
Johnston says he is familiar with this criticism of Boystown.
“Folks have often said that Halsted is too white,” he says. “It is a reflection, largely, of the geographic part of the town in which we’re located. We can never forget that Chicago is probably the most racially segregated city in the United States.”
Brier, the director of UIC’s gender and women’s studies program, says the city’s problems with diversity are reflected in Boystown.
“We know that racial segregation is structurally part of Chicago, and so you can't assume that you could make a gayborhood outside of that context,” she says.
Over the last five to 10 years, racial tension has been a central issue in Boystown. In the early 2000s, some bars were requiring multiple forms of ID from black and brown patrons, a throwback to similar racist behavior within the gay community decades earlier. And in 2011, some residents began a “Take Back Boystown” campaign in response to a string of violent crimes that they blamed on queer youth of color.
The Center on Halsted, an institution well-regarded by local politicians and community organizers, received criticism from some Lakeview residents in 2011, when a man was stabbed on the street. Some residents initially blamed the center’s diverse clientele of homeless youth and people from the South and West sides, but the attacker turned out to be from Indiana.
Women are another group that is not equally represented in Boystown, which has seen its number of lesbian bars depleted over the years. The very name of the neighborhood points to their exclusion.
In summer 2014, "Chloe's," a lesbian disco club, opened on the corner of Belmont and Halsted. Three months later, it was closed and rebranded as "Manhole." In 2017, it was announced that "Manhole" would be replaced by a popular ramen chain. (Courtesy Andie Meadows)
“I would love to see a ladies' night or a femmes' night happen on a weekend night. Women don’t get weekend nights. That’s for making money off the gay boys,” says Andie Meadows, a writer, photographer, and queer femme researcher who has led walking tours of Boystown.
She recalls the excitement of when she first spent time in the neighborhood as a young queer femme. But she says the novelty of being able to openly hold hands with her girlfriend quickly wore off.
With a name like Boystown, Meadows says it was “pretty clearly not built for me.”
Dreams for the future
Boystown is in a period of real transformation. The demographics of the neighborhood are changing rapidly, and it is becoming less of a place where gay people live and more of a gay entertainment district.
At the same time, the internet is altering the way that many queer people meet, interact, and build community. The very need for a physical neighborhood is even being debated by some members of the LGBTQ community. The future of Boystown is full of big questions and wide-ranging possibilities, and not everyone agrees about what the future holds.
“Just in the past few years of living here, I've noticed so many changes,” says Abhijeet Rane, a trans, non-binary drag performer and club promoter. “Very few queer people live in the neighborhood anymore. They’re moving further away. It's starting to turn into a more commercialized place with a lot more space given to business rather than residential, and it’s also not very affordable.”
A bachelorette party gathers outside Progress Bar on Halsted Street. (Courtesy Andie Meadows)
Some younger LGBTQ members say the need for a physical “gayborhood” may be a dated concept, as queerness becomes more broadly accepted in society and the internet and smartphone dating apps makes it easier to meet and communicate with other people.
“Sustainability in terms of queer space means something totally different now,” Meadows says. “It’s community as opposed to a building.”
Many people do still see the need for a brick and mortar gay area. But if the neighborhood is going to continue as a viable and inclusive queer communal space, it will have to adapt, says Meadows, who adds that some of those changes may be uncomfortable for the very groups that worked so hard to lay the foundations of Halsted Street.
“I am often stuck between understanding where the previous generations who built Boystown are coming from, and also being terribly upset that they are not continuing to move forward towards inclusivity — to where it would actually become an LGBTQIA space,” Meadows says, using the full acronym that stands for lesbian; gay; bisexual; transgender and transsexual; queer and questioning; intersex and interested; and asexual and ally.
Johnston says he firmly believes in the continued need for a gay district.
“When you lose your downtown, it accelerates the loss of community,” he says. “When you lose a downtown, you lose the political influence you had. You lose the clout you had. The reality of politics is that if your community does not stand up, vote, vocalize, show their strength, you will be ignored.”
A family holds homemade signs at a transgender rights and awareness march in Boystown in February 2017. (Courtesy Haley Velasco)
The making of Boystown took decades to occur and was tied to the growing economic and political power of mostly gay white men. There has been progress towards making Boystown more inclusive. A transgender rights and awareness march took place on Halsted Street in February and attracted hundreds of participants. There are also more events and resources for queer women, transgender people, and people of color.
“I think it's very important that change be a constant,” Meadows says. “When we build something, we might be happy with it. It's comfortable. But it doesn't stop when I myself am happy and comfortable, it stops when my entire community is.”
More about our questioner
Jack Floyd grew up in Milwaukee and moved to Chicago in 2010 to attend Loyola University, where he studied environmental science and chemistry. He earned a graduate certificate in geographic information science and cartography from DePaul University. He is interested in sustainability and LGBTQIA issues and has volunteered at the Center on Halsted. He is currently a data and research assistant and lives in the Logan Square neighborhood.
Jack says the Boystown neighborhood was central to his coming out process and it continues to be a place he frequents. His background in geography and his interest in queer history led him to want to know more about the various forces that came together to allow Boystown to grow into the well-established gay enclave it is today.
Jason Nargis is Special Collections Librarian at Northwestern University, which is a member of Chicago Collections.
Click here for a video about the Midwest LGBTQ archives at Gerber/Hart Library and Archives.
Image citations from "Gay Enclaves" map:
DN-0055520, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, ChicagoHistory Museum
DN-0063323, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, ChicagoHistory Museum
DN-0000005B, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, ChicagoHistory Museum
SDN-005967, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, ChicagoHistory Museum
At the infamous Dill Pickle Club Halloween Party, c. 1925,Midwest MS Dill Pickle Box 1 Folder 37