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When in Boystown: Don't Create Racism, Create Change

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After the When in Boystown Tumblr took Chicago by viral storm this week, I found out about it the way it seems like I find out about everything these days: Facebook told me. And almost immediately, polarizing reactions to the account populated my News Feed; some praised it for "telling the truth" about Boystown, while others strongly criticized it for its classism, racism, misogyny, femmephobia and homophobia. One critique (which actually listed every single one of the latter points) even made it all the way to page three of the account. Below this comment, the anonymous creator posted a picture of the Real Housewives' Teresa Guidice dismissing the criticism with a hand gesture and a curt "thank you."

When I was told about the page, I was first directed to the blog's April 25th piece, entitled "You See a Group of Ghetto Trannys Walking Down Halsted." That caption is accompanied with a picture of an African-American girl pulling out a gun -- with a face that is meant to say: "Stay away from me." You never know how you are going to react in these moments, and honestly, my initial thought was: "Look, if you are going to be a transphobic, racist jerk, at least learn how to spell correctly."

Not all of the posts are like this. A spinoff of other gayborhood Tumblrs, When in Boystown occasionally utilizes our shared experiences in Boystown in a way that evokes humor from the participatory culture of queerness in Chicago. The memes allow us to laugh not at the person or thing depicted in them, but at ourselves. According to Charlie Chaplin, "laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain," and Chaplin stated that the only way to do this is through creating humor that is not the source of someone else's pain. Two posts particularly encapsulate this type of humor well: the meme depicting Anna Wintour blinking and the one featuring a wide-eyed tarsier, the latter primate too effortlessly endearing to take any issue with.

However, where the Tumblr crosses the line of offense is when it delves into problematic power dynamics in the Boystown, Lakeview and greater Chicago communities. On top of the insanely offensive image mentioned above, many posts seek to find humor in black people (and the Real Housewives) "doing the darndest things," like booty shaking, dancing on cars, making outlandish faces and saying things like "Heeeeeeeeeeeeel, no!" The sense of tokenism throughout the account is palpable and gets particularly dicey when these stereotypes are spatially located. Black people in the memes are always referenced as being "ghetto" or as dwelling in the city's Southside, the neighborhood of Uptown or the Center on Halsted, the community center known for (and sometimes criticized for) the large number of black youths that hang out there.

What this narrative does is construct a racial geography of Boystown, one that excludes people of color and especially does not include black folks and "trannies." Although Center on Halsted is a space for the "them" so often referenced in the Take Back Boystown controversies of last summer, our bars and social spaces are not for "them." Interestingly, the racism and classism inherent in this discursive exclusion bleeds over into its rhetoric on lesbians, who are labeled as "hood rats."

The difference between these highly problematic posts and .gifs mocking tarsiers or Anna Wintour has to do with power dynamics in the Chicago queer community, and these Chicagoans aren't alone in falling into this trap. In "A Complete Guide to Hipster Racism," feminist blog Jezebel discusses how this is emblematic of a larger trend in racial comedy:

Here's the thing about jokes. They only work when they're aiming up ... People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless. That's why, at a company party, you never have a roast where the CEO is roasting the janitor ("Isn't it funny how Steve can barely feed his family? This guy knows what I'm talking about!" [points to other janitor]). Because that would be gross, and both janitors would have to work late to clean up everyone's barf.

Thus, no one gets offended for Anna Wintour, because she has millions of dollars, could have Karl Lagerfeld kill you for making fun of her and doesn't even know you exist. And I think that tarsiers (who cannot understand human language) will survive being compared to horny diners at Nookie's restaurant. They'll manage somehow.

However, comments about trans folks, black people, lesbians and women will serve to further marginalize people who are already marginalized in our community. In addition to the recent controversy over Wang's gay bar banning women at night, last summer's Take Back Boystown movement told black youths they weren't wanted in "our" neighborhood. That sort of thinking is upheld when black attendees at spaces like Minibar are denied entry, as many of my friends of color have been. In 2010, a group of lesbians sued Spin and a Facebook group popped up shortly afterward to protest the bar, containing a "raft of complaints largely critical of the way that its staff and management treat women and people of color." In response to these protests, Windy City Times reporter (then an organizer) Kate Sosin summed up the controversy well: "You have people who are running these spaces that are not actively thinking about issues of privilege."

And maybe that's part of the problem. Issues of privilege and exclusion continue to be ignored in the larger Chicago queer community -- one driven by upper-middle-class white gay males, who go to spaces where they hope to see others like them. (Melissa Harris-Perry recently referred to them as the community's "One Percent.") What that does is make other segments of the community not only invisible, but also powerless to speak up about their structural oppression -- in a movement that's supposed to include their voices, fight for their equality and be a shelter for those who might not have homes elsewhere. And when you instead build a neighborhood rampant with lesbophobia, misogyny, racism, ageism, slut shaming and transphobia, you only create more of the hatred, bigotry and intolerance that our community is supposed to stand against. This is not what equality looks like, and it makes us look no better than the Michele Bachmanns and Rick Santorums of the world.

A piece from Terrence Chappell featured last week's Huffington Post speaks to this issue well. On the hateful slurs hurled at him for simply walking down the street, Chappell writes:

Such comments are not only flagrantly offensive but completely ruin a sense of community for LGBT members of color, which after so many occurrences could create a whites-only atmosphere in what's suppose to be a welcoming neighborhood for all members of the LGBT community regardless of their race. I'm not saying that other places and neighborhoods are Utopia, but I have never experienced or witnessed such raw bigotry in any of the events, people or places that I have covered for my job. I work for an LGBT-focused website, and I don't feel all that comfortable in Boystown because I'm black. Because of that, it makes it difficult to relate and identify with the LGBT community. I realize that the LGBT community is so much more than Boystown, but such bigoted views are found across the board.

As a queer community, we all have a role in creating inclusive spaces and welcoming others into them -- those who might be like you and those who might not. During a time when news stories on the Trayvon Martin controversy and the War on Women repeatedly make headlines, we need to seriously reexamine our commitment to equality and discuss the invisible marginalization and violence that happens every day, the daily oppression that doesn't make the news. That starts by creating dialogues on these issues, ones where we move past just calling others out on Facebook for being problematic. We all have a part in building the communities and the society we want to see. To make Chicago and Boystown a safer and more inclusive space for people, we must get involved and take real world action to create that change.

It's been almost a year since Take Back Boystown took off, and all of us still have so much work to do to build a better community. If we are ever going to move past the racism, bigotry and exclusion that divides us, we need to stand together, or we need to stop calling ourselves a community.