While back in Chicago for a friend's wedding, I witnessed the city's gay community conflicted over at-risk LGBT youth and the violence they brought upon Boystown. It got me thinking about getting older, the stability of settling down, and what it means to make a family of one's own. I share my experience in a three-part travelogue. This is Part 3. Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.
"At a wedding, it's not just the couple who is forming a new family -- it is all of their friends and family who have gathered here this day," said the officiant at the straight wedding I attended in Chicago. "Everyone present in forming a new family."
Those words stuck with me. The day before the wedding, while the rest of the bridal party was hard at work, I went to the Chicago History Museum to see their LGBT exhibit. Plastered on the walls were definitions of queer terminology, like "drag queen" and "disco" and, in fact, "queer." I immediately scoffed at what seemed like an elementary effort to educate the mainstream, but then I read that the word "stud" was once used to describe an African-American lesbian before it became applicable to male Marlon-Brando-types. I, too, had so much to learn.
One of the rooms was particularly touching because it dealt with a concept of family. Before the marriage movement was even conceivable, many prominent men and women would adopt their same-sex partners in order to create the familial and legal bond that marriage is supposed to bring. That was the case with Robert Allerton, the heir to the First National Bank of Chicago, who adopted his lifelong companion in 1959.
Further down in one corner of the exhibit, tucked away were a comfy sofa and a television, like the intimate living room found in a nuclear home. On the television, a video testimonial played on loop. I had heard of Chuck Renslow before. He was the founder of the city's leather archives and at one point owned a leather bar on the Gold Coast.
Renslow was not only a budding historian and community leader; he was also a family man. In his testimonial, Renslow mentioned how in the '70s he used to house a handful of young gay men, homeless and lost, looking for a place to call home. Renslow would feed them and take care of them. Above all, Renslow gave these young guys the most important thing homeless youth need: a roof over their heads. To some people now this act may seem absurd, but to Renslow it was his way of forming a family -- another pivotal contribution to the community.
Maybe what Boystown needs now are more men like Renslow. Men who open up their homes instead of claiming territory as their own. Men who actively get involved to make their neighborhood better, instead of pointing fingers for someone else to clean up the mess. Men who don't believe that kids should ever be labeled at-risk. Men who understand that not every family is fit for catalogues, and that some families are intolerant to judge which child is worthy enough to sit at the dinner table, worthy enough to live in their home.
A community center is no replacement for parental support and guidance, but criticizing the Center on Halsted for bringing troubled youth is like thinking we can stop abortions by cutting off Planned Parenthood. The thing is, we shouldn't be Taking Boystown Back -- we should be Making Boystown for All, not just for those of us lucky enough to have a spot reserved for us at Thanksgiving dinner.
Currently, one out of four teens who self-identify as LGBT is homeless. If we kick these kids out of our neighborhoods, are we any different from their parents who kicked them out for being queer? Where's the pride in that?
Maybe it will take Tim Cook to give away computer labs to every LGBT center in the country with 24-hour internet access. That way, kids would at least have something to do all night, instead of loitering outside Steamworks. Tweeting and writing, communicating and learning in front of a computer until their eyes dried. Maybe we could employ overactive Twitter volunteers, the guys who coordinate their drunken nights out via the micro-blogging site, to Tweet back to these kids throughout the night, keep them entertained, and answer their questions in 140 characters. It would be like a more casual form of cyber-mentoring, a band of online Big Brothers, the Real Gay Twitter Mafia.
It's interesting that the management of bars like Elixir makes people wait outside to create hype around the establishment but gets bent out of shape when loitering happens. Aren't they basically inviting commotion right outside their door? And if safety is the issue, then why don't the bar owners demand more police activity. That's the reason why they have to pay such high permits to serve alcohol -- an expectation of debauchery and crime. Just because we are in the land of rainbows and glitter doesn't mean that knife wounds cut any less deep.
"The Boystown bubble burst," said Byron Flitsch, creator of TheEverydayGay.com. "We sometimes forget that we live in a big city, and it's dangerous. Maybe stumbling home drunk at 3 in the morning isn't the best idea."
The more we see, talk and understand violent behavior and how it seeps through in our culture, instead of just changing the station when Odd Future comes on, the less we will be afraid of it, the more we can alleviate it and the better prepared we will be to teach our children the difference between Eminem and Columbine, to guide them along with the growing pains of sexuality, drugs and risk-taking before the predators can get a hold on them through prostitution, addiction and crime.
Perhaps because young gay men today have been told to compartmentalize in order to survive in the public eye -- partners as in business, not lovers as in love; family first, not first-night stands; our safe white haven on Halsted, the rest of crime-ridden Chicago -- we expect solutions to come in the form of a one-time petition or a city council meeting or a Facebook page. But the world beyond the gates of the gayborhood is more muddled. And a solution to the homeless youth problem that is affecting not only Chicago's Boystown but other urban areas all over the country will involve more than just one father figure, for it takes a queer village to raise our children, too.
At the rehearsal dinner, we played laser tag in the backyard. We were such kids still.
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This post originally appeared on my blog.
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