Earlier this month I ran in the Most Fabulous Santa Speedo Run held in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood. As The Huffington Post reported last week, over 200 runners scantily clad in only Speedos and Santa hats ran a mile and raised more than $7,000 for Vital Bridges, a local organization providing services for those affected by HIV/AIDS. This was my first year to take part in the festivities. I kept my expectations pretty low, really only expecting an afternoon of eye candy to get through the coming winter months. But in addition to the eye candy, which was abundant, there was so much more. I experienced the true heart of Chicago's diverse and passionate LGBTQ community.
The week before the event I read Terrence Chappell's HuffPost blog post "The 10 Douchiest Gays of Chicago." Like many of my fellow Chicago gays, I was disheartened by the piece. While seemingly intended as a lighthearted blog post, for me and many of my friends, it missed that mark. I, too, am guilty of pointing out some of the archetypes that Mr. Chappell describes, and I probably fit a few of the categories myself, but as a piece on The Huffington Post, it does a huge disservice to our community in further segregating us more than we already are. It is hard enough for some to fit into the categories that make up the LGBTQ paradigm, and even harder to find your place in the myriad of cliques we have created. Personally, I am tired of trying to define myself as a bear, cub or rhinoceros. Mr. Chappell's descriptions of the "douches" found in our community (which certainly can be found in any community) only make it more difficult to just be ourselves, which is what we have been striving for all our lives. It frustrates me that throughout our struggle for equality, some in our community has used our diversity against us by resorting to self-hatred and grade-school stereotypes to further the segregation.
Like Mr. Chappell, as a 33-year-old gay man living in Chicago for most of my (relatively young) adult life, I have had my fair share of experiences in Chicago's gay community, in and out of the bar scene. I have met the most incredible people and have worked with amazing groups. While Chicago's LGBTQ community is not perfect, in my opinion it is one of the best LGBTQ communities in the country, even with all its douches!
I don't want to lambast Mr. Chappell more than he already has been, nor do I want to be accused of taking life too seriously, but after my experience at the Speedo run and hearing my friends' similar reactions to the post, I took some time to look beyond the douches of Boystown and figure out the people, places and things that make our community so great. To save face for Chicago's LGBTQ community, here is, in no particular order, my list of the 10 best of Chicago's LGBTQ community:
The politics: Chicago has a long history of being at the forefront of the gay rights movement. The first known organization working for gay rights in the United States was founded in Chicago. In 1924 Henry Gerber created the Society for Human Rights to bring gay Chicagoans together and educate legal authorities and legislators. Shortly thereafter the organization was shut down by police. Since the 1950s brave LGBTQ Chicagoans have been leaders in the national gay rights movement. Today, Equality Illinois and so many other organizations work to secure, protect and defend the basic civil rights of LGBTQ Illinoisans. State Rep. Greg Harris and State Sen. Heather Steans helped bring civil unions for domestic partners to Illinois just 18 months ago. Harris and Stearns are will be seeking to legalize gay marriage when the General Assembly reconvenes early next year and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel calls this vote a legislative priority.
The bars and parties: You can find gay and gay-friendly bars all over the city, but the gay necessities that you would expect from any big city are concentrated in Boystown. My favorite is Sunday afternoons at Sidetrack (a video bar), where show tunes are played all afternoon, with crowds singing along without inhibition (talk about stereotypes). Further north, in Andersonville, Uptown and Rogers Park, you find more variety off the beaten path, including old-school leather bars and bars with diverse crowds, including my favorite, Big Chicks. But gay bars are not for everyone, and over the past few years dance parties that also cater to the gender-nonconforming community have exploded on the scene. One example is Chances Dances, which coins itself the "LezBiGayTransIntersexQueer" party. These parties are in venues throughout the city and offer a nonjudgmental alternative with great music, queer entertainment and all-around kick-ass people.
The kindness to strangers: The Midwest is known for its flatlands, its cornfields, its breweries and, most of all, its kindness to strangers. With the toddling town at the heart of this wholesome region of the good old U.S. of A., it is a perfect landing pad for queers from around the country. The thing I hear the most from visitors is that Chicagoans are so friendly and welcoming. No matter who you are or where you come from, you will find people who are eager to show you a good time.
The people in our gayborhoods: Boystown was the first officially recognized "gay village" in the United States when it became the Midwest gay mecca in the early 1980s. For almost a decade it was the only place to live and play if you were queer. However, in the late 1980s Andersonville began to rival Boystown in attracting lesbians looking for a queer alternative. Gay men soon saw the attraction, as well, and today Andersonville runs the spectrum of LGBTQ. These neighborhoods are made up of people (gay, straight and otherwise) and small businesses that truly make it our community. While Boystown and Andersonville remain our beloved centers, we are not so segregated anymore. More than the people of any other place I have visited, we have penetrated virtually every corner of the city with gay (or gay-friendly) bars and establishments all over the map, making Chicago a truly gay-friendly city.
The activists: I can write an entire book about LGBTQ activists in Chicago. Every week I receive countless invitations to fundraisers and events that are hosted by people who are all about improving our community and battling the issues that affect us most. The nature of our community can be summed up by one initiative: Howard Brown Health Center's (HBHC) Lifeline Appeal. HBHC was founded in 1974 and is now one of the nation's largest LGBTQ organizations. The agency serves more than 36,000 adults and youth each year, providing health and social services. In November 2010 HBHC was facing a major deficit, and it made a public appeal for Lifeline support, needing to raise $500,000 in 50 days to keep its doors open. I have never experienced more solidarity than witnessing Chicago's LGBTQ community rally to support the initiative. In just 50 days over 1,400 donors raised and/or gave more than $650,000. I'm not sure there is a more powerful testament to the nature of our community.
The diversity: Beyond Chicago's diversity of race, religion and creed (and at the risk of encouraging stereotypes), Chicago's queer community has it all, whether you want to categorize yourself as a hipster, a bear, a twink, a lipstick lesbian, a bull dyke or an outcast. While some may disagree, these unavoidable categories that have emerged in our community are not completely segregated by neighborhoods or bars like most cities I have visited. Sure, if you want hipsters, you will have better luck in Logan Square than in Boystown, but for the most part Chicagoans want to cohabitate and share their lives with diverse people. Even more, Chicago's gender-nonconforming community helps us expand our own understanding and definition of what it means to be LGBTQ, through a proud presence, all-inclusive parties and art events.
The artists: Queer artists and organizations have made Chicago their home because it is a place where you can challenge audiences who have a thirst for new and exciting work. About Face Theatre, founded in 1986, has been a pioneer in creating plays that advance the national dialogue on gender and sexual identity in Chicago and around the world. Outloud Chicago brings queer entertainment to mainstream Chicago venues, including Queer Comedy at Zanies, which has been recognized nationally as a top LGBTQ comedy show. But there is so much more beyond nationally recognized queer artists and companies. In any given neighborhood, on in any given theater or gallery, on any given night of the week, you can find packed houses supporting the best queer artists in the country.
The HIV/AIDS activists: People associate the fight against HIV/AIDS in the United States with San Francisco and New York, where the first cases of the disease were reported in the U.S., but Chicago has been a major leader in the fight since the beginning of the epidemic. Since 1985 the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC) has been a local and national leader in the fight. At the helm of the organization is David Munar, whom President Obama named as a "Champion of Change'' in 2011. Along with AFC there are countless local organizations that provide services such as prevention programs, care and advocacy projects that champion effective, compassionate HIV/AIDS policy. These organizations produce some of Chicago's best events raising millions for the fight, including AFC's World of Chocolate, Test Positive Aware Network's (TPAN) Chicago Takes Off and Chicago House's annual fashion show, to name just a few.
The athletes: Like many of my peers, as a gay kid obsessed with Madonna and Jem & the Holograms, learning to catch a baseball or dribble a basketball was not my priority. As I entered my teen years, I tried to find a sport, but I never found my place. I always felt like I missed out on something. Thanks to Chicago's gay sports scene, over the last few years I have been able to live out my athletic fantasies (well, most of them -- wink, wink). The Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association (CMSA) provides a place to meet people and live out grade-school athletic dreams. For me, the best part of Chicago's sports scene is TPAN's Ride for AIDS Chicago and AFC's Team to End AIDS (T2). Both of these programs are largely supported and attended by the LGBTQ community, because the proceeds benefit Chicagoans affected by HIV/AIDS, while working to increase public awareness of HIV and eradicate stigma. Having run eight marathons and a half ironman with T2 (and its predecessor organization), I can vouch for the infinite inspiration, impact on the community and general goodness that the program brings through its athletes, volunteers and supports. I have not (yet) done the Ride for AIDS, a two-day, 200-mile bicycling event, but in its short existence it has become a staple in our community, creating an environment of love, support and encouragement.
The summers: After eight or nine months of long, dark, cold days, the sun finally makes its appearance around the end of April and shines its light on Chicago. After hibernation, the energy in the city is palpable. The gayborhoods come to life with outdoor seating at restaurants and bars and hot men and women flooding the streets in less and less clothing as the days warm up. Hollywood Beach, also known as Chicago's "gay beach," is, for me, the highlight of the summer. A clean respite from the hustle and bustle of the city, Hollywood Beach is packed with sexy gays in all shapes, colors, sizes and genders on any day of the week. Another highlight of summer for the entire city is the Pride Parade. On the last Sunday of June, 850,000 people draw together to celebrate our community through the streets of Boystown. Chicago's Dyke March, which changes neighborhoods every two years to highlight gender and sexual diversity in areas not traditionally thought of as being queer, is traditionally held the day before the Pride Parade and focuses on queer women, people of color and trans individuals, all while remaining absent of corporate and political involvement. Northalsted Market Days, the largest two-day streets fair in the Midwest, has been hailed as one of the country's best festivals.