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Boystown Violence: Déjà Vu All Over Again

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Lakeview's Boystown only started to be known as a gay destination in the early 1980s, when more gay bars and businesses opened along Halsted. The big problem at that time was "straight" young men coming into the area to target the "fags." The targets were not even always gay, they just had to look "different."

There were several high-profile attacks in the area over the years, and some of these sparked community outrage and response.

But the more recent crime wave in Boystown is not as easily categorized. Some are economic crimes. Some are hate crimes. And some seem caused by a class and race warfare that is pitting gay vs. gay.

What is not new is our community responding to violence.

On April 2, 1977, popular gay bartender Frank M. Rodde was brutally murdered. He was not the first or the last, but somehow his murder sparked change. Within weeks, the Frank M. Rodde Fund was established, with the goal of creating a gay and lesbian community center. That dream was realized in 1985, when the 3223-3229 N. Sheffield property was purchased and became the Rodde Lesbian and Gay Community Center of Chicago.

Rodde Center eventually folded in the early 1990s due to economic problems, but the Center on Halsted filled that void in 2007 when it opened at the corner of Halsted and Waveland. Ironically, some of the people outraged at the recent community violence are blaming the Center for the problems of youth roaming the streets. What was built as a safe haven for people from all over the Chicago area, including LGBT youth, is now blamed for the recent crime incidents.

Bartender Frank M. Rodde was not a unique or powerful man. He was not a political leader or well known to the general community. But his vicious murder in 1977 was one of those important "lines in the sand" that Chicago LGBTs have drawn over the years. Like Anita Bryant's Chicago performance, the onset of AIDS, the police raid on Carol's Speakeasy, or the shooting of Ron Cayot when he was leaving a gay bar on Halsted, certain events created major turning points in the local community.

The response to violence in Chicago has taken many forms.

In the 1970s and 1980s, lesbians were prominent among the women's Take Back the Night marches across the country, including in Chicago.

Chicago's South and West sides have seen anti-violence marches over the decades, including ones focused on the African-American gay community.

Grant Ford, founder of GayLife newspaper in the 1970s, remembers that late in that decade he helped distribute whistles for people to use in case they were a crime victim, or a witness to a crime, including prostitution. Whistles were distributed in later years by Horizons (now the Center on Halsted), police and activist groups.

In 1991, again in response to anti-gay attacks, a gay Guardian Angels-style protection group, The Pink Angels, was started by Alyn Toler. It operated for several years in Lakeview, with LGBTs walking the streets late at night, especially on weekends, to patrol for anti-gay harassment and violence.

The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network (now Gay Liberation Network) was formed out of such violence in the late 1990s. When Matthew Shepard was killed in Wyoming, Chicagoans Paul Adams and Andy Thayer had already been planning an anti-violence march here (due to local attacks on gays), and it turned into both a protest and a memorial to Shepard and Chicagoans lost to violence.

Here's a Windy City Times report Oct. 9, 2002 about the fourth annual CABN march: "A crowd of roughly 400 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight allies marched from Roscoe and Halsted, north on Belmont, east on Broadway to Addison to protest more than 250 transgender and gender-variant slayings in recent years."

There have been dozens upon dozens of anti-LGBT violence marches, demonstrations, town halls and community meetings on violence in Chicago in the past three decades.
More recently, Windy City Times reported in Aug. 19, 2009, about a response to violence in Boystown, when about 200 neighborhood residents and business owners attended the CAPS 2331 (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) meeting at Nookies' Tree: "Their collective frustration is the result of a string of violent attacks that have plagued Boystown in recent months."

Flash forward to the July 6, 2011 CAPS meeting in Lakeview, with an overflowing crowd still trying to solve the same complex problems that have no simple solutions. All the strategies above probably worked to some extent, but they are always difficult to maintain momentum. Imagine if all the people at the July 6 CAPS meeting actually attended every CAPS meeting, joined their neighborhood watch, and truly partnered with police on an ongoing basis.

Here are a few suggestions to go along with the many that have been proposed. These obviously would be good in any area of the city; Andersonville should take care to watch what is happening in Boystown, given the increase in bars and restaurants in that area.

  • Many college campuses have emergency phones/alert systems at regular geographic intervals; Boystown should have these available at least once a block, including on side streets. More lighting should also be installed on side streets and alleys.
  • People make fun of the whistle campaigns, but they can be useful and can also be a reminder for people to be careful.
  • Try not to walk alone whenever possible.
  • The Halsted nightlife businesses should offer extra security, with someone posted outside of the bar as well as an extra security person on hand to escort people to their car or a cab, if requested.
  • Additional live camera feeds to the police. In the past there have been privacy concerns about this, but if the community is in favor of this, the option should be seriously considered, especially for late at night operations.
  • There need to be more, not fewer, resources and services for LGBT youth and young adults coming into the area as a safe haven. Some of these youth are homeless and have no safe place to go. Some community groups do a great job of helping, but they need more funds to provide 24-hour resources including LGBT shelters, job training, and more. Bonnie Wade is doing wonderful work trying to get LGBT kids connected with LGBT foster parents. Help can also can be provided through satellite services, not just in Lakeview, so youth do not have to travel so far away from home for care -- but all youth should be welcome at the Center.
  • The Pink Angels were a great idea. They were not alternate police and had no authority, but their presence was helpful, including on reporting crimes. The creation of such a group can be focused on the peak times of problems -- during warm weather and on weekends later at night. Especially on holiday weekends.
  • And, of course, additional police resources should be in the area during peak times, including horse, foot and bike patrols.

How to pay for all of this? Well, it is in the interests of the residents, businesses, and those coming into the area to provide for a safer community. There used to be extensive fundraising at all of the bars for a variety of causes. Dollar tag nights ended up raising enough to build the Rodde Center, fund AIDS groups, and much more.

If everyone that benefits from Lakeview was asked to chip in just a little (bars, restaurants, banks, shops, the Cubs, citizens, etc.), and if a portion of the money made from the Pride Fest, Pride Parade and Market Days went to such a fund, it would not be hard to pay for some of the above ideas. Again, the focus can be on the peak times of crime.

What is interesting in the debate about "taking back Boystown" is that most of the people who come to Halsted bars and restaurants at night are not from the area. That includes middle-class white gays from the suburbs, tourists in town for the weekend, couples on date nights, bachelorette parties, Cubs fans, and LGBT youth.

Boystown ceased being a primarily gay residential area more than a decade ago, even before the rainbow Pylons were installed. In fact, those pylons were criticized by some as unnecessary in 1998, when they were announced, because the area had become so straight even back then.

What Boystown is in 2011 is a heavily LGBT destination entertainment area. It needs to be treated as such. No one "owns" Boystown, and we will all benefit by treating each other not as "us" vs. "them," or "outsiders" vs. "insiders."

The question still remains unanswered: Can we all get along?

Tracy Baim is Publisher and Executive Editor of Windy City Media Group. She has been covering the Chicago LGBT community since 1984 and is the editor of Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community (Surrey, 2008).