You can still find new friends at the bars. Credit: Bill Roundy for Chicago Reader
Are rainbow-festooned events full of glitter, sequins, and boas signs of progress? Strides made by LGBTQ+ people are increasingly under fire in the forms of violence, rhetoric, and quasi-legal attacks on the rights of the community. Has the LGBTQ+ community unwittingly played a role in this by seeking assimilation?
Some might say that the idea that LGBTQ+ people have achieved assimilation (or even acceptance) is up for debate. “I worry a lot less about being ‘assimilated’ than about the mental health and physical safety of queer teens in a country debating (again) whether it is OK for teachers to even acknowledge their existence,” says Dr. Lane Fenrich, distinguished senior lecturer in gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University. “Heck, I worry about the mental health and physical safety of LGBT adults, especially trans adults of color.”
Dr. Amin Ghaziani, professor of sociology and Canada research chair in urban sexualities at the University of British Columbia, notes that queer spaces like gay bars are closely linked to the LGBTQ+ community’s sense of identity. “The history of gay bars is the history of trans people. We cannot think about one without the other,” he says.
Ghaziani continues, “If you consider the Stonewall riots as an example that has broad, even global recognition, then we know that members of the trans community were pivotal in the uprising, its motivational energy, and its effects in terms of affecting the American consciousness about sexuality, and the LGBTQ consciousness about politicizing our identities.”
These struggles for the right to exist in safety over time have become less radical and more accepted. Contemporary Pride events are reminiscent of where we have been before, with similarities to the drag balls Chicago has seen since the early 1920s. This is a history that has historically been remarkably inclusive in ways we haven’t seen in recent years.
The Prohibition-era sociologist Myles Vollmer wrote about Chicago drag balls for his research in 1933: “Physically, all types are there. Homosexuals thin and wasted, others slender and with womanish curves, others overfed and lustfully fat. Most of the younger homosexuals have pallid complexions with rather thin hair, due, perhaps, to overindulgence. There is a preponderance of Jews and the Latin Nationalities, although homosexuality is no respecter of races. Many of the men are of Polish blood. Negros mingle freely with whites. There seemingly is no race distinction between them.”
This celebration flew in the face of the customs and laws of the society at the time, providing a safe place for all manner of queer people to come together and enjoy their right to exist. These temporary spaces, drag balls, were eventually replaced, following the repeal of Prohibition, with more permanence in the way of gay bars.
These bars were places of activism and community from the civil rights era through the AIDS crisis and the quest for equality in the 90s. Bars were a mecca of sorts for LGBTQ+ people from all over—a lighthouse of hope in the sea of a society that continued to denigrate and abuse queer people—and, mostly, accepted people as they were without regard to race, size, gender, and the like.
The bars were such an important support for the community that some people used to call bars on the telephone just to listen in on the “happy laughter of other gay people.” As interviewee and community member Myrna Kurland told writer Marie Cartier in Cartier’s 2013 book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall, “I used to phone up all the gay bars, just to hear them answer the phone. Just to hear the noise. I would just hear the noise and the laughter in the background. I just wanted to be there.” These days, the movement of many in the LGBTQ+ community away from LGBTQ+-specific spaces has in part led to their rapid decline. Though there is limited data, existing research including a 2019 paper by Greggor Mattson at Oberlin College shows that the number of gay bars nationwide has dropped by more than half since the mid 1980s.
“We’re not going to really understand the full impact of the loss of these spaces for a number of years,” says K Anderson, a cultural anthropologist who created the Lost Spaces podcast with this very topic in mind. “There is an older generation of queers who are recognizing and mourning the loss. Over the coming years, I think we’ll start to see more innovation, reimagining both the community and the spaces that hold them. People’s priorities and need for queer spaces have changed, and the scene needs to evolve to reflect that—hopefully, this means that there are spaces that aren’t exclusively centered around drinking and drugs, ones where people of all ages feel welcome. What that looks like exactly I don’t know, but we are a resilient and innovative community, so I’m excited to see what is to come.”
“Assimilation is a double-edged sword. We spent years trying to prove that gay folks are equal and just the same as straight people. Now that we’ve done that—marriage, military, kids, etcetera—we seem to have dumbed down our once gay culture,” St. Sukie de la Croix, a gay historian and inductee in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame, tells the Chicago Reader. “Gay bars, bookstores, and newspapers are disappearing. Is that good or bad? As a gay senior, I’m very conscious of the danger of clinging to the past and not accepting new things. However, it does seem a shame that what made us different and exciting is now being watered down.”
De la Croix isn’t the only one worried about this loss of culture. World Business Chicago’s vice president and director of marketing and communications Andrew Hayes agrees. “The Gay Pride Parade that began to help demonstrate the community’s collective power is today a traveling party, a drink fest. While the acceptance and assimilation have led the community to realize greater access to what others enjoy, it has also, in my humble opinion, given us less of point-of-distinction, too. Our once ‘rallying cry’ has been silenced. We are now happily blended—but thinking back to the days of ACT UP and the need to protest for the rights denied us, but afforded others, united the community in ways we don’t see today.”
In preparation for June’s Pride Month, young staffers in Hayes’s office passed around rainbow flags and other decorations. He says, “Watching this unfold stopped me in my tracks. While I appreciate and am genuinely touched by the outward demonstration of support this was intended to represent, I couldn’t help but think that all those who fought for our rights, and died from discrimination in all its forms, were reduced to desktop flags. At that moment, having known friends who were dying weekly from AIDS, and having seen regular protests and fights for our civil rights, I wished for those younger than me to see LGBTQ history as so much more than a desktop flag.”
These experiences differ based on circumstances. Dr. Ghaziani says, “Attitudes about homosexuality have liberalized at unprecedented rates, as we can see from the Gallup poll [Ghaziani is referring to his research based on a 2011 Gallup Poll asking respondents, “Do you think gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?”]. Sometimes, we falsely assume that aggregate statistics about public opinion apply to all LGBTQ people. This is not true, unfortunately. Cis white gay men and women have a set of experiences that are different from racialized and trans communities. As an example, we see that these groups are systematically more susceptible to anti-LGBTQ violence.”
“We receive the protection of popular culture, as the ways we look, and love, are synthesized by the mainstream. The benefit is we may become less threatening. We lose being viewed as radical. At the same time, we become diluted and divided as other ‘isms’ like sexism, classism, elitism, and racism rise to the surface,” says Dionne “Choc Tréi” Henderson, executive director of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ kink organization Paragon Cooperative and Club and a board member at Chicago’s Leather Archives and Museum. “In other words, we sacrifice the uniqueness that binds us together by mimicking heterogeneous customs.”
These “isms,” and others, sometimes make gay bars themselves less than inclusive. This leads to finding other venues—such as cruising places or recently, apps. Dr. Ghaziani adds, “Cruising places have been foundational to the history and culture of gay men. In the 1960s and 1970s, political liberation was inextricable from sexual liberation. To have sex was a radical act, a liberatory act, an act in the service of pleasure as well as politics.”
Though cruising places still exist, one needs only look at websites like Squirt to find out which neighborhood park or library restroom hosts men looking for sex with other men; other online platforms have taken the place of that risky activity. “While platforms such as Grindr and Scruff make hooking up a virtual certainty for those looking to do so, they aren’t the wild ruptures in the sexual culture they’re often depicted as. Neither do they impede the formation of friendships or the development of communal ties,” Dr. Fenrich says. “Although I’ve sat through many a dinner party where such suspicions were aired as certainties.”
Depending on your perspective, there is much still radical about the LGBTQ+ scene in our city. Many LGBTQ+-owned gay bars and businesses serve the community as a space to congregate and affirm—just not as many or in the same ways as in their heyday. The danger exists in our allowing them to close without replacing them with something aspirational, welcoming, and distinctly our own.