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A disco ball spins as rhymes fill the room at Pow-Wow, a weekly event at the South Shore neighborhood’s Jeffery Pub, which has been serving the South Side for nearly four decades. The poetry is mostly erotic and explicit, drawing cheers from the African-American lesbians sitting on bar stools and folding chairs, arms draped comfortably around each other, sipping beers or glasses of Champagne with maraschino cherries. But one of the performers chants hauntingly of life in “ghetto land,” where children covered with sores play on junked cars and girls turn tricks “sucking on that glass dick” (a crack pipe) while politicians laugh and drink.
The poems express both the desires and experiences they have in common with their white queer counterparts—and also the chasm between daily life in a low-income, violence-plagued neighborhood like South Shore and relatively affluent North Side neighborhoods like Andersonville. In an attempt to highlight those similarities and differences, queer people from across the city will march by the Jeffery Pub on Saturday 26 in the Dyke March, a more politicized, female-centric alternative to Boystown’s raucous, party-vibed Pride Parade on Sunday 27.
Chicago’s Dyke March grew out of a nationwide movement launched in 1993 in Washington, D.C., that demanded lesbian rights in the face of discrimination by gay men and straight society. Today, Chicago lesbians interviewed for this story say the battles for basic civil rights, physical safety and respect from gay men have been largely won, at least in a cosmopolitan city like Chicago (don’t ask, don’t tell and gay-marriage bans notwithstanding). So in recent years, Chicago’s Dyke March has focused largely on a more subtle, though no less challenging, goal: bridging divides and combating stereotypes along race, class and geographic lines within the city’s lesbian and larger LGBTQ population.
The shift comes as black and Latina lesbians say discrimination and stereotypes manifest themselves in various ways, including the reluctance of some white North Siders to even set foot in many South Side neighborhoods. Pow-Wow Inc. executive director C.C. Carter says when she invites white, North Side lesbians to the Tuesday-night events, the first question they often ask is, “Will I be safe?” She sees this as indicative of the subtle racism and classism that characterizes Chicago—where many North Side residents consider huge swaths of the city dangerously out of bounds, even though hundreds of thousands of people live and work there. “We have 75 women who come here every night, and you’re not concerned about whether they’re safe?” asks Carter, 46, who acknowledges violence is a serious problem in South Shore but wishes North Side residents would help address the issue rather than avoid it. “People on the North Side think of their own safety, not the safety of those who live in this area.”
LGBTQ black and Latino people from the South and West Sides say they are always trekking to the North Side for cultural events and services like free health care and counseling. A general lack of resources means there are fewer LGBTQ-focused centers and services in these neighborhoods and, as Carter says, fears about crime often prevent North Siders from venturing out for cultural events.
But when black and Latino LGBTQ people go to Boystown or Andersonville, they say they are often made to feel unwelcome, even by other LGBTQ people. This has particularly been an issue for youths visiting the Center on Halsted in Lakeview, as community leaders say nearby residents and business owners have complained about African-American youths hanging out nearby. “A lot of it to me is about privilege,” Carter says. “[North Siders] are afraid to come south, but we’re expected to travel to the North Side where we’re discriminated against. The black gay youth going to Halsted and Belmont are continually labeled as gangs by white privileged gay men, who see a black youth and don’t see sexual orientation or that they’re actually going into a gay bar.”
Ryan Erickson, community relations and outreach manager for the Center on Halsted, says residents have been upset by an influx of black youths from the South and West Sides, because of stereotypes and instances where the young people have trampled gardens and urinated in public. “A lot of residents think, very unfairly I would say, that the visitors to the neighborhood are up to no good, which as far as we can tell and as far as the police can tell, is just not true,” Erickson says. “[Black youths] say they have not had a warm reception at all; they have felt outright rejected by the people who live here. There’s no denying there’s a racial element to it.”
Erickson says the Center has facilitated dialogues and interactions between the youths and residents and business owners, which have yielded greater tolerance and understanding on both sides.
“There’s still this pink elephant in the room when you talk about LGBT issues and race in the same breath,” says Keith McCoy, 40, a Bronzeville resident and treasurer of the group Windy City Black LGBT Pride. “I do think there are those of us who are black and white and other [races] who are trying to bridge that gap and ally with one another. But we still have a lot of room to grow. Does racism exist within the LGBT community? Yes, we’re just a microcosm of the larger society.”
During the Dyke March’s first decade in Andersonville (the march started in the mid-’90s; organizers say the exact year is unclear), it was characterized by an older, largely white crowd. The core organizers of the march have always changed from year to year as some people drop away and others get involved. About four years ago, the leadership shifted largely to Latina activists heavily involved in immigrants’ rights and other progressive political movements. Some of them lived in Pilsen, so they figured it made pragmatic and political sense to hold the march in their own neighborhood.
This switch launched the idea of moving the march to different neighborhoods every year or two to highlight the citywide diversity of the LGBTQ population while also raising the profile of LGBTQ people in neighborhoods where rainbow flags don’t hang in every storefront. Initially, some North Side lesbians were reluctant to participate, thinking they would be harassed by Latino men or socially conservative immigrant families, and worried about gang violence in the neighborhood.
“When we first decided to move to Pilsen, there were some really difficult and important conversations about what that meant,” says organizer Leora Abelson, 24, who lives in Edgewater and is between jobs. “Folks used to going to Andersonville every year maybe hadn’t even been to Pilsen; they said they didn’t feel safe there. So we talked about why people have the perception Pilsen isn’t safe—is it shaped by racism and classism?”
As it turned out, the 2008 and 2009 marches in Pilsen were great successes. Business owners came out to wave and cheer, families gathered on stoops with picnics, and people leaned out of upper windows to watch. Residents even made window signs with messages of solidarity in Spanish.
Jorge Valdivia, general manager of Radio Arte, a youth-oriented Spanish radio station where much of the organizing took place, says the march showed how the neighborhood has embraced LGBTQ residents in recent years. “Maybe a few men scratched their heads trying to make sense of what was happening that historical day in Pilsen, perhaps a few mothers shook their heads in disbelief, but I didn’t see any of that,” he says. “What I saw was a fortysomething-year-old Mexican-American woman, sitting on her doorstep with a few other family members, watching and supporting the Dyke March. And that to me is a prime example of what the Dyke March is all about today.”
Dyke March organizers and participants say there’s no way to quantify the effect of the Pilsen marches, and they don’t think a march alone—especially one organized by a small collective—can have a huge impact on public attitudes or divisions within the LGBTQ population. But they say there’s no doubt the march showed some North Side lesbians that Pilsen is a safe and friendly place to visit; and local residents’ response highlighted the increasingly visible and accepted LGBTQ community that does exist in Pilsen. The National Museum of Mexican Art and other local institutions have hosted and supported numerous LGBTQ events in Pilsen, Valdivia notes, including a Latino queer prom and Lambda Legal’s Freedom to Marry reception.
By contrast, some black LGBTQ residents of South Shore and surrounding areas say there is still a longer way to go before they are warmly embraced by their neighbors. While physical attacks or overt threats are rare, many say the African-American community has been slower to accept people who are LGBTQ (or SGL, same gender loving, a term commonly used by African-Americans).
Thomas “Tut” Hunt, 46, makes a living hosting drag shows at North and South Side clubs as Mz. Ruff ’n’ Stuff, including Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday shows at Club Escape in an inconspicuous storefront at 1530 East 75th Street. He says drag queens leaving the bar or more flamboyant or effeminate gay men may be picked on by “groups of guys who are up to no good and are looking for an easy target.” He guesses young men may also verbally hassle transgender or flamboyantly gay men because of peer pressure. “When they’re with their friends they might say, ‘Get that gay shit away from here.’ But when they’re not with their friends, those same guys might want to talk to you.”
When Hunt was growing up in New York in the 1960s, he says gay black men “kept things under wraps. Today, you get on the bus and see young guys being totally free together.” If people are harassed for their sexuality or same-gender public displays of affection, he adds, they won’t “run and hide” as they might have in days past. “Nowadays, gays and lesbians will fight you back.”
Chicago Windy City Black LGBT-SGL Pride president Charles E. Nelson II contends that perceptions of homophobia in the black community are exaggerated. Since 1999, CWCBP has hosted a week of events around the same time as Boystown’s Pride Parade, including this year’s July 3 bash at Rainbow Beach, a boat ride July 2 and an author’s expo and poetry slam July 4.
“Homophobia is no different in the African-American community than any other community,” Nelson says. “African-Americans just tend to be more vocal and passionate about expressing themselves.”
South Side residents have become increasingly comfortable with Black Pride celebrations, he adds. “The first time we were at Rainbow Beach we thought the community wouldn’t accept us being there, but they did. Now people expect our events, just like they expect the Taste of Chicago downtown.”
Chicago Windy City Black Pride has a different vibe than the Boystown celebrations, Nelson says, in part because many black gays and lesbians want to express their sexuality in a context that includes their straight family and neighbors, whereas Boystown is more insular. He says North Side gays “are very visible because they strive to develop their own community, whereas a lot of [black] members of the LGBT-SGL community don’t want to live in a community that’s all gay. They want to live in a community that’s diverse, that their parents live in. It’s a whole different idea of what gay power is.”
He says separate black pride celebrations are also necessary because the black organizers don’t feel they are given equal say in organizing multiracial pride events. “We’re usually brought to the table after something’s already been planned,” he contends. (Nelson says he got a call from Dyke March organizers and he supports the march, though he’s been too busy organizing his group’s pride events to get involved.)
This year’s core group of Dyke March organizers are all women, the majority of them Latina, though they have gotten the word out to South Side African-American lesbians. After next year’s South Shore march, a new neighborhood, likely on the South or West Side, will be chosen based on discussions with LGBTQ people from around the city and suggestions dropped in comment boxes at the marches. Organizers will look for a neighborhood with a vibrant lesbian community that is underappreciated by lesbians citywide and by other local residents.
“We work pretty hard at including everyone in the queer community,” says Dyke March organizer Edith Bucio, 30, a writer and ESL teacher who lives in Logan Square and works in Little Village. “That’s not easy—it’s still a work in progress. It’s definitely very challenging to have the march represent all aspects of our community. Basically, our mission is to let people know our community is very diverse and throughout the city, not just in certain neighborhoods. We are literally everywhere in Chicago.”
Dyke March organizer Emilia Chico, 28, says coordinating this year’s march has been an especially rewarding experience for her; she grew up in Southeast Chicago but moved to the North Side to be part of a more open queer community. Last year she moved back to the South Side, not far from the Jeffery Pub. “A lot of us leave the South Side in search of these places that are accepting—then we go back and say it’s time to do the work in our own communities,” says Chico, a youth educator who recently got her master’s in education. “You don’t need to escape to create the community you’re in search of; you create it where you are.”
Jackie Anderson, a retired philosophy professor with nearly half a century as a black lesbian activist, says she likely will attend this year’s march even though she’s cynical about its ability to effect change. “This is a bigoted country—you name any kind of bigotry and we’ve got it,” says Anderson, 67, between dances at the Jeffery Pub after Pow-Wow. “[African-Americans] have been here 200 years, and these motherfuckers still hate us. A march isn’t going to change that. It’s mostly preaching to the choir; it will draw people who are already on the same page. But still there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Like Anderson, retired special-education teacher Pat McCombs, 61, has been going to the Jeffery Pub and advocating for gay rights for more than 40 years. They both remember protesting a North Side lesbian bar because bouncers were demanding three IDs from black lesbians in an attempt to keep them out. But McCombs is optimistic that things can change, and she thinks Dyke March plays an important role.
“No matter how we think of ourselves as different, there’s always a strand of unity that brings us together, in terms of our sexuality and our battle for equal rights,” she says. “Dyke March gives us a chance to celebrate ourselves as women, as lesbians, and to show the community that we are here.”