Queer utopias

An act of violence at a straight bar hosting a queer night raises the question of what defines a safe space for queers—and why no permanent spaces exist.

  • Photograph: Martha Williams


  • Photograph: Drew Reynolds

    �I wish people would accept the fact that their corner bar can be just as accepting as a gay bar.��Stephen Hill at Archie's March Queer Social Club

  • Photograph: Drew Reynolds

    �I like that it�s not Boystown. It�s not full of uppity twinks.��Brandon Roberts at Archie's March Queer Social Club

  • Photograph: Drew Reynolds

    �The attitude of the people who run this place is: If you�re going to judge people, you shouldn�t be here.��Rae Hill at Archie's March Queer Social Club

Photograph: Martha Williams


December 8, 1am, Archie's
The men at the bar were mumbling about faggots. They wanted to know where all of them had come from. They wanted to know why the faggots were there.

Paul—a queer, 30-year-old Ukrainian Village resident who asked that his last name not be used—heard them. It was now officially Thursday morning, and Paul had heard enough. He confronted the men.

“If you don’t like it, why don’t you just leave?” Paul said.

The men responded by pushing Paul to the ground.

Paul got up and asked again: “Why don’t you leave?”

The men pushed Paul to the floor again.

Things are normally pretty calm at Queer Social Club, the monthly party at Archie’s in Humboldt Park. But at this moment, chaos broke out. The men started assaulting other patrons: They pushed men off bar stools. They slammed a woman against a pool table.

“No one was fighting back,” Paul says later.

As more people, including the bar’s security, surrounded the men, they were able to get the offenders outside. There, the men vandalized the bikes on the bike rack.

The bartender called 911, and soon the police arrived. But by that point, the men were long gone.

The odd history of queer
The trajectory of the definition of the word queer is long, complicated and contested. But simplified, it goes something like this: Before the early 20th century, queer referred to anything strange or odd. From the early-20th century on, it also meant homosexual, the insinuation being homos were strange. In recent history, queer has been appropriated by the homosexual community, and much of the stigma has been taken away. 

And yet in the gay and lesbian community, queer is still a tricky term. The word can be used to describe anyone under the LGBT umbrella, yet it’s also used to pinpoint a subset: the gay, lesbian, trans, bi and gender-bending folks who don’t subscribe to a homonormative lifestyle—homonormative meaning the largely white, mostly male community many people think of when they hear the word gay.

In short: The word gay doesn’t necessarily mean queer. Especially when you follow it with the word bar.

The first queer bar
In 2005, Latham Zearfoss, 32, had been living in Chicago for only four years. He was thin and hairy and bearded, and “at that time,” he says, “body hair and bears were not sexy. So me, going into a [gay bar] and being a thin, hairy person, I felt very othered, and I felt very desexualized in a way that felt aggressive.”

It wasn’t this way everywhere, of course. But even when Zearfoss found spaces where he could feel comfortable, he couldn’t get a group to go with him. “The people I wanted to come out with me weren’t excited to go because they were trans, or they were a queer woman, or a person of color.” Nobody relishes being the only trans person/queer woman/person of color in a bar full of white guys.

In the interest of finding a place where he and his friends would feel welcome—and listen to something other than trance music, and (hopefully) get laid—Zearfoss and his friend Bruce Wiest started a dance party. They found a room in the back of a now-defunct taco joint called Big Horse, and they put up flyers. They named the party Chances, because it sounded like the sort of thing a small-town gay bar would be called. And like small-town gay bars, which attract people from all over the queer spectrum because there simply isn’t anywhere else to go, the monthly Chances party would be all-inclusive.

Chances now happens three times a month at Subterranean, Danny’s and the Hideout, making it the most frequent queer party hosted at straight bars. The host bars were not chosen by accident: Chances chose straight bars because they provide a blank slate—a space that has yet to be flagged as being for this type, or that type, of queer. The organizers also wanted Chances to be off the Blue Line, where they lived, and where there weren’t, and still aren’t, any gay bars to host such a thing. That, and the fact that Chances has tripled in size, prompts the obvious question about queer nights at straight bars: If there are queer people in the neighborhood, why are there no bars to serve them?

At least one bar owner thinks he knows the answer. “It all goes back to money,” says Brian Wells, one of the owners of Uptown gay bars Crew and the SoFo Tap. “These traditionally straight places that have gay nights generally do it on a slow night when they think they can fill their space with a different clientele…. Obviously they don’t think they can do it seven nights a week or they would.”

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