Seeking comfort out of Boystown: Queer people are looking for new spaces due to exclusivity


Amber Stoutenborough

The front of Nobody’s Darling, a women-centered queer bar in Andersonville.

“I was performing at a drag show in Boystown when a man tried to lick my face, which just crosses so many boundaries of basic consent,” Carol Aceves, a queer drag artist in Chicago under the name Whorechata, said. “Then another time I was in my car getting ready for a gig and these men tried to get into my car. Thankfully, I have my doors locked, but then they try to shake my car from outside to intimidate me. They were being transphobic and yelling out slurs trying to scare me. I had to get performers from inside the bar to come out and safely escort me out of my car.”

Aceves is one of the many people in the queer community who have experienced assault and harassment in Northalsted this year.

“Welcome to all!” reads at the top of Northalsted’s, previously known as Boystown, website. Home to one of the largest LGBTQ+ communities in the Midwest, Northalsted is known for its bustling activities and joyous pride. Yet, for a number of people in the community, Northalsted is anything but inclusive. Many of those who do not fit into the white, cis gay man style feel harrassed and out of place for a neighborhood that has been known to being accepting. 

This year alone there has been a 59% increase of hate crimes in Boystown. The number totals to 1,081 hate crimes, compared to the 680 hate crimes from last year. Critics see Northalsted as unsafe for queer minorities, especially considering the recent anti-LGBTQ legislation being passed across the United States. 

Aceves, who said they are thankful for the community around them, is worried the attacks will only increase. Aceves said the unsafe environment is created by other members of the LGBTQ community—who are not as inclusive may be to blame.

“It’s been a very scary time right now,” Aceves said. “It’s not surprising that we have anti-trans laws being passed left and right. There’s definitely a rise in anti-trans rhetoric and behavior—it’s all connected.” 

They said lately, being a person in the queer community in Northalstead, nonetheless a person of color, has been sad and heavy, but manageable. 

“I do have my chosen family here in Chicago,” Aceves said. “My queer family take care of me. We are able to support each other with a few resources that we have.”

To try and change the environment and accusations of racism and transphobia, the Boystown community members decided to change the popular 1980’s nickname in the summer of 2021. 

“The survey queried participants on categories of self-identification,” Northalsted’s website reads. “While the majority neither were offended by the name nor wanted it changed, those identifying as lesbian, transgender, non-binary and queer largely favored a name change.” 

The website claimed 80% of the surveyed people did not feel unwelcome by the Boystown name.

Despite the name change, some residents feel this did nothing to combat the growing concerns of exclusion. Sydryl Den, a queer Chicagian, said they feel nothing changed, if not gotten worse, since the name change.

“It’s supposed to be progessive and hold a lot of talented artists and different identities,” Den said. ”But trying to go out and have fun with your friends ends up [in] being ridiculed by people who were supposed to be accepting.” 

Den frequently visits Berlin, a nightclub in Lakeview East, with their friends but feels restricted due to the tense environment.

“There’s this tendency of gatekeeping in Boystown, specifically for cis gay men,” Den said. “I feel like Boystown was created for this idea of inclusion but there’s always gonna be gay men [that] feel like they’re entitled to that space because it’s called Boystown.”

Den said they have even had people come up to them and tell question why they are there because they look masculine but have femme-presenting friends. Den said they even go as far as saying they shouldn’t be there because it’s “not meant for them.”

Rhetoric like this encourages queer Chicagioans to seek comfort outside of Lakeview East to create a community. 

In Andersonville, a women-centered queer bar, called Nobody’s Darling, makes a point to create a healthy and comfortable enviroment for everyone. 

The choice to open shop more north than most gay bars was not a coincidence. Angela Barnes, a co-owner of Nobody’s Darling, said the choice was completely intentional. She said the choice was made to stand out in an area that has proven to be more inviting for all communities. 

“We were amenable to opening it in this particular location because it wasn’t Boystown,” Barnes said. “That whole area we have deemed ‘Boystown’ can be quite wonderful, but there’s something very nice about not being in the middle of all of that and being able to actually build our own culture and identity without having to compete with the noise.”

While Barnes didn’t want to criticize Northhalsted because she believes there is importance in having queer spaces, she finds it diffcult to not criticize the area when exclusion is now so common within the community. 

“I don’t want to say this bar is racist or this bar is sexist, but it’s how I feel when I go into a space,” Barnes said. “If there isn’t some intentional effort to make people feel welcome you kind of just leave [the effort] up to your bartenders or you leave it up to the bouncers—[leaving the effort up to them is] what drives a lot of us away from those bars.”

Barnes said she hasn’t visited certain Boystown bars in 25 years because of some disagreeable experiences she has had.

“When I was younger, my experiences didn’t feel safe being in such an all male environment,” Barnes said. “I felt like my friends would definitely be at some of the bars and be very protective of me.”

Like many people in the LGBTQ+ community, Aceves said they hope to see a change for the better in Chicago with representation and commitment to inclusion, especially in the Northalsted area.

“It’s been really scary navigating as a community,” Aceves said. “Some of us are neglected in these conversations about safety and security between COVID and assaults in the city. [It’s] very unsafe for like marginalized members of our community, especially for trans women, trans men, for dikes, for lesbians — this is definitely not a safe time right now. I would like to see the more privileged community members step up and do more, but I don’t know if that will happen.”