BOYSTOWN — Black LGBTQ leaders called for a reckoning of Chicago’s queer community as several thousand protesters packed the streets of Boystown on Sunday to decry racial injustice.
The Drag March for Change kicked off at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Halsted Street and culminated with a two-hour rally in which Black drag queens, kings and other queer leaders spoke about racism and transphobia across the U.S. and Chicago.
Part of that work, organizers said, must involve confronting anti-Black racism within Chicago’s LGBTQ community.
From “discriminatory dress codes” to Black DJs being told to play less hip-hop music, “Boystown is one of the most oppressive neighborhoods toward LGBTQ Black folks in all of Chicago,” said Jae Rice, of Brave Space Alliance, Chicago’s only Black- and trans-led LGBTQ organization on the South Side.
“You’re able to hide under a mask of queerness and queer oppression while simultaneously perpetuating white supremacy and anti-Blackness in Boystown,” Rice said.
The massive demonstration was organized by protest organizer Joe Lewis, a bartender at Berlin Nightclub who performs in drag as Jo Mama.
Lewis, dressed in a baby blue pantsuit, was joined by a handful of Chicago’s Black queer leaders as they led the massive march north on Halsted Street. They carried Black Lives Matter signs and led protesters in chants demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, a Black transgender man who was fatally shot by a Tallahassee Police officer last month.
“We’re marching to show that communities can be self-governed and the [Chicago’s queer community] is an example of how our current systems can be remodeled effectively,” Lewis told Block Club Chicago before the protest.
Volunteers on motorcycles and bicycles traveled a distance ahead of the marchers, helping to block off streets before the protesters came through. White allies who Lewis called “the circuit boys,” a term used within the LGBTQ community for gay men who attend large circuit parties on a regular basis, acted as bodyguards for the Black queer people leading the protest.
Many businesses along Halsted Street — Lewis reached out to all 50-something of them ahead of the protest — had decorated their windows and sidewalks with positive artwork and messages in support of Black Lives Matter. Some passed out water and hand sanitizer to the passing protesters.
“I am very proud of the queer community for showing up today, and you should be too,” Lewis said. “It’s amazing how many people are showing up now, and it’s probably one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen come from this movement.”
At the rally, speakers touched on a myriad of injustices faced by Black LGBTQ people, especially those against transgender people.
“All Black lives matter” became a rallying cry that echoed throughout Boystown as Zahara Bassett, also of the Brave Space Alliance, paid tribute to Dominique Fells and Riah Milton, two Black trans women who were murdered last week in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“Our existence is something that the white man is trying to take away from us,” Bassett said. “I will not be silent anymore.”
The Vixen, a South Side native and former star on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” talked about visiting Boystown for the first time as a young, gay Black person.
“We weren’t even old enough to go to a bar yet. We just wanted to see Boystown and see gay people and be gay,” The Vixen said. “And when we finally worked up the nerve, came to Pride and stood outside, I realized I’m not welcome here either.”
The Vixen started performing in drag around the neighborhood and met a small handful of other Black performers, but show producers rarely booked more than one Black person in a show, she said.
“Working in Boystown and in these bars, you have to go through so much just to stay in the room,” The Vixen said. “But what good is being in the room if you’re treated like silverware? I’d rather make my own room and eat at my own table.”
Looking to create more space for Black queer people in the neighborhood, The Vixen created “Black Girl Magic,” a monthly drag show in 2016 that features an entirely Black cast. At the time, there were only about a dozen Black drag performers in Chicago, but this Wednesday’s installment of the show will feature more than 30 Black drag performers.
“There are more Black drag queens in Chicago than I could have ever imagined,” the Vixen said. Chicago has its problems and is one of the most segregated cities in the world … but thank you for being a place where change can happen.”
Drag queen Shea Couleé, a Chicago native and star on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” called for more Black opportunities and ownership within the Boystown neighborhood, where bars are primarily owned by white gay men. She referenced an incident from years ago during which a local bartender made a racist post claiming “South Side trash” had ruined Pride.
“The same way that years ago, you all said you wanted to take Boystown back from the South Side trash — well guess what. The South Side showed up and we’re taking it back now.”
Other speakers included drag king Lúc Ami; drag queens Dida Ritz (also a former “Drag Race” competitor), Lucy Stoole and Miss Toto; activist Zola; Jazmine Salas of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression; and Tatyana Chante, who organized a protest supporting Black Lives Matter in Boystown earlier this month.
Lewis said they decided to organize the Drag March after participating in Chante’s June 1 protest.
“That was the activation of my activism,” Lewis told the sea of protesters at the end of Sunday’s rally. “Now it’s on everyone to keep doing the work and keep taking these steps even after we get home, because Black lives matter.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Boystown and Lincoln Park for Block Club Chicago.
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