Jen Freitag, general manager of the Chicago Diner, helped launch a campaign that led to the Northalsted Business Alliance's decision to stop using "Boystown." Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

LAKEVIEW — Men have sneered at Jen Freitag when she and other queer women go to Chicago’s strip of gay bars, known for decades as Boystown.

On a great night, Freitag and her friends can dance, socialize and unwind in an environment that feels affirming for queer women. On other nights, they’re met with dirty looks and resentment, she said.

“This is for the boys, honey. You shouldn’t be here,” gay men have told her.

Freitag is hardly alone in her experience. Amid national social justice demonstrations this summer, a series of protests swept Chicago’s famed LGBTQ neighborhood as queer activists called out local leaders for discriminating against people of color, women and trans or gender-nonconforming people.

That reckoning culminated in the firing of a top drag queen accused of racism and business leaders dropping the Boystown moniker from the neighborhood’s marketing.

That’s just a start, activists say. Whether it’s who owns the local businesses or which performers take center stage at clubs, queer activists said the neighborhood still draws clear lines between who is welcome and who is shunned.

Neighborhood leaders must commit to the longer-term work of diversifying their business community and completing inclusion training programs that will help them learn how to create a space that meaningfully embraces all LGBTQ people, activists said.

“Dropping the name was a great first step toward inclusivity,” said nonbinary activist Devlyn Camp, who worked with Freitag on the recent campaign to change the neighborhood name.

“But now a lot of us would like to see businesses implement systemic changes inside their own establishments to be more inclusive.”

Thousands of protesters marched through the North Side on June 28 to demand justice for Black and transgender people.

‘Structural Change Still Needs To Happen’

Last month’s decision from the Northalsted Business Alliance to stop using “Boystown” in marketing materials came after a two-month survey about the name.

Of nearly 7,900 survey respondents, 80 percent said they didn’t feel unwelcome by the neighborhood’s nickname. Nearly 60 percent of people said they wanted to keep the name, according to figures released by the group.

Despite respondents wanting to keep the Boystown name, Northalsted Business Alliance leaders said they opted to adopt the name Northalsted — in deference to the strip’s street name — to “ensure all members of the LGBTQ community feel welcome in the business district.”

Lake Alen, acting executive director of the alliance and owner of Chicago Male Salon, said the board will not release the survey’s full results, but the data “is very specific” in who likes and dislikes the Boystown name.

“The majority of votes from gay and straight folks came in as ‘keep it,’” Alen said. “But the majority of people who identified as queer, lesbian, bi and anything non-gay or -straight wanted to change it. It was very evident that some people were offended by the name.”

Such disparate feedback to the survey shows the breaches within the LGBTQ neighborhood that need mending, activists said.

Tatyana Chante, mutual aid coordinator for the Black- and trans-led Brave Space Alliance and an organizer with the Chicago Black Drag Council, speaks during a June 1, 2020, protest. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

“More than half of the people didn’t want to change the name, so that doesn’t make me feel welcome at all,” said Tatyana Chante, mutual aid coordinator for the Black- and trans-led Brave Space Alliance and an organizer with the Chicago Black Drag Council.

“‘Boystown’ describes what it is right now: a cis gay men’s club,” Freitag said. “People say I don’t belong here because I’m not a cisgender gay man, but I absolutely do. I’ve seen the fall of pretty much every lesbian bar, and we deserve to have space just as much as anybody else.”

That same alienation has played out in the area’s nightlife. Shows have implemented discriminatory dress codes, bars have banned rap and hip-hop music and producers have rarely booked more than one Black performer per show.

Lúc Ami, a drag king who was among the dozens of performers behind June’s massive Drag March for Change protest, said women and nonbinary performers often don’t get as many opportunities as those who are cisgender men. And when they are booked in a show, they’re often tokenized as the only drag king.

Drag king Lúc Ami speaks during the Drag March for Change protest on June 14, 2020. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

“It feels like I perform in an industry that’s not meant for me, when I absolutely have every reason to be here,” Ami said.

Camp said the Northalsted Business Alliance can start by affecting broader change within its own leadership. Ten of the chamber’s 11 board members are men, and only two are people of color.

Chante said business owners should increasingly recruit employees who are women, transgender, nonbinary or Black, especially for upper-management positions.

“So much structural change still needs to happen,” Chante said.

Alen said the Northalsted board “acknowledges and has for some time that it is majority gay men.” 

Robin Gay-Stafford, a dentist at Howard Brown Health, was recruited within the past two months to join the alliance’s board, but Alen said they have struggled to find others who are interested.

“Even in normal times, it’s hard to get people to volunteer for this type of gig because it’s a big time commitment with zero paycheck,” Alen said.

Alen also acknowledged most businesses in the neighborhood are led by men but said the Northalsted Business Alliance has no control over that.

“If there are good practices to try to encourage minority- or women-owned businesses into some of the vacant storefronts, that is something we can definitely look into,” Alen said.

Sets of multicolored back racks creating a rainbow were installed at high-traffic areas throughout Boystown. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

Lip Service With No Concrete Action’

Northalsted Business Alliance leaders pledged to host trainings on diversity and inclusion, but those have been stalled since the spring.

The series of workshops were available to all Northalsted members. Because Freitag had recently been promoted to general manager of the Chicago Diner, she was invited to the first seminar on Feb. 7.

Freitag said the training, which was about pronouns and gender identity, was “unproductive.” It went so poorly, she said, she felt the need to apologize to the teachers at third-party consultant Praxis Group afterward.

“We barely got through the training because [the other business owners] kept talking over and interrupting the teachers,” Freitag said. “There seemed to be a pushback to the training rather than an openness to accept new things.”

Camp first detailed the issue in an August op-ed for queer magazine Them, saying the alliance’s responses “to these matters are often placations.”

A week after the first seminar, Freitag received an email from Northalsted Business Alliance staff saying the next training — set for March 16 — was canceled. No reason was given.

Alen said he did not remember why the seminars were canceled, but said it was “probably because of the pandemic.” Freitag pushed back on that, saying Illinois’ stay at home order didn’t begin until a month after the cancellation was announced.

Alen said the board might partner with local LGBTQ organizations Howard Brown or the Center on Halsted to complete its training after the pandemic.

“Keeping businesses open is our No. 1 priority,” Alen said. “I will sit down for a diversity training any time after I know that all of our businesses are going to stay open.”

Jamie Frazier, lead pastor of the Lighthouse Church of Chicago and executive director of the Lighthouse Foundation. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

Jamie Frazier, executive director of the Lighthouse Foundation, a Black LGBTQ social justice group that has protested various neighborhood businesses accused of racism, said the alliance “doesn’t just need a change of name … they also need a change of heart.”

Frazier has pushed for local business owners to complete diversity and anti-racism seminars since Memorial Day Weekend 2019, which is when Progress Bar attempted to implement a ban on rap music and costume store Beatnix was selling a Confederate flag vest.

According to emails provided by Frazier, he invited Northalsted Business Alliance members to a virtual anti-racism training the Lighthouse Foundation held in June, but he was told that the board had started its own program.

“The fact that the Northalsted Business Alliance has not completed the course of diversity trainings they committed to is yet another example of performative allyship and lip service with no concrete action,” Frazier said.

RELATED: Security Firm Run By Cop Accused Of Racist Attack Will No Longer Staff Boystown Parades And Festivals

The Northalsted Business Alliance said it’s making plans to remove banners featuring the “Boystown” nickname. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

‘We’re Not Erasing Boystown’

“Boystown” has been used to refer to the stretch of North Halsted Street from Belmont Avenue to Grace Street since the ’80s.

The half-mile strip was recognized as Chicago’s gay district in 1997 under Mayor Richard M. Daley, according to a WBEZ feature on the neighborhood. That’s when the 20 rainbow-striped pylons went up to make the designation official.

Each pylon is engraved with “Northalsted” — not “Boystown” — and features bronze plaques memorializing notable LGBTQ people. Together, the pillars make up the Legacy Walk, an outdoor LGBTQ history exhibit.

The Northalsted Business Alliance didn’t even use “Boystown” in its name or branding materials until 2018, Alen said.

Still, Boystown — derived from the name of a weekly gay newspaper column — stuck, even if some stalwarts of the neighborhood hated it. So the name change, such as it is, only goes so far.

The city does not officially name neighborhoods — only community areas — so there’s nothing to change in city records.

The Boystown banners hanging from the neighborhood’s 62 light poles soon will be replaced. Any remaining business cards, letterheads and shirts that say “Boystown” will be used up before introducing new ones.

But Alen said the name change was “not a mandate to our businesses,” and people are still free to use Boystown in their own titles or marketing campaigns. The neighborhood’s rainbow bike racks, which were installed in May and have Boystown engraved in their crossbars, will not be replaced, Alen said.

“We’re not trying to change that or correct people when they say ‘Boystown,’” Alen said. “This is a thing we’re doing internally with our own marketing. We’re not erasing Boystown from history.”

Activists Freitag and Camp suggested renaming the neighborhood after the Legacy Walk, which will be inducted this week into Chicago’s LGBT Hall of Fame.

Freitag said the right name could stick if it still reflects LGBTQ people without excluding parts of the community.

“I really believe this street is unique and wonderful, and I don’t want to erase that history,” Freitag said. “The right name will improve on that history and welcome more people into the neighborhood.”

The Northalsted Business Alliance installed 125 new bike racks throughout Boystown. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.