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Prominent Leather Fraternity Blasts Touché For Racist Puppet Show, Demands New Leadership

Touché is hosting a town hall Wednesday amid mounting backlash. The Midwest chapter for ONYX, a national fraternity for gay and bisexual men of color, pulled its events and wants the bar's manager fired.

Touché, 6414 N. Clark St.
Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
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ROGERS PARK — A group for people of color in the leather lifestyle community has dropped Touché as its monthly meetup spot and wants the bar’s manager out after a racist puppet performance the bar hosted last week.

The Midwest chapter for ONYX, a national fraternity for gay and bisexual men of color, announced the demands Monday.

The bar at 6412 N. Clark St. celebrated its 45th anniversary Nov. 1 and booked puppeteer Jerry Halliday as entertainment. When the white performer came out with a Black puppet named Sista Girl and started speaking with a “Blaccent” — a voice non-Black performers use to imitate Black vernacular — some people in the room immediately felt uncomfortable, they told Block Club.

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Witnesses said Halliday made jokes about loving watermelon and being on welfare, while video of his performance showed Halliday asking manager David Boyer to collect tips for the Black puppet’s five children.

Touché’s leaders have apologized for the performance. The bar was to hold a town hall on the incident Wednesday night, but it was canceled due to a medical emergency.

“Hopefully, people will look at the 45-year history of the establishment over a 45-minute tasteless performance,” bar owner Chuck Rodocker previously said. “If there’s something we can do to support someone more in the future, we’d be more than happy to because we are one of the oldest gay bars in the city and always had a very diverse crowd that’s welcoming of women, people of color and people with disabilities.”

Credit: Provided/Miguel Torres
Jerry Halliday performs with his puppet Sista Girl at Touché

ONYX leaders, who called Touché their home bar, have also suspended Boyer’s honorary membership for a period of time to be determined by the group, according to the statement. Boyer must complete educational activities to return.

The group said it would consider returning to Touché for its bar nights if:

  • Boyer is fired or resigns.
  • Boyer’s replacement agrees to maintain an environment without racism, misogyny, transphobia, sexism and other harmful stereotypes or discrimination.
  • The bar donates at least $3,000 to a charity of ONYX Midwest’s choosing that’s focused on people of color.
  • The bar establishes an event-review committee, made up of leadership from all groups that call Touché home. The committee will have larger representation from ONYX and review any events to be held at the bar.

The group also condemned the bar’s management for not intervening to stop the performance.

“The damage caused is beyond measure as a result of the lack of response,” according to ONYX’s statement.

Parts of the performance, which led to several audience members walking out and a bartender quitting mid-shift, were shared in a video posted by audience member Philip Smith.

A clip shows one white audience member speaking up mid-performance, telling the puppeteer “everyone in the crowd thinks this is a little weird for 2022.”

Halliday, speaking through the puppet, responds, “Everybody who wants this man to shut up, make some noise [and] clap.” People can be heard clapping and booing the audience member, who leaves shortly after.

ONYX’s statement called out those audience members’ “complicity … in causing this damage when they sided with the performer.”

Credit: JerryHalliday.com
Sista Girl was shared on Jerry Halliday’s website but removed after he retired the puppet.

Halliday, who this week said he’s permanently retiring his Sista Girl character, denied claims that he made jokes about the puppet loving watermelon. He said the puppet has been part of his act for two decades and he’s never received backlash.

“I have been doing my show for 20 years for thousands of people of all races to standing ovations and rave reviews in the press, then suddenly a handful of people at Touché attack me while the majority there were enjoying my show,” Halliday said. “The one-sided attacks on my act have been greatly exaggerated and with many total fabrications.”

The Washington Post reviewed Halliday’s act in 1980 and referred to one of Halliday’s puppets as an “insulting, racist stereotype of a Black prostitute.”

Halliday’s act wasn’t vetted because he had been hired to perform at previous Touché events where he went over well with the crowd, Rodocker said.

“We thought it would be fun to bring an entertainer from the past to include him with the holiday party, but apparently his material has not changed with the ages,” Rodocker said. “I wasn’t there, but from my understanding … people took offense to one of his Black characters, and they were just not amused.”

In an email that went out last week to Touché’s clientele, Boyer said the bar will work to be more inclusive.

“We have and will continue to work hard to make this space more welcoming to all people regardless of their racial, ethnic, sexual or gender identities,” Boyer wrote. “Your feedback is noted and appreciated if we are to make that a reality here. We could not have remained in business here for the past 45 years if that were not a core purpose of our business.”

Miguel Torres, a longtime patron of Touché who won the 2014 Mr. Chicago Leather, a contest hosted by the bar, said he left after the audience member was booed.

“It was extremely unsettling and disgusting,” Torres said. “I just looked at my friend and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever felt unsafe in this bar. Let’s just go.’”

A group of people of color were standing outside the bar when Torres left, talking about what they’d seen, he said.

“This bar is a safe space for a lot of us people from disadvantaged and marginalized communities, and this is just outrageous,” Torres said. “I feel extremely disappointed and betrayed by this.”

Torres has worked with the bar for years helping its management make the space more inclusive through things like making sure its posters feature a diverse mix of people and posting signs that say bigotry is not acceptable.

“I poured years of free community work into this bar, so this feels like a big slap on the face. You just ruined all that work in one night,” Torres said.

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
Jo MaMa (in blue) leads protesters during the Drag March For Change protest in 2020.

The incident is the latest in a series of high-profile anti-Black incidents within Chicago’s LGBTQ community over the past few years. In 2020, one of the city’s top drag performers was dropped by Berlin Nightclub and Roscoe’s after Black performers came forward with allegations of racism.

In 2019, protests were held following two racist incidents in Boystown. The first happened when Progress attempted to implement a rap music ban. That same weekend, vintage clothing and costume store Beatnix was found selling a Confederate flag vest, prompting former employees to come forward with allegations of racism against the owner.

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