ROGERS PARK — Leaders at Touché talked with neighbors about how they can make the famed leather bar more inclusive, part of a public forum Saturday to address a racist performance the bar hosted this fall.
In November, entertainment for the bar’s 45th anniversary party featured a racist puppet show that made attendees uncomfortable. Some attendees walked out, a bartender quit mid-shift, people criticized the performance on social media and Onyx, a people-of-color-centered leather fraternity, stopped hosting its monthly meetings at Touché, 6412 N. Clark St.
During the performance, a white puppeteer spoke for a Black female puppet using a stereotypical “Blaccent,” or voice that non-Black performers use to imitate Black vernacular, and told jokes about loving watermelon, being on welfare and having five kids. The puppeteer has since permanently retired the puppet.
A November forum that was scheduled to address the controversy was abruptly canceled. At Saturday’s forum, Touché manager David Boyer apologized for booking the performance and allowing it to continue.
“I’m truly sorry for what happened in November. Offending people that I’ve cared about for years was not my intention, and I’m sorry it happened,” Boyer said. “It really has bothered me, and I came here today to listen and to learn. I want to do better.”
Forum attendees who saw the performance described the experience as “mortifying,” “disgusting,” “hurtful” and “beyond appalling.” Multiple people said they had to quickly leave the building and regretted they didn’t do more to stop the show.
The Touché staffer who quit mid-shift during the performance said they felt “betrayed” and “physically sick” to see management and patrons alike laughing and participating in the performance, but they weren’t surprised.
“I’m someone who relies heavily on chosen family. My chosen mother, who took me in when my family dropped me, was an elder Black trans sex worker, and she’s a woman who’s taken such good care of me,” former bartender Cris Bleaux said during the forum.
“I was so goddamn embarrassed to be making money off an event that was mocking her and her sisters and mothers and all divine femme beings. I was terrified because this was my main source of income, but I knew I had to bounce.”
Multiple people criticized Touché’s leaders for letting months go by without fixing the situation with Onyx’s members.
Onyx members posted in November they would consider resuming their decades-long partnership with Touché if Boyer stepped down, new management promised to maintain an inclusive space, the bar reformed its processes for booking entertainment and the bar donated to an organization focused on people of color.
Boyer said he struggled to address the controversy because he felt “there was no place for him to start that conversation” after learning Onyx leaders wanted him to step down and he “just didn’t know how to move forward.”
The current president of Onyx, Jean, said he understood where Boyer was coming from, but felt more could have been done sooner, especially as members of Onyx and other Touché regulars reached out privately.
“Even if you disagreed about [stepping down], there was still room and time for anything else to be done before now,” Jean said. “It felt as if this was being swept under the rug, but when things like this happen we need to address them in order to move forward as a community.”
Boyer and Onyx leaders agreed to work together to find ways to ensure Touché doesn’t hurt community members in the future.
Forum attendees said they want to help Touché transform into a space where people feel protected by their community, feel safe to fully be themselves and can learn from each other’s experiences.
Attendees suggested the bar implement some type of accountability structure so that when people inevitably make mistakes and hurt each other, they can be corrected, make amends and move forward.
“I just didn’t know who I could talk to, who would help me figure out how to make this right and move on from this,” Boyer said. “I was at a loss and I still am, but I appreciate this opportunity to talk because I feel the door has been opened and there’s an opportunity to move forward together.”
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