Submission by Randall Jenson, creator and director of the new documentary series 50Faggots, which follows the lives of ten self-identified effeminate gay men in America. He lives in Chicago, Illinois and has previously been involved with About Face Youth Theatre, Lambda Legal and was a program facilitator and coordinator for homeless and at-risk young people at the Broadway Youth Center. He has been engaged with diverse queer communities since seventeen years old. In 2003, he was a speaker profiled at the National ACLU Membership Conference in Washington D.C, featured on The Oprah Show’s “Growing Up Gay” episode in 2006, awarded the “Youth Impact Award” by the National Youth Advocacy Coalition in 2007. Recently, his work with 50Faggots was recognized by the Association for Queer Anthropology in 2010. In his free time, he likes to travel, catch-up with his friends over Pho and occasionally goes out, dressed up, as a blue drag queen.
I try to play by the rules: make nice, keep my mouth shut, and only let close friends see my discomfort when my “so-over-this” expressions surface after spending time in this neighborhood. I worry that after this article posts, I may not be able to experience this same sort of covert behavior. Perhaps it’s time for me to use the voice I’ve been silencing for too long. Last Wednesday was the notorious Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) meeting, generously marketed to the Boystown community as a “town hall” forum (which I did not attend.) I didn’t want to hear the same arguments I’ve heard so many times before, as different factions of our community sling caca-cakes at one another. Because actually talking about the roots of why we’re struggling to keep each other safe and loved may be too difficult; self-examination sucks. Luckily for me, I work with a team of super committed gay men who went to this meeting to listen, film some necessary examples of our communities’ fractions, and amidst all the hate, still showcase the creative places gay men cruise. The issue: the Boystown community is blaming violence in the area on homeless gay youth and people of color. Now I’ve tried hard to avoid being drawn into these discussions, in part because they are pointless and non-productive and in part because as a documentarian my job is to observe. But as a former homeless gay youth and a person of color, I can no longer keep silent. So I’m gonna rant because I’m feeling full. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
There have been many, many events leading up to this past Wednesday’s forum. Boystown residents have reported being harassed, mugged and attacked by a general consensus of street youth hanging out on Halsted late at-night. The Boystown neighborhood believes that they are a haven for members of our LGBTQ community. But for many youth on the margins and people of color, it is not. In late May, infamous “drag-queen” and black face comedian, Shirley Q. Liquor, was booked and marketed for a 2-night event by a local club, only being canceled after intense protesting. Most recently, a video was captured by two gay men showing a large street fight by a majority of Black men attacking each other in what some described as a “gang-related” incident (which later turned out not to be true.) This fight resulted in one young man being stabbed multiple times. Since its inception, I’ve seen a lot of hateful comments on the Facebook group “Take Back Boystown,” a forum ostensibly designed to get people talking about how to deal with an increase in crime in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this has become a place where people feel comfortable voicing uncensored bigotry. I’m glad this group exists because I believe in free speech, even when the views shared might be viewed as offensive. While still problematic, it beats the past ways that gays-bash-other-gays on YouTube, Twitter or anonymous chat rooms. So on this forum, the primarily white, middle class residents of the Boystown community have blamed recent violence in the area on an uncritically generalized mass of poor and black bodies.
I can relate to the intense, paralytic fear that some residents of Boystown may have experienced while watching this type of bottled-up rage explode on the streets of Halsted. I remember when I was living in a shelter in St. Louis, witnessing two girls go at it, full force, fighting in our community kitchen. One smashed the other’s head with a glass coffee pot, while the other went for a knife. And it all had to do with a fight over Denny’s! It can be overwhelming; and in quick-flashes of violence, difficult to negotiate your own safety, as well as help others under attack. But I don’t know what frustrates me more? Scapegoating by the wealthy, purposely close-minded gay men or apathy by the few people of color who are noted “standout” exceptions in this community. And believe me, the latter know it. Their journey is almost more difficult to watch then the larger culture of cultivated stupidity and shellacked, hyperbolic masculinity (gift-wrapped in Rainbow phallic tourism with a Gaga bow.)
Not everyone participates in Boystown culture. One particular social justice organization, Gender Just, came under particular scrutiny for their tactics on challenging the community. For those who aren’t familiar with Gender Just, they are an active member-led organization that aims to embrace a progressive, multicultural platform. But yet I worry about power-dynamics and disparate agendas from some of the lead organizers who work with these young people (and to give credit where it’s due, there are still many courageous young members who do their work with integrity.) At the CAPS meeting, Gender Just’s young activists were dismissed and their concerns trivialized by older men in the community. Someone wrote on the aforementioned Facebook group’s wall, “Young people need to earn their respect, they can’t demand it” and proceeded to call them brats. I whole-heartedly disagree with many of these men, who felt inconvenienced by the consequences of chronic socio-economic inequality in their neighborhood, who came to the meeting with their minds made up and trivialized other experiences and perspectives. The fact that these young people’s voices were not even welcomed, but also actively denied by some in attendance at this town hall meeting, is both disheartening and abusive. I challenge our older generations of gay men to be mentors to this community. I ask you each to set an example on what it means to be a man of dignity and respect. You don’t bully a younger person, walking into an already acidic environment where some of the other gay men and police in that room have actively been perpetrators of physical and sexual violence, as well as fear into their lives, and demand that THEY are the ones who shut up and sit down. While Boystown residents can escape life struggles through expensive therapy sessions, martini bars and accessible programming catered to their lifestyle, many of these young people can’t.
Some of the gay youth being blamed for “ruining” Boystown have survived a lot in order to “loiter” outside the Center on Halsted (Chicago’s LGBTQA community center.) They may have made it out of the cycle-of-abuse or homelessness that escalates in many poor and ethnic communities or they still get caught in it. I recognize these young people. I understand why many of the Black ball kids on the corner cat-call at me to “WERK!” when I pass them on my outings to film my cast members in Boystown. I appreciate a homeless youth’s need to snap and vogue down the street, and sometimes into traffic, and call me a “Bitch!” when it appears I’m doing something right (or not.) And I try not to be intimidated by their loud, sassy nature. I try to feel both empathetic to and empowered by it. I try to be reminded of where I’ve come from. But I also understand that a lot of gay men in Boystown don’t get them and many are unwilling to even try. For as much phobia that exists within this community, isn’t it ironic how many white gay men have willingly appropriated drag and black vernacular? Take note “boys:” Cultural creativity cannot be captured, instead it must be earned. So I want to start a new rule – if you aren’t interested in being around a fag, queen or ball kid, don’t go prancing up and down Halsted Street drunk, shouting that you’re going to “kiki” with your friends at frat-boy Thursdays. Or asking what’s the latest “t” about the local bar. Or “gagging” over your suburban girlfriend’s new shoes. Barf.
There are certain things you need to know to really be accepted as part of this community. The little details and intricacies of a specific culture, such as where to go and who to talk to, are important. For instance, a true Boystown resident will know that for as much partying and debauchery can happen on Friday and Saturday nights, the real event is stumbling back out shit-faced for “Sunday Fundays” in a pinnacle of merriment and messiness. And even better, there’s no having to avoid the swarm of black bodies on the street from the nights before, unless of course, they are being asked to host the local brunch happy-hour for your amusement. Then they’re fierce! For a community and culture that is in love with the “foursquare” application, and reminding everyone… at any moment…where you are, I understand that it’s hard to check in a homeless young person when they can’t afford an iPhone and their residence isn’t on the map.
My real concern is about how our community defines violence and who we label as criminals. Boystown residents are scared for their lives, but many of them have instant access to safety. For instance, has anyone spoke about the fact that this highly-circulated video of the public Boystown stabbing was shot on a small camera, by the owners standing on their private balcony. They weren’t in any harm’s way. But if you read most news reports, it would seem that the residents of Boystown were under direct attack. While robberies and muggings occur, a majority of the fighting is not only black on black, but gay on gay crime. I reluctantly share that a lot of illegal activity happens all the time in Boystown (and in most gay spaces in general.) Who is able to get away with it is a different story, and there’s a big difference on the types of bodies policed. I know folks who do drugs or solicit sex at the bars and host, open-door, post-Pride bareback orgies (without disclosing their status) in the comfort of their Halsted residences. And you know what – I’m really not hating. While these activities are just as illegal, I support individuals making their own decisions, and at times their own coins, on how they feel they need to – so long as it’s mutually honest, respectful, safe and hopefully approaching it with harm-reduction. I’ve seen too much to try and pretend otherwise. But if you take these same behaviors and put them on the dark or poor bodies in the nightclub, or much “worse,” on the street, the police are called immediately and an influx of “criminal activity” is reported in Boystown. An unspoken rule perhaps should be made clear: “If it’s on the streets, they’re calling the police.” So residents, if this is what you wanted, well congratulations –you’re going to get it. If we didn’t learn anything from Stonewall, get ready to be launched back into a more heavily policed community and please don’t be angry when your own activities are warranted for suspicion.
Is it sad when you already feel like a war veteran of your own community? I’m not even 30 yet! When I came out, sodomy was still illegal, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) just began to pop up in the most progressive high schools across the country, and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) wasn’t the least interested in advocating for the-hot-to-touch marriage issues that they’ve now tried to lay claim to. I was a wayward teenager who found my niche in the local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.) I became inspired to make a small difference when I saw over 30 timid, diverse hands raised at the local queer youth group meeting after being asked the question, “How many of you at some point or another have been kicked out for being gay?” I had recently come out of the closet, been kicked out of by my family and then my first high school (an all-guy Jesuit private school.) I was alone, scared and hated myself. Very Catholic, I know.
I’m concerned about the ways compassion and empathy are extended to certain members of our community and not others. Perhaps it’s because so many older gay men still have a deeply-embedded chip on their shoulder, assuming that because they had it really rough when they came out young (or didn’t come out at all until much later,) young people now should have to “deal with it” too. If we want to talk about making it get better, we need to start with rebuilding our own communities. What happened at the CAPS meeting, with particular residents shouting “Get a job!” to silence young people or “booing” at a homeless man when he tried to share his experience was, quite simply, bullying. We’re a community that isn’t quite sure how to love ourselves, much less others. Perhaps with money and comfort comes a more calloused exterior, a refusal to empathize with others in order to remove ourselves from the pain we see around us. And, please note, shouting that you “Already gave $30,000” to the Center on Halsted doesn’t set you apart as a caring individual – it only makes you look like an asshole. So, whichever old, wealthy queen thought that was cute to yell – shame on you. And where’s your receipt? Let me be clear, no one, ever, deserves to be hurt or assaulted, especially in their own community. In an ideal world, we would all be safe and away from harm’s way. But it is ridiculous to assume any community is ever fully safe, especially one where consumerism is an integral part to our survival.
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