In 2006, Chicago’s first openly gay alderman spearheaded a move to free male and female impersonators — favorites of bachelorette and wedding parties — from the zoning shackles that bound “adult entertainment cabarets.”
At the time, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) argued that male and female impersonators had become “almost mainstream” entertainment. He persuaded the City Council to change an outdated zoning code that defined “adult entertainment cabaret” as places with “topless dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators.”
By removing the words “male or female impersonators,” Tunney managed to lift many restrictions on where the new establishments could be built.
Now, Tunney wants to complete the loop — by making the same change on the “land-use” side of the city code.
“When someone wants to get a public place of amusement license, there’s an affidavit they have to file about adult use. When you look up that part of the code, it still had male and female impersonators listed as an adult use,” Tunney said Thursday, one day after introducing the change at a City Council meeting.
“We need to make the code the same on the zoning and the business side. We didn’t cross our t’s and dot our i’s. We didn’t correct the code in all of the places it should have been corrected.”
If anything, Tunney said male and female impersonators have gotten “even more common” in the nine years since he made the initial change.
“We don’t think male and female impersonator is an adult use. I’m sure even Disney does it. That’s where we’ve come as a society. This has become mainstream. This is accepted in all levels of entertainment,” the alderman said.
Jim Flint, owner of the Baton Show Lounge, 436 N. Clark, couldn’t agree more.
“They’re popping up all over the neighborhoods — even more than I thought they would. TV has made it even more mainstream. There’s drag all the time on different shows. You turn on the TV and see it every night,” Flint said.
“The person who just won the Golden Globe for `Transparent’ on Amazon was a female impersonator at the Baton 15 years ago. Candice Cane, who did, `Dirty, Sexy Money’ with William Baldwin is also a former employee of mine.”
In 2006, Tunney proposed the zoning code amendment at the behest of Flint, whose club featured female impersonators lip-syncing the songs of Whitney Houston, Madonna, Cher, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson.
At the time, clubs up and down North Halsted were offering “special nights” featuring male and female impersonators.
It was an apparent end-run around an arcane provision of the zoning code that lumped male and female impersonators into the definition of adult entertainment and severely restricted where those places can be located.
An adult entertainment cabaret needs a license as a public place of amusement and a “special use permit” in areas zoned as business or commercial. And they cannot be located within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, parks or residential areas. That’s “95 percent of the land in Chicago,” Tunney said then.
The City Council approved the change just a few months after world-renowned female impersonator Dame Edna appeared at the Oriental Theater in a performance that was technically illegal.
“If somebody walks on stage, and they’re a female acting as a male, what part of that is so objectionable? It’s commonly accepted as mainstream entertainment. It’s an artistic form now. There’s not the fear surrounding it that there was 40 or 50 years ago,” Tunney said then.
“If they do other things — topless dancers, strippers or illicit sexual activity — it should be an adult use. But the mere fact of getting on stage and dressing as the opposite sex? Theater performances include cross-dressers. Come on. Let’s put some common sense into this.”