Female impersonator Gia Gunn performed at Pridefest last year. | Sun-Times File Photo

Chicago opens its arms completely to male and female impersonators

SHARE Chicago opens its arms completely to male and female impersonators
SHARE Chicago opens its arms completely to male and female impersonators

Chicago would open its arms completely to male and female impersonators that have become “mainstream” entertainment on stage and screen, thanks to a zoning amendment advanced Thursday.

Nine years after spearheading a move to free male and female impersonators from the zoning shackles that bound adult entertainment cabarets, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) moved to complete the loop.

Chicago’s first openly gay alderman persuaded his colleagues on the City Council’s Zoning Committee to make the same change on the “land-use” side of the city code.

The 2006 change updated an archaic 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.

On Thursday, Tunney approved a similar change that will make it easier for businesses that offer male and female impersonators to get a public place of amusement license (PPA). They will no longer have to file an affidavit because male and female impersonators will no longer be defined as an adult use.

“A female impersonation show in one section of the code is still considered an adult use [that] would make it prohibited in many instances because adult uses have higher location restrictions,” said Zoning Administrator Patti Scudiero.

“In 2006, Ald.Tunney and [former Ald. Burton] Natarus changed the portion of the zoning code to take female and male impersonation out of the adult use and make it just an entertainment use. But at the time, we didn’t change the definition of it. We actually have an issue right now where people are being stopped from the licensing process because of the definition. This cleans it up and makes it consistent across the board.”

Tunney characterized the change as a long overdue “clean-up” of outdated language that stands as an impediment to any club that wants to offer the entertainment that’s a favorite of bachelorette and wedding parties.

“It’s a way to increase their business. . . . It’s more fun,” Tunney said.

The alderman noted that male and female impersonators have become “even more common” in the nine years since he made the initial change.

“It’s really entertainment for everybody. There’s a lot more of it on TV. It’s just much more accepted. We’re a different generation,” Tunney 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 told the Chicago Sun-Times when the latest change was introduced.

“The person who just won the Golden Globe for `Transparent’ on Amazon was a female impersonator at the Baton 15 years ago. Candis Cayne, 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.”

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