‘Boystown’ needs a name that reflects real change

By deep-sixing ‘Boystown,’ the leadership of Chicago’s LGBTQ community would abandon a name of exclusion.

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Pedestrians use a crosswalk representing LGBT pride on Halsted and Roscoe streets in the “Boystown” region of the North Side’s Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago on May 30, 2019. Fourteen crosswalks representing LGBT and transgender pride were installed along Halsted Street between Bradley Place and Melrose Avenue.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Time

“Boystown.” It is a name and a neighborhood, one prized by members of the LGBTQ community who flock to the gay-owned bars and restaurants that line North Halsted Street in Chicago, from Belmont Avenue to Grace Street.

Gay men began moving to Lake View area in the 1960s and 1970s, according to a 2018 Chicago Sun-Times history of the neighborhood. “In those early years, it was called ‘New Town.’ By the 1980s, “the name ‘Boystown’ took hold.”

The city of Chicago “designated it an official gay village in 1997 — the first ever such designation in the U.S. — and then the rainbow pylons went up in 1998.”

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Those pylons “mark an entertainment, shopping and dining district unlike any other in the city of Chicago, if not the world.”

Now, in America’s awakening to racial and social injustice, an online petition drive is demanding the moniker “Boystown” must go.

It is a “gendered nickname” that excludes lesbian, transgender and other queer residents and visitors, according to the petition, and ignores “the systemic transphobia, racism and sexism that have plagued our neighborhood for decades.”

“Boystown” is “a marketing tool used by the Northalsted Business Alliance and perpetuates the existing social issues that deter many LGBTQ people from the neighborhood,” the petition’s supporters wrote.

“As we all grow and reconsider our roles in perpetuating bigotry,” they asked the alliance to realize that “one form of bigotry perpetuates others.”

A competing petition argues “Boystown’s history is not in question. It is not meant to be sexist or racist. It’s being a victim of the new change culture that has nothing to do with the fact that Boystown itself has always been welcoming to everyone.”

And “changing the name isn’t solving anything.”

To its credit, the all-male, mostly white business alliance board has commissioned a survey asking residents and visitors whether the nickname should be banished.

They have a lot at stake. The name represents a prime Chicago destination that brings in millions of dollars each year.

Survey on. Then do the right thing.

I am not a boy nor a member of the LGBTQ community, but I have lived in the neighborhood since my college days.

Growing up on Chicago’s deeply segregated South Side, I hungered for a racially and economically diverse place to call home. It was fun and hip, way back when “hip” spelled fern bars, discotheque and edgy boutiques; being a gay haven made it even cooler.

I revel in its sassily flamboyant Pride Parade, partied down at the extravagant Market Days street festival, and indulge in the bountiful restaurants and nightlife.

Yet in a place called “Boystown,” the message was always: You can hang out here, but you are not one of “us.”

In recent years, the area’s leaders have been making strides toward making it more welcoming. The Center on Halsted and new housing that caters to LGBTQ senior citizens are prime examples.

But I have also heard too many ugly stories from lesbian, transgender and LGBTQ people of color — tales of feeling unwelcome, discriminated against and denigrated in Boystown.

Like Confederate flags and statues that honor slave owners, the name “Boystown” is a monument to exclusion.

Boys, men, gays — whatever you call them — are not the only people who matter.

And while “boys” may be a term of endearment to some, it means something far uglier to the Black men whose fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers were dehumanized by the term “boy,” used by white racists not so long ago.

By deep-sixing “Boystown,” the leadership of Chicago’s LGBTQ community would show it is serious about real change.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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