Examining the Past, Present, and Future of Chicago's First Gay Neighborhood
The country’s first official gay village is constantly evolving.
By Sarah Friedmann
Pride month is one full of both celebration and commemoration for the LGBT+ community. Every June, cities around the world hold pride festivals and parades to honor the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising – the 1969 protests that are often considered the launching point of the modern gay rights movement. Many pride activities are held in LGBT+ neighborhoods, including in Chicago’s Boystown – first-ever gay neighborhood that was officially recognized by a large city. Following the conclusion of this year’s pride, reflecting on how Boystown was created offers insight into the neighborhood’s unique history – and the challenges and opportunities it faces as it looks to the future.
Chicago’s Boystown was officially recognized as the city’s gay district in 1997, though the neighborhood was rich with LGBT+ history for many years prior. Notably, the modern-day Boystown neighborhood resulted after the LGBT+ community was pushed out of other neighborhoods in Chicago in the 1960s, WBEZ reported. As Tracy Baim, a gay historian and founder of the Windy City Times, described to the outlet, “in the ‘60s gay communities were scattered around the city, with many of the communities … centered around downtown, River North, and Tower Town in the mid part of the last century.” Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood, including the Lake View communities of Triangle Neighbors and Belmont Harbor, was also home to many members of the city’s LGBT+ community in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Encyclopedia of Chicago noted. However, “slowly, as rents went up and other things happened, the community was forced out," Baim reported.
Activism at Its Roots
As LGBT+ communities and individuals were being pushed out of various Chicago neighborhoods in the ‘60s, LGBT+ activism – which derived at least partially out of response to discriminatory treatment from police, politicians, and other city officials, was simultaneously on the rise. The aforementioned Stonewall Uprising of 1969 helped spark some of this activism and, a year afterward — in 1970 — Chicago hosted its first-ever pride parade, Chicago magazine noted. The LGBT+ community in Chicago also began opening its first health centers, community centers, and bars at the beginning of the ‘70s, increasingly coalescing around the area that would eventually be known as Boystown.
As WBEZ described, the modern-day boundaries of Boystown really began to take root in the 1980s, as a variety of gay bars began to pop up along the neighborhood’s now-famous Halsted Street. Notably, gay bars not only developed as entertainment venues for the LGBT+ community, but also as essential community spaces and activism grounds as the LGBT+ movement grew. “Across the country, LGBTQ Americans turned to bars and nightlife to provide an escape from pervasive prejudice, and to carve out spaces of their own,” Patrick Sisson wrote in a 2016 Curbed article examining the history of gay bars. “While numerous organizations, publications, and early protests had helped provide direction and momentum [for the LGBT+ rights movement], bars and clubs often served as a gathering place, as well as the stage, for action.”
Moreover, the increasing concentration of gay bars on Halsted Street became a physical representation of solidarity and empowerment in the LGBT+ community. “… Having a cluster of gay-owned establishments in the Lakeview neighborhood was important. It helped gay people feel like they had a place where they belonged,” Steven Jackson and Jason Nargis of WBEZ wrote. “The North Halsted Street area continued to attract gay businesses and residents, and within a few years, the street was developing an LGBTQ identity.”
Community-Building Gay Bars Spur Neighborhood Investment
The preponderance of gay bars on Halsted and the sense of community they inspired subsequently encouraged many members of the LGBT+ community to move to and invest in the neighborhood around these bars. “One important aspect of the Halsted Street community was that new LGBTQ residents and business owners bought property and permanently settled in the surrounding residential area,” Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development reported in March 2019. Chicago’s pride parade also officially moved its starting location to Boystown in the 1980s.
WBEZ also emphasized that, eventually, this developing neighborhood became a strong force for political activism focused on ensuring that LGBT+ rights were respected and protected. “Property ownership, an expanding merchant association, growing population density, and registered voters meant increased economic and political clout,” Jackson and Nargis of WBEZ wrote. “The community could use its growing influence to lobby local government.”
Indeed, the Chicago neighborhood became such a political and economic force in the city that it was given a moniker – Boystown – that remains in place today. In seeking to recognize the neighborhood as an epicenter of LGBT+ culture, Chicago’s former mayor, Richard M. Daley, designated the neighborhood as America’s first officially recognized gay village in 1997. “When Chicago designated Halsted Street as a gay neighborhood … that was the first time a U.S. city had officially designated a neighborhood as being ‘gay,’” William Greaves, the director for Chicago’s advisory council on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues said to Time Out Chicago. “It was groundbreaking.” As part of this recognition, decorative pylons adorned with the colors of the rainbow were erected throughout the neighborhood.
Today, Chicago’s Boystown holds an iconic status in the city. Earlier this year, the city painted rainbow stripes on crosswalks throughout the neighborhood ahead of the 50th annual pride parade on June 30. Moreover, the iconic rainbow pylons – as well as the bronze plaques that collectively create a Legacy Tour of LGBT+ history throughout the city, are currently under consideration for landmark status, Curbed noted.
Though Boystown has become a significant visual symbol of LGBT+ identity in Chicago, it’s actually increasingly less inhabited solely by LGBT+ residents. The reasons behind this decline in residency are mixed. On a positive note, vastly improved legal protections for and cultural acceptance of the LGBT+ community means that many LGBT+ individuals are comfortable residing in areas that aren’t specifically known as LGBT+ communities. “…The Census now finds same-sex romantic couples living together in 93 percent of America's counties,” Matthew Yglesias of Vox wrote when outlining this trend. “The gay population is becoming less concentrated as its legal, political, and social reality is increasingly accepted.”
In the real estate realm, inclusive state and city housing policies, coupled with the equality-focused practices of real estate agents, have helped contribute to this trend, despite the fact that there is actually no federal law in place protecting LGBT+ individuals from housing discrimination (the Fair Housing Act doesn’t identify LGBT+ individuals as a protected class). Notably, the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) notes that its organization has taken a strong stance against anti-LGBT+ discrimination. NAR indicates on its website that Article 10 of its Code of Ethics “prohibits REALTORS® from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” NAR has also repeatedly engaged in political advocacy to “extend Fair Housing Act protections to the LGBT community.” While these protections have not yet been inserted into federal law, LGBT+ homeownership is on the rise, though it still lags significantly behind the national homeownership average, according to a National Association of Gay and Lesbian Real Estate Professionals (NAGLREP) 2019-20 LGBT Real Estate Report.
Economic and Inclusivity Challenges
While anti-discriminatory real estate practices and a broader general cultural inclusivity are positive factors that contribute to a decline in LGBT+ residency in gay villages like Boystown, there are also negative factors at play as well. As the Journal of Alta California described, homeownership and rental payments are financially untenable for many Americans in gay neighborhoods across the U.S., including Boystown, West Village in New York City, and Castro in San Francisco, which have some of the highest costs of living in the United States. While many LGBT+ individuals certainly still reside in these communities, many others cannot afford to do so. Indeed, “70 percent of LGBTQ renters” say that not having enough money for a down payment constitutes the biggest reason that they haven’t yet purchased a home, NAGLREP reported. These affordability issues speak to a larger housing affordability crisis in the United States – something which NAR and other real estate industry organizations have recognized and are actively trying to address.
Beyond affordability issues, gay neighborhoods have also faced inclusivity issues of their own. As WBEZ described, many of the country’s most well-known and largest gay villages are often perceived as appealing primarily to gay, white men – something that can cause LGBT+ individuals outside of this category, especially individuals of other races and women, to feel like their interests are not represented or prioritized in these neighborhoods. Because gay villages are often perceived as only catering to certain segments of the LGBT+ community, there’s a reluctance by some LGBT+ individuals to take up residence in them.
“ … If the neighborhood is going to continue as a viable and inclusive queer communal space, it will have to adapt,” Andie Meadows, a writer, photographer, and queer femme researcher who leads tours of Boystown, said to WBEZ. Meadows added that she is “often stuck between understanding where the previous generations who built Boystown are coming from, and also being terribly upset that they are not continuing to move forward towards inclusivity — to where it would actually become an LGBTQIA space.”
Overall, the history of Chicago’s Boystown is both rich and nuanced and it, like many gay neighborhoods across the country, will always be a substantial part of the legacy of its city. What the future holds for Boystown will depend on many political, socioeconomic, and cultural factors that will shape the evolution and identity of the neighborhood, in ways both expected and unforeseen.