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Chicago's Boystown Drops Moniker, Embraces Greater Inclusiveness

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday October 3, 2020

Northalsted, the historically gay neighborhood of Chicago, will retire the use of "Boystown" in marketing in order to be more inclusive and welcoming, according to the Northalsted Business Alliance.

The change comes despite survey results, which indicated that 58% of those polled were in favor of keeping the Boystown name, and 80% said they did not feel unwelcome by the moniker.

There have been concerns that the historic Boystown, a name by which the neighborhood is most commonly and casually referred, was exclusionary, despite being home to an array of LGBTQ-owned businesses and "communities of all stripes." Whatever the neighborhood might be called or referred to, as the Northalsted Business Alliance states, "the cultural significance of this district to the LGBTQ+ community will not be erased as long as our past is not forgotten."

The city of Chicago officially recognized Northalsted as its official gay neighborhood in 1997, as The Daily Beast recounts of Boystown history. The neighborhood essentially grew because, from the 1960s, LGBTQ Chicagoans were pushed out of other neighborhoods and ended up in the Northalsted area.

Northalsted's history is rooted in activism — a response to harassment and discrimination by police, politicians and city government — holding its first Pride parade in 1970, with health and community centers springing up in short order. It was in the 1980s that the boundaries of the Boystown neighborhood became more established, WBEZ reports. Within those boundaries, a local gay culture began to flourish in the form of bars, nightclubs, cafes, restaurants and bath houses. As a result, North Halsted Street — where many LGBTQ businesses took root — became a popular stretch.

Over the last few decades, gentrification and assimilation has, in part, signaled that Boystown is no longer populated exclusively by LGBTQ people. But like other historically gay neighborhoods in the U.S. — Capital Hill in Seattle, the Castro District in San Francisco, and the West Village in New York City, among others — many LGBTQ people simply cannot afford to buy property, or even rent, in Boystown. Furthermore, because these neighborhoods are perceived to only cater to specific portions of the LGBTQ community — gay, white, cis men in particular — historically gay villages like Boystown are contending with issues of inclusivity.

The announcement of the Northalsted Business Alliance to retire the Boystown name acknowledges changes within the landscape of the LGBTQ community. The neighborhood will use the name Northalsted instead, with th eBusiness Alliance stating, "while a personal identifier cannot encompass the full diversity of our town, the name Northalsted, signifies the place, its entire community and history, inclusively."

Northalsted is home to The Legacy Project, a series of rainbow pylons and memorials that celebrate LGBTQ history. It was named an official Chicago landmark in 2019. The Legacy's next induction will include Freddie Mercury and Sylvester, and will take place on October 11, 2020.

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.