Guest post by Kristi.
Let’s just get this out of the way: my college experience consisted of three different colleges in three different regions of America with several gaps in between. I was basically the poster child for the idea that not everyone should go to college immediately after high school.
One of those three stints happened to be located in Chicago, Illinois; a hot, humid mess of cultures/culture shock that gave me some of the best and worst experiences of my life. Having grown up near a mid-sized city in the San Joaquin Valley of California–think “almond orchards and farmers everywhere, dotted with the occasional Confederate Flag waving off an old flatbed”–I knew nothing about living in an actual city, much less one as complex as Chicago. In some parts of the city, entire streets “belonged” to a culture: Division Street was Polish; Devon Avenue phased between Russian Jewish and Indian in an utterly fascinating way. Despite the prevalence of cultural diversity in the Chicago landscape, however, racial segregation is recognized as being alive and well.
Those of you who read “almond orchards and farmers everywhere” and thought “conservative” are right, which is why living in Chicago was also very much my first immersion in queer culture. Of course, when I was in high school I had a few gay friends (almost exclusively cisgender men), but none was out like the boys of Chicago’s East Lakeview neighborhood–affectionately nicknamed “Boystown.”
There are a lot of ways Boystown reflects the negative aspects of Chicago, and chief among those is that it’s mostly white, cisgender, gay men that flock to its bars, costume shops, and frequent drag shows. The culture is celebratory in a way I had only imagined: markers in the neighborhood were painted down the sides with rainbow stripes; the bars were loud and the fliers for their events were uniformly sexual in nature; the window displays of the boutiques featured male mannequins in tight, colorful briefs. Walking into Boystown after spending time in virtually any other neighborhood was simultaneously a breath of fresh air and a kind of overstimulated drowning. It’s the essence of stereotypical gayness.
But stereotypes were all I’d seen of the queer community, so I felt as enthralled as I did alienated. In some way, these were my people, even though I have a uterus, and even though, at the time, I identified as both cis and straight. Being eighteen and experiencing such unabashed queerness was important for my own coming out a few years later, of course, but at the time I remember feeling a sense of yearning. Whether that was informed by my preconceptions about what a community of gay men would look like or my constant feeling of not quite fitting in as a straight woman, I’m not sure. I looked at the throngs of attractive young white men holding hands and flirting with each other over drinks, and I felt so close to–and so excluded from–something amazingly vital.
Going from zero to a thousand (in terms of exposure to LGBT people) gave me plenty to think about as I became an adult. It took me years to fully process the complicated feelings of not-quite-belonging I’d had in what, to me, should have been the quintessential non-straight community. Intersectional studies later on endowed me with the tools to dig into that: it was extraordinarily white (not that I’m not, but I’m not particularly interested in examining queerness from a white POV); it was all male; it was all cisgender; it was all monosexual; it was all young. People on the spectrum, as a whole, are significantly different than the young gay white men of Boystown; it gave me a framework of queerness to eventually reject.
Deconstructing that framework showed me type of queer I’m not. Boystown is sort of, in my mind at least, a good model of socially-acceptable queerness in America (again: white, monosexual, young, conventionally attractive). I’m the type of person who believes that queer assimilation–the adoption of nuclear families and monosexuality as the model for acceptable queerness–is flawed. So while Boystown is a celebration of hookup culture in many ways (not inherently harmful), it did also perpetuate some of the more politically-convenient-but-ultimately-damaging beliefs about queer life: we’re a little boisterous, but we’re nice, happy people whom you can trust to eventually settle down and make conventional families. This excludes queer people who don’t fit into the established culture of monogamy, among others, and the fact that Boystown is a celebration of gayness in a middle-class neighborhood bursting with trendy businesses is telling. Boystown is not looking to subvert anything.
That’s a criticism, since I’m the kind of radical bitch who believes in queering societal notions of acceptable relationships between consenting adults. However, I was not that person when I was eighteen; I didn’t know much about queer feminist theory. I didn’t accept that I was queer at all. Thinking back to stepping into Boystown at eighteen feels like remembering a different life: I’ve come so far, and learned so much about queer bodies, queer identities, queer spaces. Seeing Boystown in all of its flamboyant, capitalist glory created a structure for queer experience that an older, more-informed me was able to reject.
Boystown is a fun neighborhood, but–despite appearances–it doesn’t really say much about queer people. My queer body is objectively different from the muscular, oiled men gracing the event fliers in Boystown, just as it is different from the cisgender gay men who so often steer public perceptions of queerness in the west. My queer self, along with the spaces I grace with it, is so much less straightforward than a rainbow-motif streetlamp. But that’s what queerness is in practice: tangled, introspective, and deeply individual. It isn’t something you can package in a neighborhood.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.