By Geoff Dankert
In 1993, the man I’d been seeing for all of a month had a crazy, impulsive idea.
“I bought us plane tickets to Chicago for the day,” he said, wary of whether I would consider such a gesture too much for such a new relationship.
He should not have worried; I was thrilled. And so one Sunday in December, with barely two nickels to rub together between us, we flew to Chicago. It was a great day of window-shopping and sightseeing, and it culminated with a taxi ride to the corner of Halsted and Roscoe streets on the north side of town.
It’s the place I now know to be Boystown. But back then, for a guy who’d been out for barely a year, it was the future.
Even then, it was a place teeming with gay bars and gay-friendly shops. It’s the first place I ever saw two guys holding hands, and at the time, I couldn’t believe that no one was bothering them. What I didn’t realize at the time was that “the gays” had been in this neighborhood for years.
They have moved to what was once a rough neighborhood just so they could live near where they gathered (and drank) – places like Little Jim’s and Roscoe’s. Eventually, they moved because their friends were there, or because it was near the lake, or because they could get a house and fix it up for cheap. Now, of course, it’s one of the most desirable – and most expensive – neighborhoods in Chicago.
When I made my first visit there, I didn’t know the history. I didn’t know that someday, people in Chicago would refer to the neighborhood as “Boystown” with the same ease and lack of judgment that they describe neighborhoods like Bronzeville, Hyde Park and Printers’ Row. I didn’t know that some day, the mayor of Chicago would dedicate enormous rainbow-striped pylons up and down Halsted Street, or that the city’s Pride parade would draw almost a half-million people. All I knew was that this was a place where gay people could just … be.
As we walked down the street that day, we came across a clothing store called “We’re Everywhere.” Owned by gay people, it sold catchy T-shirts, wristbands and dog tags to the out and the nearly-out. I was so thrilled that such a place existed that I bought what for years was one of my favorite garments: a simple white T-shirt with red letters across the chest:
SE TU MISMO.
That night, over enchiladas at a Mexican restaurant a couple of blocks away, I felt more like myself – my true self – than I ever had.
Eventually, I wound up living in Chicago, barely a mile from Boystown. That restaurant is still there, and every time I walk or drive by it, I smile and remember that night and how it helped make me feel more comfortable about my life, and what my life could be.
Sadly, the T-shirt and the shop are gone. But the neighborhood and its people are still around, and every day, a few more young people move here and find a place where they can “be themselves.”
And by the way, the man whose impulsiveness and generosity made that trip happen? He’s still around, too.
Michigan native Geoff Dankert has lived in Chicago for ten years, and yet every morning, when he sees the skyline from the “L” train on his way to work, he still can hardly believe it. He and his partner live in a renovated turn-of-the-century home on Chicago’s north side.
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