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Adventures in Boystown

May 28th, 2008

Halstead Avenue, just south of Wrigley Field, is the heart of what is known as Boystown, one of Chicago’s openly gay neighborhoods. Rainbow flags, rainbow art deco pillars and lots of leather, Boystown makes Dupont Circle look like rural Texas. I was in Chicago for a wedding over Memorial Day weekend, staying with my friend Andrea who lives just off of the Boystown strip.

Andrea and I skated along Lakeshore, all the way down to the Field Museum (for those unfamiliar with the Windy City, that’s a gorgeous path running north/south between the city and Lake Michigan). We met one of her friends for hot dogs and $3 mimosas. On our way back to her apartment, I offered to carry the backpack with our shoes and water. She’d been lugging the thing around all morning so it was only fair. She flat-out refused. It wouldn’t bother me to carry a knit, girly bag, but as she said, “not in this neighborhood.”

Andrea’s boyfriend is from Charlottesville. She doesn’t have television. When he comes to visit, he goes by himself to a neighborhood bar to watch sports. It sounds like the set up for a bad joke — naïve southern gentleman walks into a gay bar. He wound up giving out his phone number, not wanting to offend the guy.

Other people aren’t so accepting. The rainbows, the whole “We’re Here, We’re Queer” vibe of the strip, encroach-ing oh-so-close to the post-frat Wrigley Field bars really bothered them. Not to mention Wrigley Field, one of Chi-cago’s monuments to sports, masculinity, beer, hotdogs and all things heterosexual — within walking distance of bathhouses!

Yawn. I’ll take “Gay Mart,” specializing in old action figures (still in the box, thank you very much) and superhero kitsch over a nine-inning snoozefest.

Andrea filled me in on a little of the neighborhood’s history. She said when the residents were first trying to estab-lish a gay-friendly neighborhood there was a lot of violence. In other words, not so long ago it was pretty dangerous to be openly gay, even in a progressive city like Chicago.

Sure, it can be uncomfortable to be hit on (regardless of your preference), which is probably why a lot of people avoid the neighborhood today (not to mention the subconscious fear that they might actually like it). Me, I’d rather be a straight man in Boystown today than a gay man when the neighborhood was first being established. In other words, I’d rather get hit on than get hit. 

A couple days later, to kill an hour while Andrea did some work, I read the novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” sitting on her bookshelf. (I hadn’t realized it was a book, let alone by Truman Capote). Later, we rented the movie version starring Audrey Hepburn.

Like most old movies, it was slow, melodramatic and everyone seemed to call each other “darling.” Mickey Rooney played the landlord, a horribly offensive Asian stereotype complete with buckteeth and crossed, slanted eyes. Nearly 50 years later things are clearly better, if not great for Asians in Hollywood. (C’mon… after John Cho, how many non-martial arts Asian leading men can you name?)

But I was more interested in George Peppard’s character.

In the novella, I’d taken the narrator, whom Holly Golightly (Hepburn) calls Fred, to be a stand-in for Capote. There was no romantic tension, I got the feeling the narrator had the same sexual preference as Capote. In the movie, the characters flirt, fight and fall in love. Cultural norms, economics, sense of narrative or whatever, any hint of homo-sexuality was taken out of the movie. 

Things haven’t changed much in nearly 50 years of pop-culture. Some exceptions: “Philadelphia,” with its level-one message of tolerance. “Brokeback Mountain,” which mixed a manly cowboy narrative with a homosexual ro-mance. Dumbledore, whose sexuality is inconsequential to Harry Potter’s story. Word on the upcoming “Mysteries of Pittsburgh” is the gay subplot has been considerably scaled back from Michael Chabon’s novel. 

It’s all about acceptance, duh, and our popular culture is a pretty good reflection of our national values. So let’s have more complex characters like Dumbledore, less limp-wristed High School Musical stereotypes, less writing around gayness as a way to placate the masses. As anyone in Boystown could tell you.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072

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