Black drag performers in Chicago’s principal queer enclave say they need more support in the predominantly white neighborhood years after an uproar about anti-Black racism in the community.
And three of the city’s most recognizable Black drag performers—Chanel Mercedes Benz, Bambi Banks-Couleé and Lúc Ami—say that to find audiences who are receptive to their talent, culture and identities, they’ve had to look outside of the North Side queer enclave to other neighbourhoods.
In the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Black performers and patrons alike spoke publicly and candidly about overtly racist treatment they experienced in the North Side neighbourhood known either as Northalsted or Boystown, which holds the mantle as the city’s principal strip of queer-serving bars and clubs.
“The staffing and casting at a lot of venues has gotten better, but the atmosphere and clientele isn’t adjusting at the same rate, and as a result, some bars still feel just as uncomfortable for me to be in now as they did pre-2020,” Chicago drag king Lúc Ami tells Xtra.
And 2020 was a particularly significant year for the neighbourhood, namely in that Black performers and activists set their sights on the community after the murder of Floyd and a pattern of anti-Black racism. But that history goes back decades.
Black lesbian activist Pat McCombs spoke to the Chicago Reader about the discrimination she experienced in the 1970s in the neighbourhood, such as Black people oftentimes needing multiple forms of ID to get into bars and clubs, which echoed patrons’ recent complaints in Northalsted that they faced heavy scrutiny from bar staff in the neighbourhood.
Before 2020, the most recent large-scale discussion about racism in the neighbourhood came in 2011, and a movement known as “Take Back Boystown,’” led by mostly white, cis gay men in the queer neighborhood. The movement purported to be about safety in response to a pair of high-profile stabbings in the neighbourhood, but online and in community meetings about the issue, mostly white cis gay men blamed LGBTQ2S+ youth of colour for the violence.
One neighbourhood club, Progress Bar, made headlines in 2019 when its owner said the bar would no longer play rap music—a policy that was rescinded after backlash. And days later, neighbourhood costume shop Beatnix faced calls for boycotts after a Black customer at the store complained about a Confederate flag vest for sale, to which its owner responded by calling the police.
At the first Drag March for Change in 2020, a Black- and trans-led protest march in Boystown, performers specifically called out the racist treatment of Black drag performers in the city from white showrunners and bar owners, accusing them of tokenizing performers of colour while also making their spaces hostile to people of colour as customers.
But it wasn’t just bar or business owners whose racist history was brought to light.
Drag performer Jo MaMa made waves during her remarks at the Drag March for Change when she took aim at T Rex, a white drag performer who up until that point had held a top spot among the city’s drag pantheon.
Following MaMa’s remarks, numerous performers—including Shea Couleé, who appeared on Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race and won Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars—spoke up about Rex’s racist and discriminatory treatment. They largely accused T Rex of holding queens of colour to a higher standard than others and of dubiously blacklisting others.
And after the overwhelming response to the Drag March for Change, and the immediate ouster of T Rex, Black performers agree there’s certainly more of a place for them on the Northalsted strip these days, though as always there’s still work to be done.
“I think a lot of people assume the work is done just by putting people into visible positions at the bar, but don’t consider the environments that they foster,” Lúc Ami says. “If performers feel like they can be harrassed by audience members with little assistance from management and security at a bar, if bar staff and hosts feel like they have to pull teeth to advocate for their needs, if the bar isn’t actively advertising to more diverse communities, then these spaces still aren’t a safe space.”
The reckoning in Chicago isn’t unique to the city, however. Major queer hubs across the U.S. have for years faced allegations of racism that only became more salient after Floyd’s murder and renewed attention to the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness even in queer spaces.
Now, many performers agree that there’s more of an expectation that show lineups include more performers of colour. But they also agreed that mostly white audiences, coupled with a dearth of events specifically catering to people of colour, can still contribute to a negative environment for BIPOC performers.
“I think Boystown has done their best to make strides, but it’s like a bigger issue also of—if we think about the fact that like Chicago is deeply segregated—it’s really even a bigger issue of there not being like a lot of Black queer people up north to get them to come out to the places,” says Chanel Mercedes Benz.
Part of the struggle in retaining a racially diverse audience is the lack of events specifically catering to them, Chanel Mercedes Benz and Bambi Banks-Couleé say. The pair separately point to Kinfolk, a bimonthly drag show spotlighting Black performers Berlin Nightclub, as an example of POC-centred parties that don’t get enough support.
“Right now, we only have one show in all of Boystown that specifically celebrates Blackness,” Bambi Banks-Couleé says. “Every other show that was like, specifically Black, has been cancelled.”
Bambi Banks-Couleé says her own party that brought in mostly people of colour was cancelled by bar management “out of nowhere” and that it’s a pattern she’s seen among her fellow performers as well.
And without events bringing in diverse audiences, the performers have found that monolithic, audiences of mostly white, cis gay men have often perpetuated some of the same racism that got nightlife leaders in hot water just three years ago. And just like before 2020’s reckoning, Black performers say they have sought out more affirming space outside Northalsted.
“Oftentimes my options outside of Boystown are much more appealing because as a performer and show host/producer, Boystown isn’t changing fast enough for me to feel comfortable working there all the time, and I know other performers, producers and patrons are also looking outside of Boystown as well because they are looking for other spaces to get treated the way they want to,” Lúc Ami says.