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  WINDY CITY TIMES

A look at Northalsted/Boystown bars since 2020 town hall on racism
Video below
by Cris Villalonga-Vivoni
2021-12-30

This article shared 1549 times since Thu Dec 30, 2021
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Zola Chatman began her drag career in 2018 at a drag brunch at Kitchen 17, a local vegan restaurant.

Chatman, a Black trans woman from Chicago, entered the drag world thinking she was joining a supportive community. Instead, she said she found colorism, anti-Blackness and transphobia.

She said she constantly felt unsupported and unwanted. Even if Chatman found a place where she felt welcome, she said she was still in "a space that is created by another person. It all seems kind of performative in different ways."

Chatman quit drag four months later after two white drag producers/performers spread a rumor about her.

Chatman used an actual cake during a performance to Rihanna's "Birthday Cake." Although Chatman said she told the venue manager about the cake, other employees didn't know about the cake until the performance, so clean-up was quickly improvised.

As a result, a fellow performer had slipped and hurt their ankle. The other drag queens rushed to blame Chatman.

"A lot of blame was placed on me and people didn't believe what I was saying," Chatman said. "[People] were more interested in [the fellow performer's] story and not even giving a chance to see it in context of everything."

She said was quickly blackballed, and lost her livelihood and potential to succeed as a freelance performer.

Chatman shared her story at the virtual Chicago Drag Black Council Town Hall streamed in June 2020. Hers was just one of many stories told that night. Several other well-known Black performers came forward and shared the different ways they had experienced racism while working at Northalsted/Boystown bars. The queens described the ways they felt they were prevented from succeeding in the drag world by the bar management and other white drag queens.

At the town hall, white drag queens were confronted regarding several racist incidents, including the one involving Chatman, and restorative justice.

"I think the large extension of the stories that we're being told kind of puts into perspective how continuously toxic the scene had been," Chatman said.

The representatives from the Northalsted/Boystown bars and nightclubs—Berlin, Hydrate, Roscoe's Tavern and Sidetrack—promised to increase the number of Black staff/performers, create safe spaces for them and establish racism-incident plans.

Windy City Times followed up with the bars a year and a half later to see if they stayed faithful to their promises.

Ren McConville (they/them) is an avid fan of the Chicago drag scene and was in the virtual audience at the town hall. They were shocked while listening to the performer's stories and the amount of anti-Blackness in the Chicago drag scene.

"If you look at the drag community here, it's like [Black drag queens] are the people who are the front-runners and those are the people who hold, in my opinion, a lot of the really rich talent that we have [in Chicago]," McConville said.

In 2021, McConville was hired by Berlin to be the venue/general manager. They wanted to use their new position to be an ally and resource for the Black staff, showrunners, performers and patrons.

McConville said they strive to make a connection with every performer and staff member that walks in the club's door. They hope that this personal relationship builds trust and rapport so that their staff and guests feel comfortable turning to McConville as a resource, confidant and friend.

"It's super-important to make sure that the queens feel comfortable and feel excited to be in that space and feel like [Berlin's staff] are excited to have them in that space," they said. "We want to be able to book talent that represents the community's needs."

According to McConville, it is now mandatory at Berlin that every show has a demographic of 50% POC as well as 25% transgender or gender non-conforming performers. Friday performances are now on a bimonthly rotational schedule. This rotation creates new performance slots so that POC showrunners and performers can debut new acts on nights with more patrons. If the show is successful, the club will introduce it into their general schedule.

Also, Lucy Stoole or Tenderoni, two local well-known POC drag performers, take turns hosting Berlin's Saturday shows.

"[Lucy Stoole and Tenderoni] are individuals that we recognized who advocate for what is needed and advocate for a show that looks like the audience—that is reflected in it," McConville said.

Regarding safety, McConville said that Berlin has an incident plan to address racist and transphobic behavior from the patrons. After escorting the patron out, either the staff or security, who have all gone through de-escalation training, will have a conversation with the patron to understand why whatever they did was wrong.

Although a lot of work has been done, McConville recognizes that there is still much to do and learn. As a result, they often turn to the town hall video to learn more about supporting and protecting Black staff, showrunners, and performers. They hope to one day host a roundtable discussion, like the town hall, to make sure that Berlin is a safe space for all and its staff reflects the community.

Meanwhile, Sidetrack's' manager of 20 years, Brad Balof, said that "the work has been done" in creating safe spaces for their Black staff.

Unlike Berlin, who invites outside performers, Sidetrack's showrunners are in-house, and Balof says most are people of color. Rarely does the club invite "outside" showrunners to produce programs.

"We've been continuing to do what we have done in the past, which is try to cultivate a staff that's reflective of the community," Balof said.

Sidetrack said it is dedicated to promoting their staff's work and performances on social media. Regarding safety, Balof explained that the club now has forms available for all staff to report racist and transphobic incidents. The person then submits the form to management.

"I think that the most important thing that any business establishment can do is to listen to their POC employees, no matter what role they fill at their business, whether that's performer, bartender, barback, manager, or door staff," Balof said.

Roscoe's Tavern and Hydrate didn't respond to Windy City Times' interview requests.

However, the Human Rights Campaign and Showtime recently announced that Roscoe's is one of 20 bars that will be receiving a grant as part of the "Queer to Stay: an LGBTQ+ Business Preservation Initiative." It is a collaborative campaign to support and uplift small businesses that focuses on LGBTQ+ people of color, women and the trans community impacted by COVID-19.

Chatman has since rejoined the Chicago club scene as a DJ. Although she has seen some changes and appreciates them, Chatman says that accountability is not a one-and-done situation.

"It's a lifelong practice of acknowledgment of privilege," she said. "If you're going to invest, make sure that it's going to happen. You have to actively do so."

To watch the town hall, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qut3dygzesY&t=7139s.





This article shared 1549 times since Thu Dec 30, 2021
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