Zach Stafford has a love-hate relationship with Boystown, the predominantly gay section of Lakeview anchored by various bars.
"I moved [to Chicago] thinking [Boystown] was this magical land of love and community and so much more," said Stafford, now 23. "In every way, I over-romanticized it. Sure, it is a place that is filled with love and community, but it is so much more than that. It's a place that hurts; it's a place that is extremely problematic; it's a place where I find myself looking forward to being, and then the next day waking up and hating that I was there."
Boystown, said Stafford, is "pretty complicated."
"But, through all of my feelings, and these feelings change a lot in regards to Boystown, I do at the end of the day respect it, and I am thankful that it led me to Chicago because I truly think I found home here, and that would have never happened without Boystown."
Stafford, who lives in the Edgewater neighborhood, is a writer and behavioral research associate at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital. He was born in Nashville, Tenn., and moved to Chicago in 2008 to attend DePaul University.
"I come from a school of thought that really believes in visibility, while understanding that being visible is just one step in a long walk," Stafford said. "My whole life, I have been harassed for being not 'Black enough,' or being 'too gay,' or numerous other things that are connected to my identity. Where I am from, if you are 'other,' then you should just lay low and try not to make too much noise. I think that is [wrong.] So, I have worked very hard to be loud, to keep my head high, and to not only be visible but create work that seeks to challenge all of those people [who] always told me I wasn't good enough or told me to shut up.
"I hear so many stories of boys that look like me, who were told similar things, and have been hurt or died because of it, and my heart breaks more and more each time these stories come up. But it pushes me to work harder because I realize, again, that there is still so much work to do, and I want to be a part of getting it done. For me, writing has been one way that I can do that."
His latest writing venture certainly is boy-focused. Stafford and fellow Chicago resident Nico Lang are the editors of BOYS, a new anthology that the two curated and edited. The book is a compilation of 19 original essays from emerging and well-known gay, queer and bisexual men from around the world, talking about a broad range of topics, all told in the first person.
Contributors include trans icon and adult entertainer Buck Angel, 1Girl5Gays personality JP Bevilacqua, Noah Michelson of The Huffington Post and others.
The 200-page book is being sold online as an eBook ( Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobel, iTunes ), and in late October will be available at Barnes & Noble stores and local bookstores worldwide.
"My co-editor and I love working with new writers, helping get their work out there," Stafford said. "So, over the years we have met some pretty amazing people while writing online and for different outlets. One day we were talking about how awesome it would be to have an anthology out there that showcased not only people from an amazingly diverse background [who] still fell under the LGBT umbrella, but also a diverse set of stories. I joked at the time that we should just take a note from Lena Dunham and call it 'BOYS,' find the writers, and, well, the rest is now a book."
Their BOYS project spanned four months, which certainly was a "grueling" stretch, Stafford said.
"I literally worked on it every day, spoke to at least one writer once a day, and even carried around each version of the manuscript in a pink binder I took almost everywhere," Stafford said. "For me, it literally consumed most of my time for a good part of 2013. We were working on a really tight deadline [to be published in the] fall [of] 2013, so we really had to hustle, which was really difficult [since] both Nico and I have many other things going on.
"BOYS was not done just because we had so much [free] time, but quite the opposite. [Still], we both felt like it was a book we really wanted to put out right now."
They originally aimed for 20 subjects to spotlight, but one person didn't make the deadline, so it dropped to 19. Neither Lang or Stafford objected to 19. In fact, they embraced the odd total.
"Nico and I spent weeks before announcing the book discussing who we had worked with in the past and would love to work with again, who are people we admire, and who are people we think would have an amazing story to tell," Stafford said. "During the initial meetings with writers to see if they were interested and what they would like to write, we were connected to other writers, too. People who were friends of friends who had agreed to be a part of the book. So, I guess it was all really like this intentional and organic process.
"I hope the book gets into the hands of a boy like me when I was younger, [living] down South, one who can't even imagine what a life would be like being openly gay, living in a place like Chicago or even in his hometown, and eventually becoming a boy who likes other boys so unapologetically. I hope he reads it and not only sees himself represented in the pieces, but meets other people who will eventually become his friends as he gets older. And then I hope he goes off and starts to write his own story, gather his own group of boys, and they create work that is similar.
"I hope the book allows others to not only find a community, but to be inspired to build their own."
Stafford said his highlight of the book was reading the essay called, "Confessions of a Snow Queen," about a Southeast Asian-American man who confesses to only dating white men, realizes the problems within that, and goes to India to "find himself."
"This essay really struck a chord with me," Stafford said. "It was amazing to read this story and sit back and be like, 'Damn. I have had these same thoughts. I have had such similar feelings. But at the same time I haven't."
"One of the first anthologies I remember reading that I still think about to this day is called, 'Waking Up American' by Angela Jane Fountas. I remember reading that and literally carrying it around with me for weeks and weeks, because I related so much to the stories. The anthology is about bi-cultural people living in America, and this essay gave me similar feelings and in turn always reminded me why I love anthologies so much."
Stafford said he definitely envisions the book as a continuing project, republished regularly with new essays from new writers. "I think this book can really become, and should become, a project about capturing the lives and personal stories of the boys within the LGBTQ communities around the globe, and told by the people who have experienced the stories written," he said. "I think that would be so powerful. I mean, for decades and decades our stories have been hushed, and when they've been told they have been by outsiders, historians, scientists, etc. I would love to be able to create a project that is guided by the communities that are being represented. It would actually be a blessing."
A portion of sales of BOYS will benefit the Lambda Literary Foundation, Stafford said. "They work so hard to preserve LGBTQ literature while also encouraging and supporting writers who identify as LGBTQ," he said. "I was so excited when they agreed to allow us to donate proceeds from the book to them."