In a response to the racist performance that took place at the leather, fetish and bear-focused Touche Chicago's 45th anniversary celebration on Nov. 1, 2022, ONYX Midwest hosted a community forum Jan. 21 at The Leather Archives and Museum.
Touche Chicago hired Las Vegas-based puppeteer Jerry Halliday to perform at its anniversary celebration and, among the puppets he brought was the character SistaGirl, who is Black. During the performance some customers became visibly upset and offended by Halliday's caricature of a Black woman and left the event, with one bartender also quitting that evening.
Following the event, the bar's management apologized in a written statement and Halliday stated he would no longer include SistaGirl in his act.
A Nov. 9 gathering to discuss the issue was scheduled by Touche management, but was canceled after Touche's manager, David Boyer, fell ill. As of this publication, Touche has not indicated that a future gathering date will take place. Onyx Midwest decided to step in and provide the community with a space to discuss this and other issues.
Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus Interim Executive Director Dr. Keith Green moderated the Jan. 21 discussion with attendees. ONYX Midwest Vice President Legendary ONYX provided some ground rules, including being respectful of one another and the space and being mindful of word choices when speaking. ONYX Midwest President Subzero ONYX said he was glad this forum was taking place so the community could find ways to move forward.
Green, who is not an ONYX member, said he considers himself "ONYX adjacent," and added, "The heart of this discussion is really a conversation about safe space. What does it mean it mean to have a safe space?"
One person said that meant being able to go to a bar and not having to hide certain parts of himself while feeling fully protected by the community. Another person focused on knowing that people in a space, especially those in positions of authority, care, and that if they make mistakes they learn from them, so as to do better going forward.
In terms of safe spaces specifically, the audience generally agreed that, for many in Chicago, Touche had been theirs.
Green asked when Touche started to feel unsafe to them. The answers varied, including a Pet Patrol member who said it was after 9/11 because people would ask "what was this Muslim doing here." Miguel Torres said he had heard from trans and non-binary people who told him Touche has never felt safe for them.
Turning to the November incident, Green asked how audience members have felt since that time. He also asked if anyone from Touche was in the audience. A handful of people raised their hands. Green thanked them for being at the discussion.
Legionnaire ONYX said that there had been a lack of true accountability, including a dialogue between the parties "so there can be learning" and the opportunity to move forward. He pointed to the fact that this incident happened two months ago, and this dialogue should have happened sooner.
Fox ONYX spoke about the COVID-19 safety measures that Touche had, which made the bar a safe space for him. That the feeling was taken away after last November's incident. He echoed Legionnaire's sentiment that it had to be addressed immediately.
Rubber Willy talked about how much the community is evolving and said Touche's management needs to do so as well. He was angry and hurt when he read about the incident.
Chicago Department of Public Health LGBTQ Health Outreach Liaison Antonio King added that respect for one another is key community members' wellbeing, as is the ability to be one's authentic self. He spoke about the history of racial discrimination on the north side of Chicago within the LGBTQ community that persists to this day. In terms of what happened at Touche, he said what should have happened was apologizing immediately, without any caveats and doing better going forward.
Green turned the discussion to audience members who were at Touche that night and asked them to speak about that experience.
John Moore said "it was worse in person" and that, after the incident, he started reflecting on his past and recalled some things he now considers "cringe moments."
Jaeger ONYX said he was three feet away from Halliday and was "mortified," and that the incident "was beyond appalling." He said that the puppet "looked like blackface, jingoism and minstrel all wrapped up in one puppet." He walked out of the event, emailed Boyer right away to express his displeasure, and contacted Halliday to call him out on his racism.
Torres said the night was fun at the beginning, but when Halliday began his performance, his mood shifted to shock at what he witnessed, causing him to immediately leave the event.
Chris Beaux, the Touche bartender who quit that night, said, "I felt very betrayed by the management" and community members going along with the performance. He added that he felt "physically sick and embarrassed," which prompted his resignation that night.
The event shifted to a one-on-one talk between Boyer and Subzero after Boyer got up and expressed remorse half-way through the discussion. Boyer said he came "to listen and learn" in order to do better going forward.
Subzero said that the important thing is to "work towards change," and that the fact that Touche has not done anything to make this happen troubles him.
Green asked where Touche stands, and Boyer said that, immediately after the incident ,he met with Touche staff to get their input, and was unsure of how to react to ONYX's statement that included his termination. He said the call for his firing closed the door on any dialogue between him and ONYX at the time, but he is open to a dialogue now.
"I can understand [your] point of view," said Subzero in reference to Boyer's comment. "We are one hundred percent open to having a conversation."
Subzero added that he can understand that Boyer might not know where to start, but the silence in response to the list of ONYX's demands since then is the problem.
Boyer spoke about not knowing how to put a forum together with people he relied on in the past who were now calling for his termination. He said that now he feels like a door has been opened.
Demos ONYX called out what he called Boyer's arrogance and unwillingness to educate himself on the issues and what the community really wants from him and the rest of Touche's management.
Green asked if there are "productive, constructive points or takeaways that [ONYX wants] to be a part of the conversation."
Some of the suggestions from ONYX included efforts to make it possible to "surround yourself with diverse people" at Touche, meetings with ONYX and trans and nonbinary people and monetary donations to BIPOC-focused LGBTQ organizations. Other suggestions included responding to emails in a prompt fashion, more diversity in Touche's advertising of future events, an accountability structure for Touche's management when it comes to how trans and nonbinary people are treated at the bar, and that Boyer "sits in this discomfort."
One audience member specifically pointed out that Boyer's apology when he first spoke in the meeting came with excuses and that was not okay. This prompted Boyer to say "I am sorry" without any caveats to close out the discussion.
Prior to this discussion, ONYX Midwest posted a statement on its website stating, "We condemn the following: racism; misogyny, sexism; reinforcing old, demoralizing, discriminatory, dehumanizing and unspeakably damaging stereotypes; lack of response from the bar management not to recognize, comprehend, take responsibility and act to intervene and stop this hurtful performance. The damage caused is beyond measure as a result of the lack of response. The complicity of the bar patrons in causing this damage when they sided with the performer when asked of the 'heckler' should leave the bar."
The Onyx Midwest website post also stated that the organization would "remove our Colors from Touche, cease holding our monthly bar nights at Touche beginning in Nov. 2022 and suspend David Boyer's honorary membership from ONYX Midwest until after a timeframe to be decided by ONYX Midwest, as well as completed educational activities."
See onyxmidwest.com/ .
See windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Touche-Chicagos-45th-anniversary-celebration-marred-by-racist-performance/74305.html .