On Nov. 1, the leather, fetish and bear-focused Touche Chicago celebrated its 45th anniversary with a feature performance by Las Vegas-based puppeteer Jerry Halliday and some of his puppets, including the character SistaGirl, who is Black.
Halliday's performance rattled several customers who were offended by the caricature of a Black woman; one of the bartenders even quit. The bar's management has apologized and called for a gathering Nov. 9 to discuss its accountability.
Touche Chicago has sponsored the Mr. Chicago Leather and Mr. Midwest Rubber competitions for many years. The bar has done numerous fundraising events, sponsored Monkeypox vaccination clinics and is a longtime supporter of the Groceryland Pantry that provides groceries to people living with AIDS. But some customers say that the management has no excuse for presenting its audience with racist caricatures.
"I attended the special reception for invited guests from 6 to 8 p.m. before the public reception at Touche to celebrate the 45th anniversary," said Leather Archives & Museum Executive Director Gary Wasdin in a statement to this publication. "There was great food and drink, and it was nice to catch up with some friends I had not seen in a while. Bar manager David Boyer made a few welcoming remarks and spoke a little about the history of the bar and his time there. He also referenced some of the historic photos that were hanging around the space."
Wasdin continued, "As the public reception was about to begin, David introduced the entertainment for the evening, puppeteer Jerry Halliday. Jerry was standing just off the stage waiting to go on. He was a white man with a racist and stereotypical puppet representation of a Black woman. Just the sight alone of this was offensive, so my partner and I left the bar before the performance even started.
"This situation is troubling on so many levels. We have only a few leather bars left in our community, and hateful actions like this make our BIPOC friends and family members feel unwelcome and unsafe. We have to hold people and businesses accountable for their behaviors and take action to make sure it doesn't happen again."
In a statement to this piublication, Miguel Torres, who is Mr. Chicago Leather 2014, said, "At Touche's 45th anniversary party, the bar hired a puppeteer entertainer that immediately brought up a 'sassy black woman' puppet and he started spewing racists and sexist stereotypes that made many people immediately uncomfortable. I am extremely sad, angry and disappointed with Touche Chicago for allowing this blatant racism and misogyny to happen in a bar that is supposed to be our safe space. Me and many others have been guiding management for years in the background on how to make the bar feel more welcoming, how to ensure the events, including the Mr. Chicago Leather Weekend events to be as welcoming and safe as possible for all.
"How could they, after all the work an energy so many people in marginalized communities have done for them for free, poured their heart and soul into this bar to make it a safe space, for the bar to come back and undo all this work in one night. I am heartbroken, angry and so disappointed, and I demand more than just an apology, but swift actions."
Chris Beaux, the bartender who quit, said in a statement that he "decided that I could no longer work in or support an establishment that would promote in any way or form anti-Blackness, transphobia, minimizing the experiences of the Latine community or the impact of assault or rape on the survivors so that is why I quit during the anniversary event. As an ally to these communities, I did not want to earn money from an establishment that would hire someone like Jerry Halliday to perform."
Touche Owner Chuck Rodocker apologized in a statement for not vetting Halliday's act ahead of time.
"In celebration of our anniversary, we brought Jerry Halliday back as the featured entertainer since he has performed at our previous events over the years. Regrettably, his act has not changed with the times, and I personally apologize for not vetting his material before his booking. It is the bar's policy to welcome everyone and make them feel comfortable and that did not happen that evening. I will be making sure this never happens again, including a new staff and management awareness initiative."
In an email statement to Touche Chicago's customer base that will be posted on social media Touche Chicago Manager David Boyer said, "To all that were offended by the puppeteer at our 45th Anniversary Party last night, we sincerely and most humbly apologize. We always try to present fun and interesting events, however, apparently some of the material was well past the boundaries of good taste and current standards. We sincerely and most humbly apologize that this entertainment choice to mark our anniversary offended so many. It was not our intent to create an unwelcoming environment for anyone at Touche.
"Please accept our most serious regrets for the error in programming. We have and will continue to work hard to make this space more welcoming to all people regardless of their racial, ethnic, sexual or gender identities.
"Your feedback is noted and appreciated if we are to make that a reality here. We could not have remained in business here for the past 45 years if that were not a core purpose of our business. We would like to bring community members together for a meeting where they may express their concerns. The Leather Archives & Museum has graciously offered their space for such a gathering. Not wanting to conflict with this weekend's MIR26 events, we are calling for this community gathering for next Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 7:00 p.m. We hope that you will allow us the opportunity to prove our resolve in going forward and not permit this one night to overshadow the service to our community Touche has provided these many years and hopefully into the future.
"On a personal note, I am traumatized by injury to those I have considered friends for many years. My own feelings have been overwhelmed and kind of left me unsure how to respond to this situation. Which is why it may seem I have been slow to respond. After a sleepless night, I am trying to clear my head and reach out to all that have expressed their feelings. It has taken some time to line up this planned gathering. If you know me, you know where my heart isthis community and all the peoples that make it such a wonderful place to be. To have damaged that relationship weighs heavy on me."