Guest Blogger

Standing With Queer 'Riff Raff'

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 20, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Boystown, Chicago, class warfare, Erica Chu, LGBT, LGBT youth, Pride, racism, Stonewall

Chu.jpgEditors' Note: Erica Chu is a teacher and student at Loyola University Chicago, seeking a Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Women's Studies and Gender Studies. They manage the blog keepingitqueer.blogspot.com and can be reached at ericachu@msn.com.

Once upon a time, a bunch of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and otherwise queer people liked to hang out in certain parts of town. The world looked down on them - and the most resentful of their presence were the respectable neighbors who lived nearby. Now "lewd and lascivious acts" (including gay sex) were against the law, but that didn't stop people from frequenting cruising spots, gay clubs, and gay bars. Since they distrusted the police, they sometimes solved their disputes in less-than-healthy ways. They sometimes fought, often got drunk, took illegal drugs, had sex, and generally ran amuck in places where they made the neighbors feel uncomfortable, fearful, and even unsafe. In other places, they couldn't find people like themselves. In other places, they had to hide who they were. The young people simply had nowhere else to go. Their parents wouldn't tolerate them, and they found it easier to deal with the dangers of the street than be isolated, berated, or beaten.

If they formed community and gathered in other parts of town, they could have been killed (but even in this part, they were harassed and subject to intimidation and possible physical abuse). Perhaps they should have organized and taken their activities to some private venue - they did, when they could, but the rest of the time it took a lot of effort, a lot of money, and a lot of thoughtfulness for the very people in that neighborhood who wished they would just disappear. And besides, why hide? They hid enough among the homes they escaped from and among the people who took advantage of them just so they could have enough money to live. The night, at least, was theirs. The respectable people were off the street, and at last they could laugh, love, argue, dance, sing, meet and mingle, and generally be themselves.

Cleaning Up the Neighborhood?

Eventually the most respectable people moved on, but those in other neighborhoods and those still living there eventually elected government officials who hated the situation as much as they did. They kept calling the cops. They swirled around accusations, complained about how the parts of the city they loved had become bad after these people had come around. The respectable people kept covering their children's eyes and using their own eyes to stare with intense hatred, resentment, and fear. The cops came and did the neighbors' bidding. They harassed the queers, they entrapped them at cruising spots, they detained them, they verbally accosted them, they tried to get them to show how un-respectable they were. And when the cops were able, they hauled those queers to jail, charged them with whatever they could make stick (and even what wouldn't), and they reported back to the neighbors that they were doing their best to clean up the neighborhood.

The part of the story you've perhaps been expecting is that on a summer night (when all the crazies come out to play), the cops harassed one too many people, and the queers couldn't take it anymore. They broke the law, they committed violence, they set a building on fire, they looted, they screamed through the streets - in short, they released all the rage that had been building up over the years, and they went to the streets - not just at night but in the daytime, saying very loudly, "I will not hide," "I am not respectable, nor do I care to be," "We are not trash. We are people of worth, and you have shat on us long enough."

Joining Together for Tolerance

And so the Stonewall Riots involved a very dense network of neighborhoods, separate groups of people with their own interests and judgments, and individuals - many many individuals - who were each fighting for what they wanted and what they thought they needed. Among the rag tag group of rioters and those who would look to them as heroes, the Riots went down in history as an act of righteous anger, a necessary action to boldly answer the resentment, anger, fear, and intolerance their respectable neighbors had cast upon them.

The oppression they had suffered was intense, but what if we could do something to stop their suffering much earlier in this story? What if we could go back in time to reduce the suffering of these beautiful fag/dyke/queer undesirables? What if fewer people had been forced to live up to other people's standards? What if more people had more options than living and working in the parks and on the streets? What if fewer people had been accosted for not being respectable in the places they sought safety? What if fewer had been made the target of police harassment and entrapment, fewer had been abandoned or even treated like trash by the very people who should have cared most about them?

We - especially we who call ourselves progressives, we who have some power in this world (limited may it be), and we who call ourselves members of the LGBTQ community - we would be irresponsible and actually heartless if we didn't jump at the opportunity to curb the oppression of the "riff raff" in this story.

Well, we have another opportunity.

Revisiting Stonewall Values Today

Many are blaming the "unsavory" groups of poor youth (mostly black) who gather on street corners and other public areas. These youth loiter, they laugh and play loudly, and even engage in sex work or petty crime. Because these youth don't fit in with the "respectable" people in the neighborhood, many assume they are violent criminals. In recent weeks concerns over safety are making many nervous, fearful, and even angry. In online forums, some concerned citizens are directly blaming these youth for committing or attracting these crimes. While safety for all - not the least among these youth - is of importance, many resent and fear the presence of such "undesirables" in the neighborhood.

The violence that has taken place is unfortunate, and the safety of all citizens should be prioritized. Yet how quickly the riff raff become the mainstream and the politics of power become completely forgotten.

Don't get me wrong, violence should not be accepted, but the attitudes being expressed by the majority of the gay community sound all too similar - the majority in 1969 also called for increased police presence, surveillance, and suspicion being cast on the riff raff in that neighborhood.

The situation that brought about the Stonewall Riots is very different from the situation in East Lakeview, Illinois, today. In 1969, homophobia was communicated with such obvious hatred that no one could deny the desire of respectable folk to see queers just disappear. The few knife-wielding youths today may also cause more fear than "moral perversion" in the '60s or even AIDS in the '80s. The political and social circumstances surrounding the situation on Christopher Street and the one in East Lakeview are very, very different, and we'd be foolish to claim that comparisons between the two contexts are unproblematic. That being said, we'd be throwing away the benefits of history if we ignore the similarities between the homophobia that eventually led to Stonewall and the classist and often racist attitudes now at the surface in Boystown.

Prejudice without overt hatred is still prejudice, and it is communicated today with more subtlety than ever before in history. If we fail to acknowledge that resentment, fear, discomfort, and suspicion are just as detrimental to a just society as hate, we do harm to ourselves as well as others. We who claim to be progressive cry out when subtle prejudice mars the name of gays in the media, but we do a much more lackluster job at correcting prejudice regarding economic status and racial/cultural difference in our own community. What's worse, the majority among us would rather believe classism and racism aren't major problems in the gay community.

The weeks following Chicago Pride 2011 will be an important historical moment. It has brought new attention to the problem of community safety, and it has highlighted the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and classism that has been accepted and embraced among a surprisingly large percentage of the LGBTQ community. In the history that will be written, will this be known as a time we concerned ourselves only with "what is mine"? Or will we be able to look back with pride?

It's time we take stock of the failings of our supposedly progressive community and work now to ease the oppression of LGBTQ youth even as we work to protect the neighborhood we - all the beautiful beneficiaries of Stonewall - inhabit.

img courtesy of Erica Chu


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Sorry but I think your parallel between Stonewall and the issues nowadays is tenuous at best. You seem to casually dismiss the petty crimes that happen to people and somehow tie it to them being classist and racist. No one should be afraid of being robbed etc. and to somehow tie the two is just false.
There is no doubt that there are issues of racism and classism in the GLBT community as it is within any community. We cannot turn a blind eye to it and must everything we can to fight it. But let's not take it too far and claim because people they are concerned about muggings, robberies, etc. that have been committed by these groups that it is somehow racist. It cheapens and denigrates the real incidents of this.

It sounds like the same problems that have plagued The Village at Ed Gould Plaza in Los Angeles are re-creating themselves in Chicago.

I am not familiar with the Chicago situation, but in L.A. I saw the same clash between "respectable" LGBT Center patrons and homeless LGBT people that had no place else to go besides the Ed Gould Plaza. The sentiments of the respectable patrons is understandable, but the problem is they want to support only a part of the LGBT community, not the whole thing. The people with the money aren't recognizing that there is a community problem that the community needs to own. (Moreover, if they didn't want to have to deal with the downtrodden, then why did they build their multi-million-dollar complex in an urban location where the downtrodden are obviously so prevalent? Go figure -- but that's a different story.)

As a national and inter-national community of like-minded souls, the LGBT world has done quite a good job at dealing with HIV/AIDS, but a totally lousy job at dealing with more mundane problems such as homelessness, drug addiction, unemployment, and general downtrodden-ness. These are extremely difficult human problems that are resource-intensive to address fully, and our current LGBT institutions are not up to the task.

It is very sad that a personal friend of mine in Los Angeles finally had to go into a program that exposed him to a year of fundamentalist Jesus-brainwashing, just so he could get off crack. My friend had to surrender to the Jesus freaks because our community does not have adequate resources of its own to help our people deal with such problems. (Even so, I have unbounded admiration for him for having conquered his addiction, to the extent it is conquerable, and if I had to send him in again, Jesus-brainwashing and all, I would do it.)

While this problem does have racist facets, I see the problem as almost entirely classist. The wealthy LGBT people only get fulfillment out of helping these people, but not those people. The patron class is being generous, for which we should all be grateful, yet we need to turn around and plead with them to possibly direct their financial support toward even more challenging, yet humble, goals.

Our community needs to address this human need, but all I see in city after city is people going 'round and 'round on it. My sad conclusion is that the street queens and the drug addicts are not the only ones who need to pull their heads out of their own asses.

Om Kalthoum | July 20, 2011 5:30 PM

"Standing with Queer Rif-Raf"

What are you suggesting is the appropriate "progressive" response to this violence? How does one stand with the perpetrators of the violence?

Here's the vid of a recent Boystown(Chicago) stomping/stabbing:
http://youtu.be/ryr1pldYnQU

And "Riff Raff" has NO responsibility to show respect for the residents of a gay neighborhood? Respect is a two way street...you want some, how about showing some?

I can appreciate that for some LGBT youth of color, their 'home' neighborhoods aren't safe or welcoming places for them to be out and visible...but the (high) rent and/or mortgage paying residents of 'Boystown' have no rights to a safe and sane living environment?

Having been harassed by transexual sexworkers, intimidated by loud and agressive minority youth (LGBT and/or straight I can't proove which) and been afraid for my safety on several ocassions in Boystown, again I say, where's the RESPECT for HAVING a space to go to? I haven't seen much of it...more like Boystown gets treated like their "garbage can" to visit, and then leave once they get their buzz on, and/or find a trick (paid or not).

And yes, LGBT people of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds come to Boystown to party, but it ain't white suburban gays who are robbing, intimidating and threatening others most often. Let's get real.

Racism and unfair profilling DOES exist and does occur, as does extreme disrespect from some of the youth. Again, respect is a TWO WAY STREET....if you want some, show some.

Paige Listerud | July 21, 2011 9:32 PM

Nothing's depressed me more than the spontaneous racist comments I've been assailed with from store owners in the Lakeview area over the recent stabbing incident, often from the moment I've stepped into a shop. And I'm not black. I'm a forty-something white bisexual woman, who they probably think will agree with them wholeheartedly. More and more, it seems to me that Chicago's LGBTQ community is for some--who can afford it--and not for others, no matter how desperately they need it.

The parallels you draw aren't so off-base, Erica. Yet, I've come to the conclusion that the middle class LGBT of today do not want the revolutionary queer politics of their activist forebears. They want assimilation. Forget forging an alternative culture with more humane values. It's almost 1950s how much they want that two-person marriage, complete with conspicuous consumption mortgaged house, white picket fence and 2.5 kids. I almost wish for the fulfillment of marriage equality in every state so that disillusionment over it can finally set in.

Regarding the video of the stabbing: it's clear that whatever problems LGBTQ youth of color have with each other in their neighborhoods, they bring a bit of it with them when they come into Boystown, which chiefly mean two things. 1) White middle class LGBT residents, this stabbing was not about you. This was black on black crime. 2) The Center On Halsted would do well to offer, to all youth, programs in conflict resolution, non-violent communication and methods for diffusing tense situations. 3) Homelessness is a queer problem, what with 40% of homeless kids being LGBTQ. Many of them survive on the streets through sex work. So, if you are a middle class gay man who has been a john of their's, you've got no right to complain about their presence in "your" neighborhood.

This is one barely middle class black man who is having none of this. This is why many people vote against their interests because they associate liberals with defense of bad behavior. Poverty is no excuse for this kind of behavior. My mother's generation was a lot worse off but they did not behave like that. I ran away from home at 15 to the Village in NY, 2 years after Stonewall, but I did not behave like that. I joined the Gay Activists Alliance and became a gay activist in NY and SF.

If some people no longer have "Stonewall values" maybe its because so much has changed since then. "Assimilation" wasn't possible back then because we were so universally despised by almost everyone so people adopted a defiant attitude like a kid who has something taken away who says "I didn't want that anyway."

Everyone, regardless of race or economic circumstances, has a right to a safe neighborhood. If people are going to come to a neighborhood to party they need to show some respect for the people who live there. Just because the LGBT community hasn't solved all the nation's problems doesn't mean that we have to put up with barbaric behavior. So what if the particular instance in the video is black on black violence. Do you really think they would have treated a white person any better? White people are criticized for not caring about black on black crime, now they are told it doesn't concern them. And the vast majority of middle class gay men are not availing themselves of under age hustlers.

Incidents like these and the wimpy responses by some "progressives" only serve to fuel racism. Part of the problem is the acceptance of a part of Hip-Hop culture which glamorizes thuggish and criminal behavior. I am not a thug. I don't want to be a thug. I hate thugs. Thuggish behavior is antithetical to the LGBT community and everything we stand for. I can't believe I have to argue the point on an LGBT website.

Paige Listerud | July 22, 2011 9:05 PM

Regarding the stabbing incident, from my encounters with white gay store owners, their speech has not been primarily, "Look what these kids are doing to each other. This has to be stopped." Instead it's all about, "Look what THEY are doing to OUR neighborhood." I'm serious. Not one word of concern for the black youth involved in the crime, not even the guy who got stabbed.

Criticize my racism if you wish. It's the only kind of racism that wants help for the LGBTQ youth of color who can't find safety and support in their own neighborhoods and communities. The other kind of racism only wants those kids outta the posh gayborhood--whether they've committed violence or disturbed the peace or not.

This morning, catching an early train to work, I watched as CTA attendants awakened a young black transwoman sleeping on the Red Line and told her to move on. I have no doubt in my mind that she was homeless; sleeping on the Red Line was her temporary nightly shelter and protection from our current heat wave. She looked emaciated and I, unfortunately, didn't have a dime to give her. I have no doubt that her daily reality and harsh choices mirror the lives of the youth that show up at the Center On Halsted, the same youth of color the gayborhood bigots have complained about long before the incident.

But, hey, you ran away from home at 15. Maybe your help is better than mine, Claude. I invite you to look for her at the Howard el stop at 5 am.

Om Kalthoum | July 23, 2011 12:10 AM

Can we at least stop with the "kids" and "youth" stuff? How many in the mob in the video were kids, unless you consider men and women in their 20's to be children. The victim was variously identified as 25 or 26. The first man to be arrested for the stabbing is 24 years old.

As far as your assertion that if we're not the same race as the criminals and victims, then violent crime shouldn't concern us, I am pretty much speechless.

Paige Listerud | July 23, 2011 1:12 AM

I'm not saying violent crime shouldn't concern us. I utterly reject your interpretation of my response. But is it concern for the lives of people actually involved in the attack? No. It's about me and my gay-owned business or property. Well, that wasn't what was under attack, if you haven't noticed.

Instead, the kind of "concern" proffered to me from gay business owners and it is very definitely NOT concern for the youth involved. It's a singularly selfish, self-centered, and materialistic concern that is also undeniably racist and classist.

As far as definitions go, most social service programs designate youth into young adulthood--24 or 25 being the cut-off point. Go argue with them about their definitions.

"Our community needs to address this human need, but all I see in city after city is people going 'round and 'round on it. My sad conclusion is that the street queens and the drug addicts are not the only ones who need to pull their heads out of their own asses."

Read this thread.

I rest my case.