Here’s my unique story of growing up both in Boys Town & a “typical” Chicago suburb~
I AM AN ALLY and have been an ally to the LGBTQ community from birth.
I grew up with two loving uncles and their community of friends, which felt like a family. I also got to know the LGBTQ community through my family’s business. Here is a link to a historic newspaper article photo of my parents, my uncle Pat, and other bar manager, Ben. This photo was taken after my Uncle Steve died.
The Tween & Teen Years- Christopher Street Bar opened
As a “tween”, my parents and uncles (Steve and Pat) opened their first gay bar in Chicago called Christopher Street at the corner of Halsted and Cornelia (the neighborhood today is called “Boystown”). If you know or are interested in history, you might recognize the name Christopher Street since this is the street in NY where the Stonewall Riots broke out in 1969, which began the gay rights movement!
The atmosphere of acceptance and belonging at Christopher Street was similar to the bar in the TV show “Cheers”. You know the song:
“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came…”
I too experienced this welcoming, open-hearted community when I spent time with my uncles and their friends and co-workers at the bar. I loved my uncles and the LGBTQ community, and they loved me. We were all like family.
As a tween, I felt torn between my positive feelings about the LGBTQ community and wanting to fit in as a tween. I was bullied (as a middle schooler) because of my family’s business and wasn’t as equipped, as perhaps children are today, in standing up for myself and my community.
My First Big Loss
My amazing Uncle Steve died from AIDS my senior year of high school. Although my family had many neighbors supporting us at the “shiva” we held at our home, it did not feel safe to share the real cause of his death due to the stigma and the culture of the Chicago suburb in which I lived. As a result, I didn’t feel like my family and I were able to truly mourn the loss of my uncle (or honor his life as he deserved).
Because this was a time even before Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA’s) were popular in high schools, I don’t recall “coming out” (to the general community) about my family’s businesses or my uncles until college.
College & Beyond Years- Vortex Nightclub, Manhole, Fusion, & Rhumba Opened
I remember a breakthrough conversation I had with a gay male student in the cafeteria line in which we were both testing the waters to see if the other person was an ally. I think we were both so excited to talk openly to one another that it was one of my favorite moments in college. As Brene Brown says, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
By the time I went to college, I had experienced shame mixed in with pride and a heart full of love for the LGBTQ community. My biological Uncle Steve passed away from AIDS while I was in high school, and many other men were sick or had died as well. It is heartbreaking to lose just one relative you love, but even harder when it extends to a community.
My father and other Uncle Pat (along with another owner) next opened a gay dance club called Vortex, which had the best dance music in the city. Some years later, they opened a gay leather “kink” bar infamously called The Manhole (in the location of Christopher Street). However, even as an adult, I found that I had to again find my inner security with my parents’ business since I didn’t know anyone in this “alternative” community (outside of my family and the other employees at the bar).
My family’s final business was a combination restaurant and dance club. The restaurant was called Rhumba, a swanky Brazilian place with delicious cuisine that had “dueling Carmen Mirandas” and a lip sync performance by the winner on a veranda high above the tables during the meal. At around 11PM, the restaurant converted into a dance club called Fusion.
Reflections & How I Carry the Torch Today
I can now fully appreciate how unique my childhood was, and the lessons I learned from observing my extended “queer” family. In Boys Town and with my uncles, I was able to witness genuine love and caring, a high level of authenticity, courage to live life to the fullest (in spite of a high level of prejudice at the time). I saw a cultivation of an incredible community bond that was different from the conventional, even if liberal and close-knit, Chicago suburb in which I was raised. My uncles fully utilized their talents (Steve graduated from M.I.T. and taught math and Pat was a graphic designer), worked hard, valued family and friends, enjoyed life, and loved my siblings and me.
It was as if nothing could hold them back from living their ideal lives….except HIV and AIDS. These viruses ended the lives of not only my uncles, but an entire community, which had a devastating impact.
Today, I feel a great deal of pride in my parents and uncles for creating positive meeting places for the LGBTQ community (admittedly more focused on men and transgendered folks) at a time that needed these meeting places since this preceded the online world and alternative meeting spots available today. I also feel a well of sadness when I think about the community we lost. I am grateful that today’s LGBTQ community is growing stronger, gay marriage is legal (coincidentally on the date of my Uncle Steve’s birthday), PReP (HIV prevention pill) is available, allies and more LGBTQ individuals can be “out” and feel more supported than ever before.
I feel a little relief when I think about how lucky I am to have had such an amazing uncle, and to have been able to pass on my uncle’s middle name to my son. I hope my son emulates some of my uncle’s greatest qualities. My husband, son, and I enjoy attending Denver’s Pride Festival each year, and we invite friends to pass down an affirming, inclusive message to their children too. The family area for children, of the Pride Festival, is a lot of fun and it brings back many positive memories for me!
I am also teaching a Relationship (Couples) Therapy class at University of Denver (DU) and am committed to staying up-to-date on the current research and practice standards for therapists in regards to the LGBTQ community. I am grateful to have reached this point to be a public ally, and hope that in my son’s lifetime, it will be second nature to accept, affirm, and appreciate the LGBTQ community. I hope that love will be the most important value in our society.