Homos in the Heartland: Gay Chicago

Our kinda town – get swept away by lesbian fun in the Windy City

America’s third-largest metropolis, the Midwestern “San Francisco” (of sorts), has long been an urban oasis, attracting many young farm bois and small town grrls seeking refuge from the judgment and hostility of the surrounding “heartland.” Chicago is a welcoming, inclusive and supportive city for the LGBT community—and with Mayor Daley as a staunch ally, the quality of life and civil rights for its gay citizens will only continue to improve. During last July’s Gay Games, he proudly stated to the crowd at the opening ceremonies: “Chicago has been in the forefront when it comes to meeting the needs and aspirations of the LGBT community…Diversity makes a city strong, dynamic, and exciting…and we are fortunate to have a very large and active LGBT community who have contributed to Chicago in every imaginable way. They deserve to have the city of Chicago standing on their side, and it will…as long as I am Mayor!” Chicago truly rolled out the rainbow carpet for the 140,000+ international attendees of The Gay Games VII, creating a friendly and enthusiastic atmosphere of genuine pride.

Since the Eighties, Chicago’s stoic commerce-centric downtown has steadily transformed into a vibrant cultural destination. Urbanites now enjoy free concerts at the Gehry-designed Millennium Park; landscaped walking paths along the waterfront; a thriving theatre scene; and a completely renovated Navy Pier which includes among its many attractions: a giant Ferris wheel, dinner cruises, and all sorts of live entertainment.

Chicago has always attracted visitors with its first class museums, among them: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Field Museum of Natural History, and DuSable Museum of African American History. The popular Museum of Science and Industry (msichicago.org) contains an extensive collection of industrial relics and interactive exhibits; from a working coal mine to a trip inside the internet. The Chicago Cultural Center (312-744-6630, chicagoculturalcenter.org), on the National Register of Historic Places is considered one of the most comprehensive arts showcases in the country featuring over 1,000 free programs and exhibitions yearly, covering a wide range of the performing, visual and literary arts.

The “Windy City” is well-known as a bustling center of industry, culture, and shopping—but visitors may not realize that a constellation of ethnically and socially distinctive neighborhoods lie just outside the concrete jungle. Be sure to explore the locals’ Chicago too—especially the active, diverse, and vibrant LGBT Community. Head north along Lakeshore Drive (or take the Red Line CTA train North to Berwyn) to the gayborhoods of Andersonville and Lakeview.

Lakeview—aka Boystown (boystownchicago.com)—is the epicenter of Chicago’s gay community. The main drag, Halsted Street, is hard to miss due to the giant rainbow “torpedoes” lining the sidewalks and pride flags adorning every surface. Chicago’s annual Pride Parade is held here in June, as is the equally festive “North Halsted Market Days” street fair in August. More than 30 LGBT bars, nightclubs and restaurants reside here, among them the intimate Closet bar (3325 N Broadway, 773-477-8533); and gay nightclub Circuit (3641 N Halsted, 773-325-2233, circuitclub.com), which hosts GirlBar Chicago (girlbar.com) the first Saturday of the month, and ChixMix parties (see website for dates: chixmixproductions.com). The classic Melrose Diner (3233 N Broadway) hits the spot with great comfort food 24/7, and is the spot for primo people watching (and sloppy drunken post-club cruising). The Chicago Diner (3411 N Halsted St, 773-935-6696, veggiediner.com) however, offers a non-traditional vegetarian menu that has achieved local fame with its delicious and creative dishes.

An old Swedish enclave that has developed into a charming lesbian and gay residential district, Andersonville (andersonville.org) also has a great selection of eclectic restaurants, bars, cafes and specialty shops. Start your tour at the lesbian-owned Women & Children First Bookstore, a goldmine of progressive and feminist-minded works, and a community center of sorts. While there, be sure to pick up a copy of the incredibly comprehensive and well-written “Field Guide to Gay & Lesbian Chicago” (Bergquist / McDonald)—the 411 on all things gay in Chi-Town. It’s like having your own portable homo concierge.

Andersonville boasts an impressive number of lesbian-owned businesses. Two that stand out for their unconventional style and empowering atmosphere are the erotic toy galleries Early To Bed (5232 N Sheridan, 866-585-2BED, early2bed.com) and Tulip (1480 W Berwyn Ave, 773-275-6110, mytulip.com). Both are passionate about creating a body-positive, gender-inclusive space that encourages education, safety and exploration. Thousand Waves Spa (1220 W Belmont Ave, 773-549-0700, thousandwavesspa.com) is a lesbian-owned business focused on mental, physical, and energetic well-being. Exclusively for women, they offer massage, herbal wraps, dry sauna, eucalyptus steam bath, hot tub and Japanese relaxation room.

One of the city’s best concentrations of casual fine dining eateries and inviting bars is in Andersonville. The local ladies’ favorites are T’s (5025 N Clark St, 773-784-6000)—a friendly pub with great food (the best chicken pot pie on the planet), pool & darts; Big Chicks Bar / Tweet Restaurant (5020-24 N Sheridan Rd., 773-728-5511, bigchicks.com)—a big hit with visitors and regulars who enjoy the friendly inclusive spirit, free Sunday buffet, generous pours, and fantastic food (save room for their signature red velvet cake and luscious sambuca tiramisu); Tomboy (5402 N Clark St, 773-907-0636, tomboyrestaurant.com)—a casually hip,  romantic restaurant serving up eclectic American fare with a sassy smile; Star Gaze (5419 N Clark, StarGazeChicago@aol.com)—a nightclub and restaurant with a cozy backyard and muy popular “Salsa Fridays”; and Joie de Vine (1744 W Balmoral Ave, 773-989-6846, joiedevine.com) a sleek comfortable wine bar with tapas, nightly drink specials and wine flights. Sundays, swap sips while dishing over the divas on The L Word night.

The Chicagoland LGBT community is truly active, welcoming, and diverse—which is not only evident in the nightlife offerings, social groups, and thriving districts—but also in politics and philanthropy. Activities and resources are available at the Center On Halsted (2855 N Lincoln Ave, 773-472-6469, centeronhalsted.org); the Gerber/Hart Library (1127 W Granville Ave, 773-381-8030, gerberhart.org), the Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (773-871-4190, glchamber.org); and the Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame (glhalloffame.org). Affordable and confidential health services are available at the Howard Brown Health Center (773-388-1600, howardbrown.org), and the Lesbian Community Cancer Project (lccp.org).

Indie art, avant-garde theatre and eclectic music also abound in Chi-town. Hipsters flock to the Flesh Hungry Dog Show (fleshhungrydog.com)—a monthly performance art extravaganza “for queers and friends” assembling the most diverse crowd in the city for rock, burlesque, cabaret, and whatever else they can get away with. Music from classical to hip-hop is presented in style at the Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N Lincoln Ave, oldtownschool.org); which also hosts the annual “Alt Q” Festival (altqfestival.com)—a celebration of the LGBT experience through music and performance. Other notable venues around town include the esoteric music club HotHouse (hothouse.net); the 1929 movie house the Music Box (musicboxtheatre.com); and the renowned house of drag Baton Show Lounge (thebatonshowlounge.com).

Get a sneak peek at the next generation of comedy legends before they show up on TV at a show that can only be seen in Chicago, where improv was literally invented—Second City (1616 N Wells, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com). Also, try to catch a performance of GayCo (gayco.com) the all gay improv troupe that was formed through Second City; and for improv with a twist see the Neo Futurists (neofuturists.org).

For a breath of fresh air, take advantage of Chicago’s abundant green space. Bordering Lakeview is one of the city’s true gems, Lincoln Park (lincolnparkchamber.com/visitors). Within it’s 1,200 lush acres, it houses one of the nation’s oldest zoos, Lincoln Park Zoo (lpzoo.com), the Lincoln Park Conservatory (naturemuseum.org). Lincoln Park is the ideal place to spend a romantic afternoon strolling through the Conservatory’s exotic gardens, socializing with over 1,000 butterflies in the Nature Museum’s habitat, or sharing an ice cream sundae inside a Chicago landmark, Café Brauer.

Along the northeastern edge of downtown, an 18-mile stretch of Lake Michigan waterfront has become a lively playground for biking, skating, jogging, fishing, picnics and more. Lesbians can always be spotted with their gay brethren at Hollywood Beach on the north end (at Hollywood St); with their furry friends at “Doggie Beach”— the pooch park towards the southern end (at Belmont St); and with their rhythm sisters at Foster Beach for the weekly Women’s Drum Circle (Sundays 7:30am–1pm, summer only). Rent a ride at Bike Chicago (Foster Ave beach, 888-BIKE-WAY, bikechicago.com), which sports a fleet of 400 Trek bikes, chauffeured pedicabs and rollerblades.

The Windy City abounds with lodging to suit any taste and budget. Two of our favorites are: the extravagant four-diamond Talbott (800-825-2688, talbotthotel.com), just steps from the Magnificent Mile. Their gigantic rooms (the largest in town) and luxury amenities will pamper you in lavish style. If you prefer to stay with “family”, The Ardmore House (1248 W Ardmore, 773-728-5414, ardmorehousebb.com) offers all the comforts of home, and then some. The quaint Victorian B&B is conveniently located near Hollywood Beach); just north of Boystown & Andersonville; and fifteen minutes from the loop. It is remarkably affordable considering the fabulous amenities like the daily extended continental breakfast, 24-hour kitchen access; secluded hot tub & sundeck; free DSL & Wi-Fi, Satellite TV; and even bicycles If they’re booked, try their equally appealing sister property House 5863 B&B (773-944-5555, house5863.com).

For more Chicago info and current event listings, check out: dykediva.com (excellent resource for/about Chicago lesbians), windycitymediagroup.com (Windy City Times/Media Group), cityofchicago.org (general info).

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