Sara Kerastas on how “What’s The T?” confronts conflicts in Boystown
By SARA KERASTAS May 20, 2013 4:10PM
Updated: May 21, 2013 7:26AM
As education director at About Face Theatre here in Chicago, I work with transgender, lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual and straight-allied (LGBTQA) youth ages 14-23. These fierce young theater activists come to from all over Chicago to be part of our ensemble — I’m talking South Side, West Side, North Side, downtown. Some take the Metra in from the suburbs. It’s that important for queer youth to have a space to congregate, share stories and activate their voices through theater. What I hear from the youth I work with all the time is that they were told one thing: Go to Boystown.
We all know Boystown, right? It’s the neighborhood in East Lakeview where rainbow pylons line the streets, proclaiming the neighborhood a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ folks. It’s a destination spot full of bars, restaurants, vintage clothing stores, sex shops, head shops, coffee shops and tattoo parlors. It’s also a hub for queer youth-serving nonprofit organizations. If a young person gets kicked out of his or her house for coming out or expressing a nontraditional gender identity (which happens all the time — Google the rates of homelessness among LGBTQ youth), there are programs that will help them get temporary housing, get their GED, get tested, get condoms, get counseling and simply be around other queer people.
The neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, a fact that has polarized the people inhabiting the neighborhood, most notably along lines of class and race. This is not an issue specific to Boystown: Tensions around displacement are at play in all neighborhoods experiencing gentrification. With all of these dynamics brewing, the neighborhood was primed for tensions to erupt.
Summer 2011. From my perspective, here’s what went down: A string of violent robberies occur in Boystown. Then, residents catch a video of a stabbing on their cellphone from a balcony. All the major networks broadcast this pixelated video of a group of what looks like seven or eight young, nonwhite men surrounding and chasing after the stabbing victim. This coverage incites feelings of panic and danger among folks, as the news often does. So a group of Boystown residents decide to organize a group called Take Back Boystown (TBB).
The group creates a Facebook page. Suddenly, people are posting racial slurs, ageist and transphobic comments, much of them blaming the queer youth of color in the neighborhood for the publicized violence. (It was later revealed that the “stabber” from the aforementioned incident actually lived in Indiana). Soon, TBB organizes a march on the streets of Boystown. You know, to “take it back,” or whatever that means. Local queer youth advocacy group Gender JUST stages a counter-protest. There’s a standoff. Police get involved.
Cut to the largest Community Alternative Policing Strategy meeting ever attended in East Lakeview. No air-conditioning, 600-plus people, segregated visibly and audibly along lines of age, race, profession, class, etc. The auditorium is so charged, it feels like the whole place is going to explode at any minute. Two hours of shouting, finger-pointing, disruption.
The next day, our queer youth theatre ensemble decides to refocus our play, “What’s the T?” to address these Boystown conflicts around issues of race, age, gender and class. And in late July 2012, almost exactly one year later, “What’s the T” plays to sold-out houses at Red Tape Theatre and the National Museum of Mexican Art. The show brings to life many different Chicago stories. It makes people laugh (a lot), and it galvanizes conversations around these important issues.
This past year, we were approached repeatedly about remounting the production. We know that the conflicts in Boystown are complex, ongoing and universal. So this month, the remount of “What’s the T?” opened at the Victory Gardens Loft Space with almost the entire original youth cast. I encourage Chicagoans to come see this fierce piece of theater, plug into the conversations and experience this moment with us.
“What’s The T?” runs through June 2 at the Victory Gardens Loft Space (2433 N. Lincoln). Tickets are available at the door or by visiting