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Chicago’s gay businesses gather clout

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Updated: September 12, 2013 6:09AM

Chicago’s LGBTQ businesses have overcome the same types of institutionalized discrimination as other minority groups, persevering in the face of police raids and bureaucratic hassles until they gained enough clout to fight back.

Timothy Stewart-Winter, a former Andersonville and Edgewater resident who got his doctorate at the University of Chicago and now teaches history at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., is writing a book about the rise of urban gay politics in Chicago, in which he says running a small business catering to gays or lesbians “used to entail so many additional risks, you had to have unusual courage or mob connections or both.”

He credits the late Mayor Harold Washington with providing an unexpected “crucial turning point” in allowing the LGBTQ community to emerge as a political force.

“Designating Boystown as the center of gay Chicago politics helped mobilize a particular kind of gay voter — often, though not always progressive, even as it marginalized queers of color,” he said.

“Boystown’s political empowerment made gays and lesbians into a voting bloc that City Hall just couldn’t ignore,” Stewart-Winter said. Timing mattered too. Starting in the 1980s, politicians started recognizing that bar owners could play a key role in mobilizing gay voters, particularly in the 44th, 46th and 48th wards where some of the only wards were up for grabs during the “Council Wars” era.

And while today’s openness to LGBTQ businesses is a given, especially among young people, Stewart-Winter says many more gay businesses are owned by men than by women, and some corporate advertising continues to reinforce stereotypes of gay affluence.

— Sandra Guy

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