Chicago’s DIY Club Scene Offers A Collaborative Queer Community

DJ La Spacer at TRQPiTECA. Photo by Sandra Oviedo
House music DJs and drag queens work together to create welcoming, inclusive spaces.

It’s early for clubbing standards — 10 p.m. in the Lower West Side of Chicago — and still warm out for November. Short skirts, spandex, and pulsating bodies begin to dominate the space. We are at Juniors for TRQPiTECA, a curated event that celebrates house and techno music, performance artists, and video art in a queer-friendly, dance-positive environment in the Pilsen neighborhood.

TRQPiTECA, which first began in 2015, is produced by La Spacer and CQQCHIFRUIT, two queer Chicago DJs who host the event on the last Friday of every month. Tonight several queens are performing and a runway competition will follow which features local designers and those who create their own wearable designs. A pinata shaped like Donald Trump hangs above our heads.

Primarily influenced by the dance music of tropical cultures, La Spacer, whose off-stage name is Natalie Mercedes, was interested in creating an event like TRQPiTECA because “as a queer woman that loves house and techno music,” spaces like this weren’t as prevalent in nightlife culture when she was starting out as a DJ. La Spacer goes on to say that she “felt like the club/dance scene in Chicago was just a boys’ club.”

While the history of the current DJ and music trend plays such a large part in the Chicago nightlife scene, there is also the inclusion of the illustrious queens and party-goers who host events at clubs and DIY spaces underground. Chicago’s queer clubs and venues have competitions and battles, like in any city, but furthermore, Chicago offers spaces to go and attend, to be seen, to connect, to be glamorized. Regardless of location, in pristine clubs or in the basements of apartment buildings, queer nightlife in Chicago is blooming and rapidly becoming a haven for young creatives searching for a solid and supportive community. All of the arts are intertwined in the underground art world; music, fashion, and dance are not discrete, and their tangled dependency is what makes each night an integrated vision of magic. Beginning the night with a handmade outfit, dipping a brush into makeup, and opening up the floor with gyrating movements to a local DJ, is all cyclical in the queer club scene. Without the music, there would be no dancing. Without the queens, there would be no glamor.

Queer nightlife in Chicago is rapidly becoming a haven for young creatives searching for a solid and supportive community.

The history of queer nightlife in Chicago goes back at least as far as the 1920s, when jazz and drag balls dominated the enclave of State Street to Cottage Grove in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side. Music and the queer lifestyle were conjointly situated outside of the mainstream white America. Dive bars, private events, and speakeasies gave the LGBTQ community the means to explore their sexuality and the exploration of jazz supplied safe institutions for people of color. Traveling to urban epicenters, like Chicago, gave Black queers an opportunity for better pay, while also having the convenience of a like-minded community. Cabarets, masquerades, illustrious events like “Finnie’s Balls,” and the notorious Club DeLisa, were home to well-paying — and most importantly, highly respected — drag queens and kings. Dancing as a queen in the late 1940s, when the economy was depressed after World War II, paid fifty dollars a week in comparison to twelve dollars a week as a dishwasher.

The 1960s were a tense time in queer culture, in Chicago and in the rest of America. The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement in the country and sparked activism in residents to fight back against their fear of being arrested during police raids at gay bars. Suddenly, being a drag queen meant more than just being a high-paying entertainer; queens were launched into a pivotal role in the LGBTQ community.

The overwhelming racism and sexism in Chicago is something that still keeps queer communities segregated. The North Side caters to the white queer community in terms of nightlife and resources, while the South Side has forged a more “Do It Yourself” mantra in creating venues and events for people of color. There are historical gay bars like Smart Bar located in Boystown, with more DIY spaces and events sprinkled throughout the west and south sides of the city. All-inclusive spaces like The Dojo, RutCorp, and Pretty Pit invite local musicians and artists to make the space their own — creating the ultimate freedom of expression.

Without the music, there would be no dancing. Without the queens, there would be no glamor.

These communities, whether on the North or South side of Chicago, revolve around a core of dance and house music, which stimulates a sense of belonging for marginalized individuals. The music is a thread for LGBTQ people who find a tenacious community essential to their well-being and livelihood.

It all started in 1977 when Frankie Knuckles, who mixed disco and Eurobeats, opened the Warehouse, which resulted in the birth of house music. Primarily mixing jazz, soul, disco, and hip-hop, house quickly became a staple for Black and Latino queers. Like disco, the sound of house nurtured a dance scene that embraced all forms of race, identity, ability, and sexuality, and assumed the role of a so-called queer culture sanctuary.

In 1979, WLUP disc jockey, Steve Dahl, created a Disco Demolition Night during a game between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, where he would blow up disco records, turning the entire event into a chaotic riot. The demolition night was popular with Chicago residents as disco, new wave, and dance-pop music had been plummeting in sales nationwide. Regardless, the music didn’t die; it just went back underground. As seen before in history (for example, in the 1930s cabaret bars), the queer community reclaimed its sound and moved the house scene into DIY spaces and warehouses across the city — spaces where people of color and all sexualities were able to openly and liberally live.

DJ La Spacer. Photo by Sandra Oviedo

Smart Bar, Chicago’s longest-running dance club, opened in 1982 and still stands as a staple for queens, queers, and DJs in Chicago today. Queen! at Smart Bar Sundays is a residency night hosted by queens like JoJo Baby, Sissy Spastik, and Lucy Stoole. Performers like Lucy and JoJo are “beacons of hope and positivity” for LGBTQ people.

Derrick Carter, Michael Serafini, and Garrett David are resident DJs of Queen! where the incorporation of house, disco, fashion, and dance are celebrated. The event is on Sundays until 4 a.m., a night where most people stay home, which makes Queen! a committed collective whose community is unapologetic and unwavering in dedication. Work on Monday morning is spent in a cloud for the love of dancing the night before.

“The energy and vibe of this community is unparalleled and the talent here is world-class,” says Milwaukee-born queen Toyota Corona (Alex Corona). The scene is “literally magical,” Corona says, and the community of drag, performance, and art in Chicago is the “current epicenter of everything drag-related” — from events, to family, to opportunities. Corona hosts a monthly party called “Get Ur Freak On” at the club Berlin in the Boystown neighborhood.

Chicago DJs like La Spacer work alongside queens like Corona to create spaces for those who yearn for techno and house. The core value of strengthening ideas of acceptance and safety for queer people — and specifically queer women and queer people of color — is important for all identities involved in hosting events, especially in today’s political climate. “There are more women and queer people of color in the club/nightlife scene than there were back in 2006–09, and they are DJing and performing,” says La Spacer.

The empowering environment of the Chicago queer nightlife scene, which includes queens, fashion, and music, was inspiring to Ariel Zetina, a DJ affiliated with WITCH HAZEL, a trans* queer performance collective who relies heavily on found electronic music. “You can be in the most basic setting in Chicago and you can put on a house track and people will dance,” says Zetina. In public spaces where the freedom of sexuality and race are not particularly safe, Zetina acknowledges the network of house and the acceptance that materializes in dancing body to body with a room lavishly crowded by queer people of the city.

Designers, musicians, photographers, queens, and artists are all working together to form a cohesive experience.

The queer club scene has several manifestations — many extending limbs that concentrate on different aspects to bring to life a fully functioning and seamless atmosphere. Designers, musicians, photographers, queens, and artists are all working together to form a cohesive experience — without one, there would not be the other. In addition to the music and performers are the designers, the wardrobe stylists, and the creators, who masterfully actualize the ambiance and extravagant atmosphere.

For each event in the city, a wardrobe is vital for queens and party-goers. Chicago’s DIY scene stems from DJ sets on make-shift stages, to handmade wearable pieces fabricated by people within the LGBTQ community. Many queens create their own wardrobes, especially when they are starting out in performance. When it comes to managing their own look, attire, and presence, Wanda Screw says that they act as their own “director, producer, and marketer” for a profession that is still incredibly DIY. “My drag is really about continuing the legacy of queer people who pioneered it way before me — and the occasional Bette Midler reference.”

Chicago-based drag performer Wanda Screw, whose off-stage name is Alex Benjamin, says “Drag gives me the opportunity to hone and challenge my skills in a variety of different areas: performance, directing, makeup, music, writing, constructing costumes and wigs, etc. It is the only performative art form that has been able to fulfill me so completely across all my areas of interest.”

Wanda Screw. Photo by Adam Ouahmane

In addition to performing solo, Wanda is a part of SADHAUS, a drag and performance art collective that is interested in “combining drag performance with audience-interactive theater and musical performance.” Most members attended Northwestern University, where theater played a large role in their glittery, glitzy, and iridescent future as queens.

Vogueing balls, where young, gay black men compete, are held on the West and South Sides of Chicago. For queens, their haven is the North Side, snuggled in between the sports fans living in the Wrigleyville neighborhood. The segregation of these two sides of the city, in terms of race and mobility, prevent communities from aggregating. The structure of downtown Chicago creates a clear line between fragmented communities. Although relatively close in commute, DJs, performers, and the wider LGBTQ community are unaware of the scenes that exist only a few miles away.

Chicago’s incredibly fast-growing DIY apartment scene is establishing galleries, clubs, events, and parties in order to create a more cohesive, safe, and inviting environment for marginalized people. Through Facebook and private invites, DIY spaces are creating more affordable and close-knit experiences for drag and music in order to spark a social renaissance.

Chicago’s DIY apartment scene is establishing galleries, clubs, events, and parties in order to create a more cohesive, safe, and inviting environment for marginalized people.

As Chicago’s queer nightlife scene has had its highs and lows, with original members and venues disappearing, the crux of the community and the ability to withstand constant change and struggle has proven the constant notion that Chicago is relentless. The heart of house and dance music is undeniable within the LGBTQ community. Ariel Zetina says, “I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by so many different types of house music selectors. The sound governs the nightlife scene.” The music is at the core of the nightlife personalities and identities who infiltrate the queer club spaces.

The surging personality, the tiresome dedication, and the all-encompassing radical LGBTQ nightlife movement is a tangibility that you can not dispute in regards to what the third coast has to offer. Found in the seam, between coast to coast, is Chicago’s intimate panoply of varying identities, Midwestern amiability, and unavoidable endurance.

At TRQPiTECA, I’m standing near the front of the stage when Miss Velvet, a Chicago-based Dominatrix and Ghanian Goddess, enters the club with two participants. Couples stand close to one another and Miss Velvet activates the crowd. Queens and queers are all standing in a circle, along with DJs La Spacer and CQQCHIFRUIT. Handmade outfits glisten with every slight movement as onlookers are active and vocal; the crowd cheers and whistles with each performative action. Once Miss Velvet concludes her piece — her props include a plethora of dildos, wax, whips, and chains — the crowd fills the floor and returns to their zone of rippling dance movement as La Spacer starts her set.

Chicago’s sound tonight is house and Chicago’s people are queer and present. No disruptions, no limitations, only the effervescent echo of jacking the house.

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