The Lucky Horseshoe is Chicago’s most distinctive gay nightlife spot

The male strip club in Boystown is an acquired taste—but there’s no reason to feel ashamed about it.

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When it comes to gay nightlife in Chicago, the Lucky Horseshoe occupies a category all its own. Known to regulars as "the ’Shoe," the Boystown joint at the corner of Halsted and Belmont is the city's only bar featuring a daily lineup of male dancers. My ritual is always the same: scoop up an empty stool and scan the room to figure out which comely lad in a jockstrap shall be the recipient of the wad of singles the bartender has handed me.

The ’Shoe's troupe is a diverse lot, certainly more so than the staff of most other Boystown bars. There are straight dancers and gay dancers, and you can decode their orientation based on their moves. The hetero ones are rigid, with their shoulders slightly hunched forward—and they beam from (ahem) cheek to cheek when a blur advancing toward the stage turns out to be a woman. The gay ones tend to be transfixed by their reflection in the mirror and how perfectly their moves mimic those of their dearest diva. At times, these boys are so captivated by their own performances they barely register when someone slips a fiver into the waistband of their jock.

The ensemble members come in all shapes and sizes, ages, and ethnicities as well. Frank the Tank, a Latino dancer who always wears combat boots, is in his 50s, I'm told. Madonna Otter, an art student with a large gap-toothed grin, has an obsession with lace-up jockstraps, which accentuate his plump and furry tush. There was a time I couldn't take my eyes off of Sebastian, a young Puerto Rican who was a backup dancer in a Jennifer Hudson video. But lately I've turned my attention toward Tyler, a chiropractor by day who belongs to my gym and has the body of a Greek god with an ass to match. He's often wearing backless briefs, and when he's more modestly clothed my disappointment is evident.

I've been gifted with a few lap dances over the years, but I find the attention embarrassing. What I enjoy more is getting to know the dancers and hearing their stories. When I do end up in a conversation with a performer, I'm always happy to give him upwards of $10 to $20 for his time—but always in singles so that I can artfully decorate every inch of his undies while we talk. I found out from one dancer, for example, that the metal box perched above the top-shelf liquor in the back bar contains one of the founder's ashes. I've also learned that a dancer once punched a customer in the face and was banned for life. Rumor has it one dancer met an older gentlemen within a couple hours of his very first shift, grabbed his gear, and left with him, never to be heard from again. Several dancers have shown me their wieners, a few have given me their phone number or hit me up later on Grindr. One dancer took me into the bathroom to try and get it on, though I've never actually hooked up with any of them. As much as I can get turned on, I feel equally protective of them.

While I appreciate the eye candy, my affection for the ’Shoe stems largely from people's shame-based resistance to the place: I claim it as "my bar" precisely because no one else seems willing to. Frequently I'll run into friends there who clearly aren't expecting to see someone they know, and upon locking eyes with me will radiate a deer-in-headlights look before giving a laundry list of excuses for being spotted at an exotic dance club. "This is so funny! . . . I'm just meeting a friend . . . I never actually come here." I also regularly run into coupled friends for whom the bar seems to function as a compromise between one partner who wants monogamy and the other who has an insatiable libido. Even on Grindr, where filth is de rigueur, there's reluctance to legitimize the Horseshoe: If I message a guy that I'm at the ’Shoe, the usual response is "LOL."

The Lucky Horseshoe isn't for everyone, but I'll never understand the reluctance to be seen there. I didn't come out, march in protests and Pride Parades, and spend the better part of a decade advocating for LGBT equality and freedom as a journalist to suddenly play timid. If a hot dancer at the ’Shoe gyrates my way, his ample package testing the elastic limits of a teensy G-string, I'll slip him a dollar happily. He's earned it, and so have I. v