This article was the recipient of a Lisagor Award in Non-Deadline Reporting, Non-Daily Newspaper or Magazine, Circulation Above 20,000.
On a warm evening in early June, patrons in summer khakis filled the restaurant patios of Boystown, the north-side gay bastion marked by rainbow pylons and suggestively named bars. Just up the block from Whole Foods, Nikki Taylor Donahoe, 19, sat atop some firewood bundles stacked in front of the Circle K convenience store at Addison and Halsted. The store parking lot is familiar terrain; Donahoe and her friends have been congregating there nearly every afternoon for a while now. Donahoe has a moon-shaped face and a strong, broad torso. Her dramatic makeup creates deep shadows around her cheekbones. Her gaze is at once piercing and sunken. Dressed in a tight tank top and a pair of hoop earrings embellished with the word Barbie, she surveyed the passing scene like a queen holding court. "It's a cycle here," she said. "Boystown doesn't change. Same shit happens every day: getting high, getting drunk, making money."
Like any teenager, Donahoe is prone to complain about her brittle hair, her weight, and her lack of cash. But youthful vanity is the least of her worries. That night she was trying to figure out how she was going to pay for the motel room she'd been using since she'd lost her apartment several weeks earlier. She needed the room not only for sleeping but for her work as a prostitute.
Donahoe says she didn't have a childhood. The irony that she's not old enough to get into most clubs (at least when she's not holding a fake ID) irritates her, "because I feel old as hell."
She grew up as Troy, a white, middle-class boy, in Urbana, a town of about 12,000 in western Ohio. Home life was always difficult. "Troy's birth mother would take him to bars, leave him in public places," says Donahoe's adoptive mother, Kathy. "So he was put into foster care when he was 18 months old. We adopted him through foster care when he was almost three."
Kathy recalls Donahoe taking an interest in women's clothing from an early age. "He'd play dress-up at his grandmother's house when he was a kid. I didn't think anything of it." As the years passed, Kathy says, Donahoe ran away several times. She turned to medical professionals for help: "One doctor said that Troy has 'reactive attachment disorder,' since he never formed a bond with his birth mother."
Donahoe came out to Kathy in 2009, at age 16, and she responded by forbidding the teenager to date. "I never expected my son to tell me that. Processing it was such a thing. It took me a while to get used it."
The family had just moved to Naperville, about 50 miles west of Chicago. Donahoe found the website for the Boystown-based LGBTQ-focused service organization the Center on Halsted and struck up a correspondence with an employee there. The employee advised that if Donahoe ever made it to Chicago, it would be a good idea to stop by the center. "I decided, 'Fuck it, I'm gone," Donahoe says.
In February 2009 Donahoe took a Metra train from Naperville to Union Station and, with little money, walked the five miles from the Loop to the Center on Halsted. "I got to Belmont and it was like a fantasy land," Donahoe recalls. "I'd never seen a place where guys were holding hands and there were trans[gender] people everywhere. Everyone seemed to be happy in their own skin. The place grabbed hold of me."
Boystown has been a destination for LGBTQ youth since 1970, when neighborhood residents marched in Chicago's first gay pride parade (which this year attracted an estimated 850,000 people). For many of those kids—especially the ones who've been rejected by their families—the neighborhood offers a new start. Or at least the hope of one.
But it can also be a dangerous and rejecting place where young people find themselves living on the streets, doing sex work or committing petty crimes to get by, and attracting the wrath of established residents—pariahs amid the rainbow.
"These kids are superheroes of survival," says Jake Bradley, youth outreach manager for the nonprofit, nondenominational Night Ministry. "They're incredibly resilient and have really powerful ways of understanding who they are."