Pariahs amid the rainbow | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Pariahs amid the rainbow

Young, queer, and homeless in Boystown



Page 3 of 4

In May 2011, Donahoe says, she was raped while working on the west side. She adds that she'd suffered two prior rapes, but describes the latest incident as the most violent. "It was really hard to work through that," Donahoe recalls, stopping every so often to get her breath. "I had to get stitches that time. On the other two occasions it was like I kind of said no, but you let them get away with it because you know they're going to anyway." Now, Donahoe always carries two cans of Mace and at least one knife in her purse. "I'm more cautious now. The things that happened, they've made me stronger and they've made me wiser."

One important survival mechanism among homeless youth is tribing up. Let down by the civic authorities and their own families (when they have them), street kids start ersatz families of their own, usually including a father, mother, siblings, and even more distant relatives. These fictive families ignore the conventional niceties of age and gender: a son may be older than his mama, an auntie may identify as a male. But they're formalized in other ways and feed into a larger street-youth network.

"The most important thing for a homeless individual is their circle," says Jones. "It's easy to get bogged down by the stress of being homeless. You need friends who will help keep you mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy. It's also how you stay safe." Jones describes the small group he spends most of his days with as a simple alliance built on trust.

In contrast, Donahoe's affiliations are expansive and multifarious. She puts her greatest trust in her closest friend and "sister," Chloe. "We watch out for each other," Donahoe says. "We sleep in the same place, spend our days together, eat together."

"I'm not comfortable in men's shelters, and the women don't want me in theirs." —Temara Jazmyn - TODD DIEDERICH
  • Todd Diederich
  • "I'm not comfortable in men's shelters, and the women don't want me in theirs." —Temara Jazmyn

Donahoe also has day and night families. The nighttime kin are the Mattel family, organized according to the model of a "ballroom house"—a kind of underground fraternity that mentors black and Latino gay men through classes and voguing competitions. Each ballroom house is run by at least one "mother" who looks after any number of "children." The Mattel family has three main mothers, all of whom are black transgender prostitutes. "I don't know all my Mattel family,' says Donahoe, "but we all have a stamp—it's a tattoo." The tattoo consists of a hexagon about the size of a dollar coin, with the word Mattel at its center. Donahoe's is on her lower back. "I have upper rank in the family," Donahoe adds. "I'm the only daughter of Mimi Mattel."

The Mattel family may be structured like a ballroom house, but it operates more like an old-school street clique. "If one of your clients robs you, these girls have your back," Donahoe says. "You can't find anything like the Mattels anywhere else."

Donahoe usually uses the term "girls" when referring to her fellow family members. She says they're known for their violent behavior, and even suggests that the Mattel family is responsible for the increased violence in the neighborhood. According to the Chicago Police Department, the crime rate for District 23, which includes Boystown, hit a ten-year high in 2011. And the number of reported robberies for the first five months of 2012 is up over the same period last year. In the first two weeks of June, the Chicago Police Department's online crime map showed 18 armed robberies, two sexual assaults, and two aggravated batteries.

“I don’t want this life. I don’t want to worry about getting enough cash to pay for my hotel room—which I can’t even reserve because I’m not 21. I want to work in the day and sleep at night. I just want a normal life.” —Nikki Taylor Donahoe

Although unfamiliar with the Mattel family, associate professor Lance Williams, who studies Chicago gang and youth cultures at Northeastern Illinois University, notes that over the last 30 years many major Chicago gangs have decentralized, allowing smaller, niche cliques to emerge. Queer kids who migrate to places like Boystown from the south and west sides, hoping to escape the homophobia at home, may bring learned street behavior with them. "A street mentality usually consists of a range of antisocial behaviors, like fighting, petty crime, gang-related activities, as well as participation in the street economy," Williams says.

The new neighborhood is open territory—and where there's no competition, violence can escalate quickly. "It reminds me of the flash mobbing downtown," Williams says. "There's a lot of stuff you can get away with."

The activist organization Take Back Boystown was started after a series of robberies and stabbings last summer, one of which was caught on a video that went viral. The group was supposed to be a platform for neighborhood residents to air their grievances and suggest solutions for the rising crime rate, but the very phrase "take back" suggests an unwanted foreign presence and raises the question of who does and doesn't belong in an area where the resident population is about 80 percent white and the median income in 2009 was $65,340.

The Take Back Boystown Facebook page ignited with contentious conversation after a young black man from Bronzeville attacked a civilian and injured a cop in the early hours of June 25. The incident came in the wake of the Pride parade and was one of at least 18 crimes reported that night, eight of which were violent. Such numbers seem minuscule when you consider the hundreds of thousands of people at the parade, but they still attract a fearful response.

A contributor to the TBB page posted a photo of a large group of black kids loitering in the middle of Halsted Street at around 3 AM. It elicited 127 responses in its first week. "Something has changed and it's not the residents or the businesses, but rather the influx of people coming in from outside the neighborhood with the intent to cause trouble," wrote one respondent, echoing a common sentiment among those who weighed in. Still, some urged a more sympathetic reaction, and one commenter charged that "this whole thread is draped in racism disguised as 'concern.' If the majority of the photo faces weren't black this wouldn't even be posted!" The concern about race and class in Boystown isn't just a matter of online venting—it permeates the neighborhood.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →