Ken Bowden, a technology consultant, and Jim Nemeth, a technical writer, are a gay couple who share a two-story house on West Balmoral in Forest Glen, a tidy neighborhood near Foster and Cicero. In mid-July they painted two panels of six-foot fencing Pepto-Bismol pink and propped them up against their existing fence facing the side door of their neighbors, John Vasilopulos and his elderly mother, Kanella, or Kay. Bowden says that the Vasilopuloses had displayed "a deep hatred of gays" and had "harassed and taunted us every single day this summer." He and Nemeth figured the pink fence was fair retaliation.
"They have a perfect right to put it up, but it was disappointing," says Vasilopulos. "It was like saying to us, 'Fuck you.' It hurt my mother. She was deeply insulted." He denies that he's ever shown any bigotry toward Bowden or Nemeth. "I don't like them because they behave like assholes," he says. "Any other distinction is incidental."
Bowden, who's 53, and Nemeth, who's 44, have been partners for six years, and they bought the house on Balmoral in 2001. Bowden says that shortly after they moved in he introduced himself to John Vasilopulos. "He avoided me," he says. "He put his back to me. He didn't have anything to say. I thought maybe he was a little introverted."
Vasilopulos, a burly man in his 50s, is anything but introverted. He once worked as a newspaper copyboy and later as a bartender at the Billy Goat Tavern. "He was a nice guy," says Billy Goat owner Sam Sianis, "and a friend of Mike Royko." Vasilopulos says he also drove cabs and did construction, and he's been active in Republican politics. He and his mother, an 88-year-old Greek native who has arteriosclerosis and is partially deaf, have lived in their house for nearly 30 years.
Vasilopulos insists that he and his mother started out being friendly to Bowden and Nemeth. She took them tomatoes she'd grown. "When they objected to the floodlight over our porch I put in a weaker bulb," he says. "When their basement flooded I helped haul out the carpet, and I called the cops when someone took a crowbar to their garage." Bowden acknowledges that Kay brought over tomatoes but says John never helped with the carpet.
Bowden and Nemeth have an old German shepherd named Beverly, and in 2003 they started thinking about fencing their backyard so that she could safely stay outside. The Vasilopuloses didn't like the idea. "The way it was, with the yards open, if my mother was by herself out back someone could see her," says John. "I also thought it was great that they could look in on my garage and I could look in on theirs. Yeah, the dog was doing anything it wanted--it defecated in our vegetable garden and by the tree. One day my mom was tending to the tree, and she stepped in a bunch of shit. Only her walker kept her from falling. But that was OK with us. No problem."
A fence already ran along the back of both lots, and Nemeth and Bowden say that the Vasilopuloses would leave their gate open, letting Beverly get into the alley. Late one night she got into a chicken carcass that Kay had set out for the raccoons to eat. "Beverly could have choked to death," says Bowden. John says that after that his mother stopped feeding the raccoons: "Whatever they wanted was OK."
Bowden says that last September he'd told Bob Vasilopulos, John's younger brother, who lives nearby, that he and Nemeth were going to enclose their yard, though they promised to wait a month, after which the plants in Kay's garden would be dead and she wouldn't be outdoors much. According to Nemeth and Bowden, two nights later they heard John yelling at his mother, "Those goddamn faggots--I don't want you to talk to them ever again." Bowden says he also heard John say he'd kill him.
"That threat never happened, and I have never used the word faggots," says John. "I haven't made any antigay remarks." If he yelled anything at Kay, he adds, it was because she's hard of hearing.
Bowden and Nemeth called the police. They investigated, but no charges were filed. The following day, says Bowden, he could hear John lisping loudly inside his house, "Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?" John says, "That sounds like something I'd say to my goddaughter."
A week later Nemeth and Bowden called the police again. "It was something about the gay couple having guests over, and the guy next door made some remarks," says John Williams, the beat officer who showed up. "Of course the next-door neighbor denied it." He says he told John that he should be careful or he could be charged with a hate crime.
Soon Nemeth and Bowden put up a six-foot fence around their backyard. They say nothing else happened until it got warm again this year. Then, they say, they noticed that every time they went into their yard someone in the Vasilopulos house would turn up the volume on the TV. "As soon as I heard that blaring TV I couldn't go outside," says Nemeth. "I just got furious."
"Sometimes the TV blasts," John allows. "For mechanical reasons, our satellite dish brings in poor reception, and she can't hear the TV unless the volume is loud. She stays up late to watch programs that are beamed from Greece. It's solace for an old woman." He also says he can't see when Bowden and Nemeth are out back because their fence is so high.
By July, says Bowden, "we decided that we needed to take a stand. We needed to get in John's face." They'd taped him singing, "Fairy tales can come true," and shouting at Kay, "Have you seen my Johnny Mathis record?" For two nights they played the recordings through speakers directed at the Vasilopuloses' house. "I was missing the record," says John. "I like Johnny Mathis. Cole Porter too."
On July 18, say Nemeth and Bowden, John responded by howling like a wolf and cranking up the volume on the TV. The couple called the police, who talked to John. "After they left I went out back to have a cigarette," says Bowden, "and John started taunting me through the fence, singing, 'Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you.' The next day Jim said to me, 'Freedom of speech works both ways. Let's paint the fence pink.'" They bought two new fence panels, painted them pink, and leaned them against the existing fence on their side of the property line.
On July 30 Nemeth and Bowden called the police again about the volume of the TV. This time the officers slapped John with a citation. "Everytime complainant is in backyard, respondent turns up his TV so loud, breaking the peace," reads the citation, which also notes an "ongoing problem with neighbor." John says a sales receipt from a hardware store, where he was buying a pane of glass, proves that he wasn't home at 6 PM, the time when the TV was allegedly turned up. He says the TV might have been on the night before, when his mother was watching a religious program from Athens.
Two days later, says John, "my brother was bringing my mother home from the store. She was walking up the gangway, and the wind came up and propelled that pink fence toward our house like a missile. My mother had gone by maybe a minute before--if she had been standing there it would have knocked her down four concrete steps and killed her. Do you know who's frightened here? Not these men. My mother is. She doesn't understand fences or pink fences. She is afraid they are hurting her health."
Nemeth and Bowden had already complained about John to 45th Ward alderman Patrick Levar and to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. "The alderman supports human rights, but we don't typically get involved in neighborly disputes," says Levar's aide Terry Boyke. Bill Greaves, the commission's liaison on gay and lesbian affairs, says the experience of Nemeth and Bowden, even if all true, amounts to less than a criminal offense. "If I say I hate you or I say I'm going to kill you, that doesn't rise to the level of a hate crime," he says. "I've said something, but I've not acted on it. Under the First Amendment people have a right to say almost anything they want--and they do. You can harass people for a long time and stay on the good side of the law."
"What has amazed me and Jim is that there is no remedy for us," says Bowden. "Can our freedom to enjoy our house--the first house either of us has owned--be limited by somebody else? This is having a tremendous impact on our lives." Nemeth says the situation has made him depressed.
"My mother survived two world wars, the Greek civil war, coming to this country, and stepping in dog shit," says John. "Her corner of the world has become her kitchen, the TV room, the back porch, and the backyard. Now these guys are trying to kill her with a pink fence and getting the 16th District cops after her for listening to the divine liturgy in Athens. To paint a portrait of me as Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin, that's unfair. You can't use gayness or lifestyle as an excuse for being bad neighbors. If there's any bigotry here, it's coming from them."
The dispute has only intensified in the last couple of weeks. Nemeth and Bowden hung a rainbow flag on their fence facing the Vasilopuloses' house for a few days. They permanently installed the pink sections of the fence along the gangway. They also bought another section of fence, painted it pink, wrote on it in bloodred letters "Hate will not be tolerated," then installed it next to the other pink sections.
John is incensed. "Do you have any idea of the psychological torture she is going through?" he says. On the day a friend came to visit his mother he blocked his side of the walk between the two houses with ladders, trying to prevent her from seeing the antihate message.
Neither side is now talking to the other. John Vasilopulos is scheduled to appear in court on September 24 to answer the charge in the citation.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.