It was bad enough that the scuffle at last month's "Strapped in Leather" fashion ball at the New City YMCA made the papers. But then the Y's central office used it to close the door on Michael "Skeet" Horton, one of New City's most popular employees. "Skeet's the heart and soul of the New City Y," says Mark Ballogg, a volunteer who oversees its community youth baseball league. "Without Skeet, New City's not much more than a glorified health club."
This probably wouldn't have happened if the Y weren't so pressed for money. But for the past few years, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, or Metro to most of its employees, has encouraged its 38 branches to raise operating funds by renting their facilities. New City rents its football and soccer fields for two or three summer rock concerts. It rents Cubs Care Park, a miniature replica of Wrigley Field built for Cabrini-Green Little Leaguers, to adult softball leagues. It even rents its playground for dog shows.
So Horton wasn't surprised when a New City Y member, who goes by the stage name Father Neiman Marcus Escada, approached him in October looking to rent the gym for a fashion show. "I said, 'What kind of fashion show?'" says Horton. "He said, 'I'm a designer, and I want people from the industry to look at my stuff.'"
Horton took the request to Greg Weider, New City's acting executive director, and Weider approved it. And so for $1,300 Escada rented the gym from 1 AM until 8 AM on Sunday, December 19.
"I asked him what type of setup would he need," says Horton. "He said, 'We're going to have people dress up, and they will come out of the locker rooms.' It never occurred to me to ask if it was going to be a drag show. I thought, here's a guy trying to do something positive. I thought we were supporting his dreams--plus making money for the Y."
Horton says he and Weider knew there was also a youth swimming meet on the 19th that started around 8 AM, but they didn't think it would conflict with the fashion show. "Based on what Escada told me, I had no reason to think that anyone would see something that would turn people off to the Y," says Horton. "I thought some of the parents might even like the designs and ask for his card."
But it wasn't an ordinary fashion show. It was a "ball"--a contest in which designers and models, most of them gay, compete for trophies and cash. Around 400 people attended, paying $25 apiece. "Balls are events that give individuals a chance to take something they have learned and turn it into an opportunity to make it a career," says Escada. "This is not new to people who are gay. It's a huge culture. There are balls all over the country. Puff Daddy has been to them. Many of the supermodels have started their careers at them."
Escada says he did nothing wrong. He billed the ball as an adults-only event. He had a dozen security guards on hand. He even let local police know there would be a "gay event" at the Y on the 19th. "The ball was called 'Strapped in Leather,'" he says. "Everybody who came to the ball was dressed in leather. They made leather pants, leather skirts, leather gloves. That was the theme."
Escada didn't give Horton details about the ball because he didn't think he should have to. "In my contract I told them this was a fashion show with music and cheering and cameras," he says. "We're people like everybody else. If you have a basketball event are you going to have to say a 'straight' basketball team's playing? When parents have swimming meets they don't say, 'We're having a heterosexual swim meet. Can we rent your pool?' Why should I say it's a gay event? That would be discriminatory."
At around 6:30 AM, parents and swimmers started showing up for the swim meet. "We could see young kids looking through the glass doors into the gym," says Escada. "Again, this was not meant for kids. We never billed it as anything but an adult show."
Then two spectators at the ball squabbled with security guards who'd asked them to move away from the judges' area. One spectator threw a chair at a guard and was escorted out of the gym. Parents who'd come for the swim meet complained to Y staffers about the leather-clad models in the locker room. The Y staffers, not sure how to handle things, blocked the models from going into the locker room. The models said they had the gym until 8 AM. Words were exchanged, and someone called the police. The police came, but left without arresting anyone.
By 8:30 the ball was over and Escada and the other participants and spectators had left. "From our perspective it was a great event," says Escada. "The YMCA staff who saw it told me, 'Great show.'"
But men in leather and boys in bathing suits at the local Y was too sensational for the press to ignore. "Kids at YMCA swim meet run into cross-dressing ball," ran the headline in the December 20 Sun-Times. The next day Tribune columnist John Kass revealed a few new sordid details: three condoms--one "unused," two "soiled"--had been found on a locker-room floor.
By Wednesday the story had been picked up by the wire services and dispatched around the world. Officials at Metro were steaming. "I talked to Greg [Weider], and he told me that Metro was talking about firing him," says Horton. "I said, 'That's crazy. If they fire you I'll resign.' See, Greg's a good guy. He didn't do anything wrong. I didn't think anyone should be fired. We didn't know they were going to have this event with men dressed in leather."
Horton says he didn't really want to leave the Y. He only hoped to protect Weider, figuring that if he said he would resign the Y wouldn't fire Weider. He certainly didn't think anyone would accept his resignation. "I hadn't done anything wrong," he says. In retrospect, he realizes he was naive. "It sounded to me that they wanted heads to roll, whether or not that was deserved," he says. "I told Greg, 'If anyone's going to suffer I'd rather it be me than you.' He said, 'No, do not resign.'"
Metro accepted Horton's resignation and fired Weider (who didn't return phone calls for this article). Horton found out when he read it in the December 24 Sun-Times. "No one from Metro ever called me for my side of the story," he says. "I still don't understand how they can take action without talking to me."
Metro officials thought they were acting decisively to reassure the public. "We took the situation seriously," says Luis Diaz-Perez, Metro's director of communication. "The scheduling conflict should never have happened."
But instead of reassuring the public, they angered more people. Escada says Metro contributed to the public's "misconception" of his group and its ball. "There's so much distortion about what happened," he says. "For starters, there was no sex at the ball." If the condoms were "soiled," it was with rice and water. "We have a contest where a small number of men dress up in drag and they compete," he explains. "They form their breasts with condoms--you put water and rice in the condoms, and you put them in the inside of the bra. That's what those condoms they apparently found on the floor were for. And we would have picked them up had they let us in the locker room."
Many New City parents also think Metro overreacted. Yes, they concede, it's bad that someone threw a chair. But no one was hurt. No one was arrested. No property was damaged. "The Y was embarrassed, so they threw someone to the wolves," says Jay Kelly, a New City member. "I don't think it was necessary to fire anybody, and I say this as the parent of an eight-year-old who swims and plays basketball at the Y."
Kelly says Metro hurt New City by accepting Horton's resignation, because he bridges the gap between blacks and whites in that part of town. Horton grew up in the area when it was a black working-class community, and as a child he lived in an apartment that was demolished to make way for the Y when it was built in the 70s. He's been running sports programs at New City since 1998, teaching basketball to hundreds of boys and girls (including mine) of all races. He also oversees a weekly men's league that has some of the area's best players and a Saturday youth league that's refereed and coached by volunteers he recruits. "Skeet knows everybody in that community," says Ballogg. "I can't believe they're letting him go."
The kids' Saturday basketball league was on break over the holidays, and Diaz-Perez says it will start up again as planned on January 15, even though Horton won't be there to set up evenly matched teams, coordinate volunteers, and schedule games. "They're going to put together a full program with refs and coaches and volunteers in less than a week?" says Ballogg. "Come on. I don't know what they'll have on January 15, but it won't be as good as what they had."
Ballogg thinks it's strange that the Y suddenly decided to get sensitive about what kids see at its facilities. In the spring and summer his kids in the baseball league have to watch beer-swilling adults play in the softball leagues in Cubs Care Park. The rock concerts on the football and soccer fields are sponsored by beer companies, and even more booze is consumed. "How is drinking beer on the field part of the Y's mission?" he says. "This year's reggae concert was in the middle of our world series. Our kids are trying to play, and the music is so loud we can barely hear each other."
Horton had persuaded Ballogg to take over New City's community baseball program after Louis Carter, the previous volunteer organizer, pulled out in disgust. According to Carter, his teams of kids from Cabrini-Green couldn't get enough playing time at Cubs Care Park because the Y rented it out so often to the adult softball teams. "They've got so many bigger problems at that Y than just what happened at that fashion show," he says. "They don't care about the community. They use our kids to pose for pictures in their fund-raising letters, saying, 'Look what we're doing with these poor kids.' Then they shove them out of the baseball park."
Since Horton left, several dozen parents have called New City to say they want him back, and they're circulating a petition. One little girl burst into tears when she learned he would no longer teach his weekly "girls-got-game" basketball class.
Horton says he wants to come back, but one Y insider says it will be hard to get Metro officials to reconsider: "It's an ego thing now. They don't want to admit they made a mistake."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.