On Friday night, attendees crammed into Berlin, Chicago’s iconic LGBTQ club in Lakeview. While the crowd varied in terms of identities and gender expressions, the group melted into a single pulsing entity as Doja Cat’s “Boss Bitch” thumped throughout the room. They dance with abandon, clad in zipper-studded red jumpsuits and black mesh crop tops, climbing onto the stage with chosen family and strangers, the world outside forgotten for a few all-too-brief hours.
Just 24 hours later, in Colorado Springs, more than a thousand miles away from Chicago, a horrifying scene unfolded as a man wearing body armor walked into LGBTQ nightclub Club Q with an AR-15-style rifle and, by the most recent count, killed five people and injured 18 more.
The question of nightclub patronage following pandemic shutdowns has been the subject of much hand-wringing locally and nationally. But it’s the attacks like this weekend’s — coming on November 20, known as Trans Day of Remembrance, an annual time to mourn and honor people killed by perpetrators of anti-transgender violence — that will continue to fuel fear, particularly among the dominant demographic in numerous Chicago queer clubs: members of Gen Z, early 20-somethings who had to wait through the early years of COVID-19 for their chance to experience the city’s famed LGBTQ nightlife scene.
Chrissy Chlapecka, a 22-year-old co-host of a semi-regular dance party at Berlin, began speaking publicly about their queer identity in 2020, accumulating 5.1 million TikTok followers. And last summer, Chlapecka and fellow queer performer Ramona Slick founded the dance party series, Bifurious, to both highlight the oft-misunderstood bisexual community and represent high femme gender expression, a concept characterized by explorations of femininity outside of its relationship to men.
“I want to be the queer big sibling I never had,” Chlapecka says. “I have a chance to create a safe and supportive space for high femme expressions and extreme femininity.”
Slick is interested in creating queer experiences for Gen Z, too, both inside and outside clubs. She’s the creator of Rated Q, an all-ages Chicago drag show and queer film screening series held at Chicago’s iconic Music Box Theatre, and in February, told the Reader that Chicago’s young people deserve to get in on the fun and freedom of drag – and being queer in public – too.
When Slick and Chlapecka took the stage to introduce themselves on Friday, their names were barely audible over the screams of delighted fans. After reminding partygoers to tip generously at the bar and stage, Slick struck a pose in her soaring platform heels to invoke the sole rule of the event, and the consequences for breaking it: “The only one we practice at Bifurious is consent. So if anyone has any fucking problem we’ll curb-stomp them with our big-ass fucking boots!”
That energy continued across the neighborhood formerly known as Boystown, as even with the bitter cold winds outside, a small throng was gathered inside Hydrate, a nearly 20-year-old hot spot known for drag shows and DJs, for Fresh Faces, the club’s competition for emerging drag performers seeking to hone their skills. Jane, 21, a Las Vegas transplant who was too young to enter queer bars and clubs while living in Nevada, shakes her long blonde-brunette mane as she explains she’s there to support her partner, a drag king and the first performer that evening. Her slight frame was dwarfed by an oversized fleece, she shifted nervously in her sneakers, trying to string together the words to describe her emotions. “Yeah, it’s really fun and cool here!” she says. “I’ve been here before. I really like it. Um, I’m going to go get a drink now.”
As at Berlin, expectations about respect and safety are laid bare at Hydrate. “Consent is not only sexy, it is mandatory,” Fresh Faces co-host Miss Angelica Grace trilled into her microphone. At last, Jane’s generation gets to bask in the queer communal joy they’d waited for, clustering around the stage clutching dollar bills to tip each performer as they strut, werk, and death drop onstage.
Blocks away at Scarlet Bar, a 15-year-old late-night queer dance club, the vibe was similarly buoyant. There may be no better bait for Gen Z patrons, at least in Northalsted, than ubiquitous pop superstar Harry Styles, and young patrons flooded the dance floor for a chance to listen to his full album at the bar’s No Skips: Harry’s House event. The young revelers at Scarlet Bar on Friday are both stars and audience, their attention focused on one another, arms flung in the air and around one another, “I just wanna make you happier, baby,” they tell each other, lip-syncing along to Styles’ “Late Night Talking.”
In the aftermath of the mass shooting at Club Q, there has been a communal mourning across the country as queer people once again feel their lives and their safe spaces being threatened. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the first Black and lesbian elected to the position in a major U.S. city, tweeted Sunday: “We woke up again this morning to a horrible attack on the LGBTQ+ community, this time in Colorado — and in a space where they should have felt safe. A gun, coupled with hate, once again has led to horrific outcomes.”
And yet, in the midst of grief and anguish, there is also strength and defiance. “We have had a long fight for the veil of safety the door to a gay club provides — the joy, salvation, and the freedom from eyes and mouths that wish for us to be silent,” Berlin’s owners wrote Monday on social media. “Today and every day, be loud. We will not allow this madness to define us, but the resilience we find in one another... Now more than ever, we must stand together.”