Smile Politely

Six years later, we still need a queer performance space in C-U

Two photos, side by side. On the left: Image from inside Chester Street bar depicting a packed dance floor, a large disco ball overhead, and confetti raining down on the crowd. Bar lighting is multicolored with a large golden light reflecting off of the disco ball. On the right: Image from inside Chester Street bar depicting a packed dance floor, a large disco ball overhead, and several people on what appears to be a stage in the background. Bar lighting is mostly purple with some blue.
SorceryKid on Flickr;

Three years ago, we published an article lamenting how three years after the 2017 closure of the iconic Chester Street Bar (C Street), Champaign-Urbana still lacks a dedicated queer performance space. So now six years later, has anything changed? Do we have a queer performance space? Not really.

Here’s what we do have: A proposal for official recognition of 63 Chester Street’s contributions to the city of Champaign. And that’s about it. We don’t even have the shell of the C Street building following its 2021 collapse after a fire. 

Some of you may rightfully point out that some local businesses are queer-friendly and host events like drag shows, Pride programming, and queer dance parties. These are fantastic and we hope you show your support by going out and attending these events. But there is a difference between queer-friendly and an explicitly queer-owned, queer-operated, queer space for queer people. 

It’s not just that a queer performance space provides a safe space to be openly gay, fit in, and find community. It’s not even that existing in Capitalism™ means that how you spend your money conveys values and identity and is as meaningful as who you vote for. It’s also that, as long-time C-U resident and drag show host Amy Myers shared with us three years ago, gay bars are important spaces to remember community history and the hard-won fights for rights. 

And lest you think that those fights are part of the distant past, just last year in our own backyard (well, Tolono) there was a kerfuffle about a rainbow Pride Month display put on by the Tolono Public Library, which prompted us to write about the need to support LGTBQ+ kids in small towns

We could go on and on about why it’s past time to have a dedicated queer space back in our community but since we have already written about the history of queer spaces in C-U in detail, we won’t belabor the point. 

There is no shortage of empty storefronts and possible venues that could be ideal spots for a new queer space. Just to name a few now-closed businesses whose landlords have not yet announced new leases: Crane Alley, Clark Bar, Stix Arcade Bar, Memphis on Main. And those are just in the downtown areas. Midtown Champaign is looking pretty sad these days and has some huge spaces for rent, including the spaces formerly occupied by Habitat for Humanity, Mother Murphy’s, and Dallas and Co., among others. Maybe a queer space is just the thing to liven it up!

Wherever a queer performance space ends up (ideally not in Campustown, which remains a nightmare for parking and would be prohibitive for non-students to attend both logistically and with regard to what happens when bars and clubs are marketed to a student population), it should be an accessible and inclusive place for people of all demographics. This includes, among other things, considerations such as bathroom accessibility, having non-alcoholic beverages available for non-drinkers, automatic doors or elevators for access to a second floor, and ensuring any policies, such as dress codes, aren’t actually discriminatory. 

As GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said, “There can be no Pride if it is not intersectional.” Intersectionality refers to the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. 

So to kick off National Pride Month we begin by sharing our wish for a queer performance space in C-U. In the meantime, we hope to see you at some of the many June Pride programs from United Pride in Champaign County. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker. 

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