The cars pull up one by one into the desolate suburban parking lot of Hunter’s Nightclub in Elk Grove Village. Transgender activists and people of all gender identifications dressed in varying degrees of drag step out of the vehicles and start organizing. Behind them, a trans flag hangs from the roof of a station wagon. The protesters excitedly look over talking points, pass around a petition and take a moment to hug and catch up. “You’ve got a beard, look at you!” someone in the crowd shouts. “We should give out genderfucked cards,” says another. The party is hastily broken up, however, when the bar’s manager arrives on the scene, accompanied by a bouncer. Asked if the group could enter the bar rather than be kicked out, the manager replies, “If you’ve got IDs.”
Hunter’s, one of the best-known gay bars in the northwest suburbs, has served Chicago’s LGBT community for twenty-seven years. A couple of months ago, Hunter’s instituted a policy that requires patrons to show IDs that match their “gender presentation.” As a result, transgender and cross-dressing customers whose IDs don’t show them in drag may not be admitted. The bar’s management claims that they reluctantly put the policy into effect because transgender prostitutes were posting ads on Craigslist naming Hunter’s as a rendezvous point, which could jeopardize their liquor license and put their business at risk.
A group of local LGBTQ advocates believe that the bar’s carding protocol discriminates against gender-variant people. Kate Sosin, an organizer of Friday’s protest, is concerned that “this policy which discriminates against trans people could be replicated.” The law in question is designed to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors and states that establishments reserve the right to refuse to serve liquor to “anyone unable to produce adequate written proof of identity and age.” The ambiguous language about “proof of identity” creates a legal imbroglio and opens old wounds in the LGBT community, where some, like Sosin, are worried that “trans issues like this are not being addressed as the LGB movement pushes forward.”
With pink bands tied around their arms, the protesters queue up by the door. Inside, the manager and bouncer scrupulously examine state-issued licenses, occasionally asking people to remove their hats so that the IDs can be more easily verified. All but two of the protesters are let into the bar. Aidan Tharp, who identifies as male and genderqueer, is turned away even though he’s presently very feminine, wearing a slinky black dress and red wig, despite the fact that his ID lists his gender as female. After Tharp changes into pants and a shirt, he is allowed into the bar. Hyacinth Piel, who is also refused entry, says she is “proud… that I look like myself instead of the person on this government card.” Another, Joanie B., claims she paid the five-dollar cover charge, was admitted, then left to join the protesters—and she was not allowed to re-enter the club.
Rick Garcia, the Public Policy Director for Equality Illinois, says he was surprised when he first heard about the controversy surrounding Hunter’s because it has been “an oasis in the northwestern suburbs” for gay and transgender people. “When I heard about the policy… I was concerned because it is wrong. But I was also concerned because Hunter’s does not have that kind of reputation.” Attributing the controversy to a “misunderstanding” and “lack of communication” between the two groups, Garcia hopes that the protest has demonstrated that unjust policies toward transgender people will not be tolerated. In any case, as Piel says, for greater fairness and queer liberation “it seems like it would require at this level just a really minor tweak. I mean, I’m not asking for much. I want to go and get a drink in a club.” (Rachel Wiseman)