Walking east on Argyle Street away from the Red Line stop on the El, you’ll pass a stretch of Vietnamese businesses and restaurants. Taking a left on Sheridan reveals an unremarkable half-a-block until the neon lettering of Big Chicks appears on your left. Inside the Lakewood bar, you’re met with low light, an indy soundtrack, and cheap beer. Every available space on the walls is covered in a framed photo, drawing or painting. The emphasis is on portraiture: strong women, many bearing their bodies unapologetically, gaze at you. The space is attached to an adjacent restaurant called Tweet, where on the first and third Tuesday of each month, a microphone is placed at one end of the room. Shortly after 7:30, queer Chicago musician Scott Free stands up, passes a guitar strap over his wide shoulders, and announces the start of the latest edition of the music and poetry gathering he’s run for, by his estimation, 12 years: Homolatte.
Tweet is composed of a thin strip of tables bordered on one side by a wall of booths and mirrors and on the other by a set of short walls running perpendicular to each other, zigging and zagging down the length of the room. Those walls are a gallery as well, holding a jumble of pictures mixing the geometry of urban architecture with pastoral scenes of abandoned barns standing alone in fields.
Over the next hour, the space fills with a crowd of more than two dozen, a mix of races, genders, and ages. Free opens the evening by performing two acoustic songs - one that he says is about “lost love,” the other about “lust.” He is large, and the sound from his guitar is full, the base line vibrating through the seats.
After he's done, Free turns the microphone over to Chicago poet Betsy Merbitz. She is small, with a shaved head and glasses. She stands behind the mic and recites her poems softly, intently, and almost exclusively from memory. They recount incidents from her youth (“I considered if I was bisexual today”), her relationship to art (writing allows her to “nail down these wiggly things” before her eyes), and issues of racial injustice (“A black man ran straight towards me in East Baltimore...I had flinched, recoiled, shuddered in fear.”) One of her poems lauds the power of music. “Poets rarely get you on your feet,” she says. When she’s finished, she is met with a standing ovation.
Free says Homolatte has taken place at Big Chicks for two years, it’s fifth location. At the time of the event’s founding, Free felt that when it came to independent poetry and music, “there just wasn’t a lot going on in terms of live performance in the gay community.” Instead, “it just seemed to be very bar-oriented and dance-music oriented.”
He thinks things in Chicago are different today. “There’s a lot more going on,” he says, and reels of a list of related events around town. But he still sees a need for more. He thinks the Halsted Market Days and Pride Fest, two of Chicago’s largest events in gay-friendly areas, are overly corporate. He says Pride Fest, which features live music, has a history of being surprisingly closed off to a diverse group of queer performers. Free has a new project in the works, the Queer Music Alliance of Chicago, that he hopes will promote Chicago’s gay artists by encouraging local businesses to host them. “There’s never been a club that plays local queer music,” he explains.
Not all of Homolatte’s performers are LGBTQ, but Free says his goal when recruiting acts is to always prominently feature at least one gay artist. Betsy Merbitz, the poet, appreciated the opportunity the event provided her. “Any group in our society that’s marginalized, I think that having our own space is just really an important and valuable thing,” she says. “I really just value the connection we have with the audience in those kind of spaces, and the way that we can have our little bit of our own culture. I certainly perform at other spaces too, but its really great to have this.”
During her set, one of the poems Merbitz reads is called “Grateful.” She touches on the prevalence of suicides among gay teens before noting that “survival is not a given.”
“It took 30 years, 19 poems and a thousand thrown-out pages, but there is one thing that I know for certain,” she recites. “I am so grateful to be here.”