November 24, 2022

The Midwest’s Largest Gay Bar Is a Symbol of Love, Community

  • When it opened in 1982, it was an 800 square foot dive bar with no windows or signage.
  • For gay people in Chicago and the Midwest, however, it was a haven.
  • Sidetrack has been at the forefront as a fundraiser, donor and organizer for LGBTQ rights.

With 15,000 square feet spread over two floors and over eight storefronts, Sidetrack is considered the largest gay bar in the Midwest. Located on Chicago’s north side on Halsted St., it’s seen at least eight major expansions in two decades, which is why locals affectionately call it “the bar that ate Halsted.”

But Sidetrack wasn’t always so big. When it opened in 1982, it was an 800 square foot dive bar with no windows or signage except for a sheet of plywood on which owners Arthur “Art” Johnston and José “Pepe” Peña had spray painted the word “Soon.” It was his only sign – with a gay slur, which a hospitable neighbor had spray-painted on the front door as a welcome gift instead of the usual pastries.

At the time, Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood – which recently changed its name to “Northalsted” – was a bustling area plagued by gangs and crime. For gay people in Chicago and the Midwest, however, it was a haven in which to seek safety and shelter from the confines of the closet. Almost immediately, Sidetrack became its epicenter.

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“The first night we opened, we ran out of beer at 10 p.m.,” recalls Peña, who says Sidetrack stayed busy every night after that. Not because he offered spirits. But rather, because it offered solidarity.

“Throughout our history as queer people, bars were often the only spaces where we were allowed to be free. And in those spaces, we created a community,” says Kevin Hausworth, a longtime friend of Johnston and Peña. “We found each other and, in finding each other, we began to develop our power. This power is what has allowed us to go out into the world and meet very great challenges.

Challenges like marriage equality, which Johnston championed as co-founder of Equality Illinois, the prairie state’s oldest and largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.

In this way, Sidetrack has become not only a social hub, but also a political powerhouse, according to Hausworth, executive producer of Art and Pep, a documentary about Johnston and Peña slated to premiere this year – the bar’s 40th anniversary. Co-created with director and producer Mercedes Kane, it’s the story of a thriving business, the diverse community she nurtured, the civil rights movement she joined, and the loving couple whose relationship 49-year-old is as much an institution as the company he was born into.

“People didn’t know how to behave”

Now 78, Johnston and Peña met in 1973 when they were 29. Johnston, a high school drama teacher who moved from Buffalo, New York, via Virginia, had moved to Evanston, Illinois, in 1972 to attend graduate school at Northwestern. University. Fearing crime in the city, he spent an entire year in the suburbs without setting foot in Chicago. Then, one evening, his peers invited him to bars downtown. Peña, a Cuban immigrant who moved to Chicago from Miami, was a bartender at one.

“I fell madly in love. Like, instantly. But he had a partner, who coincidentally was also named Arthur,” says Johnston. “So I would go back to his bar twice a week just to have a beer and go home. Then one night he said to me, ‘By the way, I broke up with Arthur today.’ I let some time pass, then I asked, ‘What are you doing after work tonight?’ He came home with me that night and never left. Literally. So we basically had a 49-year-old first date.

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For nearly a decade, Johnston taught while Peña tended the bar. Then a dear friend came to them with an original idea: he wanted to open the first gay “video bar” in the Midwest and he wanted Peña to run it for him.

Music videos were just beginning to hit the scene — MTV debuted in 1981 — so Peña had to create many of the videos himself, aggregating interesting visuals from films and setting them to popular music.

“At first, people didn’t know how to behave,” recalls Peña, who says customers weren’t sure if they were supposed to be quiet, like watching movies at the cinema, or social, like watching TV at home. house with a partner. “So for the first few months we were open, it was like a zombie bar…People just sat quietly and stared at the screen.”

Crowds enjoy musical Mondays at the Sidetrack bar in the 80s.

However, the concept quickly caught on. So much so that many other bars have tried to replicate it. Although most of them failed, Sidetrack held on.

Johnston credits Peña, who decades later still serves as Sidetrack’s resident VJ.

“He was the best bartender,” Johnston says. “He was cute and funny and kind, and he knew everyone.”

He was also smart: to boost business, he had the idea of ​​organizing regular theme nights – like “Musical Monday Show Tunes”, which Sidetrack always organizes every Monday, which is often the “weekend” for workers in the theater and catering industries. .

“It became a big problem,” says Peña. “I can’t think of any city today where gay bars don’t play music on Mondays or Tuesdays, but we were the first.”

Serving Equality

Johnston and Peña found their political voice in 1977. As part of her “Save Our Children” crusade, anti-gay activist Anita Bryant had led a successful campaign to overturn a Dade County, Florida ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. When she traveled to Chicago a week later, she was greeted by 5,000 members of the LGBTQ community who had turned out to protest – including Johnston and Peña, who were so inspired they later joined their efforts to secure passage of the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance, a landmark law protecting lesbian, gay, and bisexual people from discrimination in housing, employment, and public housing.

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“Because Chicago is a Catholic city, people thought we could never pass a fundamental gay rights ordinance here. But we did it,” says Johnston, who lobbied for the bill alongside other LGBTQ business owners. “And when we passed this law in the city of Chicago in 1988, that changed everything. Soon after, the same law firms that were firing gay employees began looking for gay employees. It was a tremendous and incredible change.

Fresh off their victory, Johnston and other local activists in 1991 created Equality Illinois, which for 31 years led efforts to elect pro-LGBTQ lawmakers and pass pro-LGBTQ laws. Among his biggest victories, for example, was lobbying for the Religious Freedom and Marriage Equity Act, which in 2013 made Illinois the 16th state to legalize marriage equality.

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During this stage and others, Sidetrack has been at the forefront as a fundraiser, donor and organizer.

“I would be hard pressed to find anything significant in the history of our community that didn’t start in a bar,” says Johnston. “Of course, when we opened, no elected official – no one running for office – would have been caught dead near a gay bar. Now we literally have to program the candidates so they don’t cross paths. It There was a month recently, for example, where the governor was here twice and the mayor four times, which is remarkable to me.

love and longevity

Sidetrack’s success has been huge, but not easy. In its early days, for example, gay bars had to pay gangsters and policemen to avoid being raided by law enforcement. At the same time, landlords regularly forced homosexual businesses out of their buildings. Then came the AIDS epidemic, which struck down an entire generation of customers and employees. At one point — when the friend and business partner they opened Sidetrack with died suddenly, leaving ownership of the bar to his mother — Johnston and Peña even nearly lost the business.

The bar’s most recent challenge, of course, was COVID-19, which shuttered Sidetrack for three months and put Johnston himself in the hospital.

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Somehow, Sidetrack survived it all.

If you ask Johnston and Peña, they’ll attribute their longevity to good fortune. But if you ask Kane, who filmed Art and Pep during the pandemic, the secret to their success is actually love.

“Their love for each other has been the spark for all the work they’ve done,” Kane says. “It’s the foundation of Sidetrack, and that’s why Sidetrack feels like such a safe and welcoming space for everyone who goes there. It’s a seed that has grown and spread into the community, bringing together the people to make change possible for the LGBTQ community.

The seed is still growing. Johnston and Peña’s current project, for example, is the development of a gay cannabis brand. And eventually they would like to open a hotel nearby on Halsted Street. As “gayborhoods” in other cities disband — an unintended consequence of LGBTQ progress and acceptance — they are determined to keep Chicago alive.

Chicago's largest gay bar sponsors the Sidetrack float in a Pride Parade.  The bar is a staple of the gay community.

“We absolutely believe that assimilation has been a good thing, but there are still times when you need to be around people you perceive as part of your clan,” says Johnston. “We have the most vibrant gay district in the country. And for that reason, I know – I don’t just believe, I know – that the best place in the United States to be gay or lesbian is Chicago.