BOYSTOWN — Zach Stafford, a 23-year-old mixed-race writer from Tennessee, had a rude awakening when he dressed up in drag in Boystown one night.
Old friends ignored his hellos on the street. Cops stopped him to check his bags for drugs. Cars stopped in an attempt to pick him up as a prostitute.
He'd faced racism in Boystown before — "I don't date black people," men would casually say to him — but that night, he was especially shaken by how a person of color was treated on Halsted.
"That whole night reframed how I looked at Boystown," Stafford said. "Friends didn't even look to see me."
Stafford loves Boystown, and it's part of why he chose to live in Chicago. But the gay community has "room to grow, room to become something more," he said.
It's part of why he and friend Nico Lang, a fellow writer, have collaborated to edit an anthology of essays from 19 gay men around the world called "Boys," which will be published by Thought Catalog as an e-book and print book this fall.
The book aims to represent stories of gay men who don't fit the Boystown stereotype of white, middle-class and educated, he said. It aims to go beyond the traditional story of the gay kid coming out to his parents and then moving to the big city, Stafford said.
In "Boys," there's a story by Buck Angel, a female-to-male transgender porn star, who writes about finding his sexuality on film during the testosterone transition process. There's an essay by Chinese-Canadian writer Jamie Woo on how he trained himself to love men who look like him by watching porn with people of color.
Stafford himself writes about the challenges of coming out while also being bulimic. Gay pop culture tends to joke about men with eating disorders — "It's something people think they have to have to be a gay man," he said, when it should be discussed as an epidemic.
"I really want there to be a piece of work out there that showcases stories that go unnoticed in Boystown," he said.
People may feel uncomfortable reading some of the essays, but the book is not about calling Boystown racist or pointing fingers, Stafford said. It's about starting a conversation about how stereotypes are perpetuated.
"I think there's this idea of as a boy, we always have room to grow, room to become something more," he said. "Nico and I both think the gay community has a lot of growing to do. We're not fully realized yet."
"Boys" will be released as an e-book in October. The print edition will be released early next year. Proceeds will be donated to a LGBT charity.