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Chicago bar Touche stirs controversy after racist puppet show

On Tuesday, puppeteer Gerry Halliday brought out one of his puppets during Touchet’s 45th anniversary show and staged a performance that patrons called racist and transphobic – and which has since plunged the bar into controversy.

One of the four featured on Halliday website, the doll in the play was called “Sista Girl” and resembled a black woman. The act prompted people in attendance to speak out – two of them calling it a “huge slap in the face” – and even forced the bartender to walk out mid-shift.

Touché manager David Boyer released a statement via the bar’s Twitter account, Instagram and Facebook accounts on Wednesday in which he apologized.

“(Tuesday) at Touchet’s 45th birthday celebration, puppeteer Gerry Halliday included racist and transphobic puppets and jokes in his act. We deeply regret that we did not check the artist before the event,” the statement reads. “We apologize for not responding and stopping the show. People were hurt by his words. Racism and transphobia is wrong, we need to do better.”

On Touche site, the program for the bar’s 45th anniversary included a description of the Holiday show, which welcomed, along with “its colorful cast of characters,” to “salute our early days on Lincoln Avenue.” Halliday did not respond to a request for comment.

Phillip Smith took to Twitter to share his experience of attending the show at the Rogers Park leather gay bar, explaining that patrons were asked not to record during the puppeteer’s performance. However, he declined the request when he saw the puppet that Halliday had brought.

“When the show started, I was like, ‘How can I be an ally at this point?'” Smith told the Tribune. “I said this in my (Twitter) thread, but victims of racism are often told they are exaggerating or being too sensitive or dismissing the culture to diminish their experience.”

According to Smith, the performer used to crack outdated jokes, some of which he said over-sexualized black women.

“After the shock wore off, it was sad and disappointing because you would hope that people would know better at this point. It was also frustrating because the general manager was sitting at a table right in front of the stage,” Smith said.

In the footage, which Smith shared on Twitter, Halliday can be heard cheering after someone in the audience confronts him, saying: “Everyone in the crowd thinks it’s a little weird for 2022.”

Mike Geyer, the contestant who challenged Halliday, told the Tribune that he initially had no intention of confronting the puppeteer. He said he first spoke to some people near the front door and noticed people leaving and looking worried.

“I noticed what was happening on the stage. I noticed a few more people near the bar with pained faces so I just quietly walked around and just checked in with my friends. (I) had no intentional communication with the puppeteer. He, as it were, summoned me. A lot of people were talking – I don’t know why he singled me out for talking and quiet talking.”

He said that although it is not heard in Smith’s video, he told Halliday that he thought it was inappropriate for a white man to perform with a black puppet.

“All my friends were people of color who were there to have a good time at a bar they liked,” Geyer said. “And they were very uncomfortable and clearly upset, and that’s what upset me a little bit because I put myself in their shoes and saw how horrible it was.”

Miguel Torres, Touché’s 2014 Mr. Chicago Leather, was at Touché Tuesday night, but closed his tab and left during Halliday’s performance.

Torres, a frequent visitor, told the Tribune that the performance “was like a big slap in the face for the community, for all these people and for all the marginalized groups that put their free time and energy and soul into making this bar what it is . was”.

“Old-school leather bars tend to focus a lot on masculinity and things like that, so over the years we’ve been managing, we’ve done a lot of work to make sure the posters aren’t old, white men, we’ve had representation,” Torres said.

“This guy had a puppet show and he just brought out an African American puppet called ‘Sista Girl’ and this white man started making these voices, racist voices, and played on all the stereotypes that you hope have been eradicated. It was just very unpleasant,” he said.

Touché bartender Chris Blau walked out and quit in the middle of his shift on Tuesday after he felt uncomfortable with Halliday’s jokes.

“My job that night was to … enjoy it, people, and make them feel good and validated and noticed,” the former bartender told the Tribune. “And then my night did a 180 in 45 minutes to an hour.”

He said he texted a friend during his shift, “Hey, I gotta go.”

“It’s a really unpleasant, ugly, really frustrating situation,” Blau said.

“I just think it was a big slap in the face for a lot of communities, those two in particular,” he said, referring to people of color, transgender and non-binary people, “given that there are racist and transphobic jokes. »

In his statement, Boyer highlighted the bar’s 45-year history and asked patrons to allow them to prove their resolve and not let the controversy overshadow the service it provides to the community. Touchet, Boyer said, is planning a community meeting at the Leather Archives and Museum at 7 p.m. Nov. 9 so community members can voice their concerns and discuss ways forward.

But for some participants, the statement did not go far enough. Smith called it a “patterned apology” and “a real disappointment,” while Geyer said it was “very patterned.”

“The statement came out and, as expected, it was apology bingo, what do we call — it was all the key words,” Torres said of the apology. “I don’t see many ways other than the immediate departure of the leadership for the community to heal.”

“I don’t know what the future holds for Touché. But I think the way things are right now is not okay, and I think it’s really rude to act that way just as some kind of mistake or confusion or misunderstanding,” Blau said.

“I think there’s been a history of things happening in Chicago in the last couple of years in queer spaces that haven’t always been affirming and sometimes dangerous,” Blau added.

Smith also sees the city as a space where there is a constant need for growth in terms of diversity and inclusion, especially in the last few years.

“Chicago, I think in particular, is the epicenter of a lot of discussions about inclusivity in LGBTQ spaces and how we need to make black people and people of color feel like they belong in spaces that have historically been crowded with white gay people and their interests,” he said.

Controversy at Touché follows one at another Chicago social space: Tuesday’s Bucktown live music concert The Hideout announced that it will close by the end of the year after a former employee shared allegations of a toxic work environment.



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