On Tuesday, puppeteer Jerry Halliday brought out one of his puppets during a show celebrating Touché 45th anniversary and put on a performance that attendees have called racist and transphobic — and which has since plunged the bar into controversy.
One of four featured on Halliday’s website, the puppet in the show was called “Sista Girl” and resembles a Black woman. The act prompted people who were present to speak up — with two of them calling it a “huge slap in the face” — and even caused a bartender to walk out in the middle of his shift.
Touché manager David Boyer released a statement through the bar’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts Wednesday in which he apologized.
“(On Tuesday) at Touché’s 45th anniversary celebration, puppeteer Jerry Halliday included racist and transphobic puppets and jokes in his act. We deeply regret not vetting the entertainer prior to the event,” the statement reads. “We apologize for not reacting and stopping the show. People were harmed by his words. Racism and transphobia are wrong, we need to do better.”
On Touché’s website, the programming for the bar’s 45th anniversary included a description of Halliday’s show, which it was welcoming alongside “his colorful cast of characters” in order to “salute our early days on Lincoln Avenue.” Halliday did not return a request for comment.
On Twitter, Philip Smith shared his experience attending the show at the Rogers Park gay leather bar, explaining that patrons were asked not to record during the puppeteer’s act. However, he defied the request once he saw the puppet Halliday had brought out.
“When the show started, what went through my mind was: ‘How am I able to be an ally in this moment?’” Smith told the Tribune. “I said this in my (Twitter) thread, but victims of racism are oftentimes told that they’re exaggerating or being too sensitive, or cancel culture is invoked as a way to diminish their experiences.”
The performer made dated jokes, Smith said, some of which he said oversexualized Black women.
“After the shock wore off, it was sad and disappointing, because you would hope that people know better at this point. It also was frustrating because the general manager was sitting at a table right in front of the stage,” Smith said.
In the videos Smith shared on Twitter, attendees can be heard cheering on Halliday after someone from the audience confronts him, saying: “Everyone in the crowd thinks this is a little weird for 2022.”
Mike Geier, the attendee who challenged Halliday, told the Tribune he didn’t initially mean to confront the puppeteer. He said he initially was talking to some people near the front door and noticed people leaving and looking disturbed.
“I noticed what was going on onstage. I noticed a few other people around the bar kind of with pained faces on, so I was just kind of quietly going around and just checking in with my friends. (I) wasn’t intentionally engaging with the puppeteer. He kind of called me out. Lots of people were talking — I don’t know why he singled me out for talking and having quiet conversations.”
He said that, while it isn’t audible in Smith’s videos, he told Halliday he thought it was inappropriate for a white man to perform with a Black puppet.
“All my friends were people of color that were there to have a good time at a bar that they love,” Geier said. “And they felt really uncomfortable and visibly upset and that was what really kind of made me a little bit upset because I was putting myself in their shoes and seeing how awful this was.”
Miguel Torres, Touché’s Mr. Chicago Leather 2014, was at Touché on Tuesday night, but closed his tab and left during Halliday’s performance.
Torres, a frequent patron, told the Tribune the performance “felt like a huge slap in the face on the community, from all these people and from all the marginalized groups that have poured their free time, energy and soul into making this bar what it was.”
“Old-school leather bars tend to be very focused on masculinity and that type of thing, so over the years, we’ve guided this management, done a lot of work to make sure that posters weren’t old, white men, that we had representation,” Torres said.
“This guy had this puppet show, and he just brought out this African American doll called ‘Sista Girl’ and this white male started doing these voices, racist voices, and played on all the stereotypes that you hope have been eradicated. It was just extremely upsetting,” he said.
Touché bartender Cris Bleaux walked out and quit in the middle of his shift Tuesday after feeling uncomfortable with the jokes Halliday was making.
“My job that night was to … enjoy it, people, and make them feel good and affirmed and seen,” the former bartender told the Tribune. “And then my night dramatically did a 180 within 45 minutes to an hour.”
He said he texted a friend during his shift, saying, “Hey, I need to leave.”
“It’s a really nasty, ugly, truly disappointing situation,” Bleaux said.
“I just really feel like it was a huge slap in the face to many communities, specifically those two,” he said, referring to people of color and transgender and nonbinary people, “considering that there are racist jokes and transphobic jokes going on.”
In his statement, Boyer emphasized the bar’s 45-year history and asked patrons to let them prove their resolve and to not allow the controversy to overshadow the service it has provided to the community. Touché, Boyer said, is planning a community gathering at the Leather Archives & Museum at 7 p.m. Nov. 9 so members of the community can express their concerns and discuss ways of moving forward.
But for some attendees, the statement didn’t go far enough. Smith called it a “boilerplate apology” and “really disappointing,” and Geier said it was “very formulaic.”
“A statement came out and, as expected, it was apology bingo, what we call — that was all the keywords,” Torres said of the apology. “I don’t see many ways outside of the management quitting immediately for the community to heal.”
“I don’t know what the future of Touché will be. But I think that what it is right now is not OK, and I think acting like this is just like some misstep or confusion or a misunderstanding is really gross,” Bleaux said.
“I think Chicago has had, for the past couple of years, a history of events within queer spaces that has not always been really affirming and sometimes it’s been dangerous,” Bleaux added.
Smith also sees the city as a space where there’s a constant need for growth in regards to diversity and inclusivity, especially in the last few years.
“Chicago, I think particularly, is the epicenter of a lot of discussion about inclusivity in LGBTQ spaces and how we need to make Black folks and people of color feel like they belong in spaces that historically are overrun by gay white men and their interests,” he said.
The controversy at Touché follows one at another Chicago social space: On Tuesday, Bucktown’s live-music fixture The Hideout announced it would close for the remainder of the year after a former employee shared allegations of a toxic work environment.
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