Chicago's Diversity and Collaborative Nature Inspire Me

Why it's great to be queer in Chi-town.

Photo courtesy of Justin LeBlanc; Photo by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Justin LeBlanc; Photo by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Justin LeBlanc; Photo by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Justin LeBlanc calls Chicago home. The deaf queer fashion designer and installation artist has competed on Bravo’s Project Runway Season 12 and All Stars Season 4. Today, LeBlanc helps mold the creative skills of burgeoning fashion designers as an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago. As told to Ari Bendersky.

Coming from a small town in North Carolina, Chicago was a series of major wake-up calls. The city made me realize being a member of the LGBTQ+ community should be celebrated and not silenced. The queer culture in Chicago is endless and I am constantly in awe of the people I meet and the inspiring voices they bring to the community. 

One of those wake up calls was the large queer deaf and hard of hearing community here. We are not as niche as you may think. As a gay deaf man, I realized how alienating it can be if you don’t fit the mold. I often feel like my deafness is not considered to be of value, and I think we can do better to recognize and celebrate this part of the LGBTQ+ community. My intersectional identity is something I love about myself-I celebrate my deafness and I celebrate my queerness and the beauty of both of those communities.

I love that Chicago is a big city with several small towns within it. Every community around Chicago has its own vibe, its own important place in the symbiotic relationship to the city as a whole. Some of my favorite places to explore are those where I can absorb the spirit of the neighborhoods and appreciate the human connections. 

I’ve lived in a number of neighborhoods over the years-Andersonville, Gold Coast, Evanston, Winnetka. I absolutely love Andersonville because it is such a family-oriented, queer-friendly community. Andersonville has this amazing inclusive atmosphere with several great places to really enjoy yourself like Marty’s Martini Bar, Replay, Brown Elephant (a thrift store that supports Howard Brown Health), and Women and Children First Bookstore, which is a fantastic trans-inclusive, feminist-curated independent bookstore. If you can’t tell, I love my community. 

Courtesy of Xfinity
Courtesy of Xfinity
Courtesy of Xfinity

Pride is way more than just parades and parties. With Xfinity, pride is a year-round celebration – thanks to their massive collection of diverse, community-endorsed LGBTQ shows and movies. From a Transgender Awareness Collection of content, to RuPaul’s Drag Race Werk Room – to an LGBTQ Kids & Family Destination of TV shows and movies, you can find the best queer content on your TV just by saying “Pride” into your Xfinity Voice Remote, or watch them on any device with the Xfinity Stream app.

I am currently in Winnetka with my husband so we can be closer to work and our family as we start our own family. We love walking over for a bite at La Taquiza and window shopping at Maison Du Prince, is Black queer-owned home goods boutique. If I could pick any area of Chicago to live in, I would pick Wicker Park, since I consider it the unspoken third queer-centric neighborhood. I am obsessed with Elizabeth Cronin and her [Wicker Park] floral business, Asrai Garden-if you haven’t watched her on Full Bloom on HBO Max, you are missing out on some great LGBTQ+ TV. 

I always challenge folx to try local arts. Some of the best ways to experience the heart of any city is through its arts and culture. Many of our arts organizations are non-profits that need our support to survive and keep our city vibrant. Some of my favorites are About Face Theatre, Project Onward, Chicago Botanic Garden, the local drag scene, and a musical theater company I work with, Music Theater Works

This has been a year like no other and just looking back, I am gobsmacked by what the world, and more specifically, by what our community went through and is still going through. Working in the arts, I saw so many of my creator friends pivot their careers, lose their jobs, and struggle to pay their bills. Many people are still living with job insecurity or are having to pick up other jobs to make ends meet. I felt, as an artist, much of what we do was seen as invaluable while we dealt with the pain and resolve of protests and the pandemic. But I believe we have immense value-to have conversations, to create, and to heal. The emotional, physical, and mental strain of this pandemic, the violence against BIPOC folx and the AAPI community, will be felt for years to come. I hope we, as artists, can share resources and gain a wave of support from the community and our government. I would argue that the arts are needed to heal minds and hearts and should be seen as “essential.” All these historic events have shed some light on the strength of our communities, and I hope we will see that we are stronger when we come together. 

Take Pride, which in Chicago is AMAZING. You can feel the love throughout the city and it’s a great opportunity to live loudly while connecting with friends and family. I’m one of the organizers for the newly established Evanston Pride and we will be launching our very first Evanston Pride Parade this year, which I am very excited about. 

Chicago’s diversity and collaborative nature inspires me. We are a large city but a tight community. My group of artist friends strengthens our relationships while, at the same time, my bubble grows. This allows me to hone my craft as a designer while being inspired by those around me. One of the things that inspires me most are my colleagues and students at Columbia College Chicago-their passions push me to see the industry in new ways, literally every single day.  

Those who know me as a fashion designer know that I love doing heavy embellishment on garments. This often includes hundreds and thousands of elements. If I were to design an outfit for Chicago, it would be a suit of stories. A vibrant power suit with a strong, broad shoulder and long, exaggerated pant. The outfit would include several embellished patchworks and badges in greyscale-I love black, white, and anything in between-layered into the garment to reflect the amazing communities and stories here. I would love to see this garment come to LIFE! Chicago drag queens: Give me a call and we can make this happen.

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Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or‚Ķ

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions‚ĶI think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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John deBary¬†is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book,¬†Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book,¬†Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the¬†Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.


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