I’m going to tell you about a diner, but first I have to tell you who I was at nineteen.
In 2009, Eliot shaved off swaths of my hair while I hung my head over his balcony. Afterwards, I considered myself reborn. I paired my fucked up haircut with cargo shorts I’d stenciled with Emma Goldman’s face, plus thrifted boys’ flannels, lots of bandanas, and a chest binder I made out of pantyhose. I couldn’t get into my own college library for months (“You’re a guy and you’re trying to use a girl’s, ID!”), but as far as I was concerned I was living; and sometimes living requires you to make wild choices, like accepting a ride to Camp Trans from a total stranger.
The total stranger turned out to be Kate Sosin, the co-founder of a new peer-led support group called Genderqueer Chicago. That was the word then — genderqueer — our catch-all term for weirdos like us whose identities short-circuited the boxes we’d been shoved in. That word and that group were exactly what I needed. After Camp Trans — which gave me my first electric taste of queer community — I started attending Genderqueer Chicago meetings, and eventually, I became a co-facilitator.
Genderqueer Chicago met on Wednesday evenings in a tiny, fluorescent-lit room at the Gerber/Hart Library. The meetings attracted a promenade of pink-haired, pierced and denim-clad mischief-makers to a vital, if somewhat stuffy, LGBTQ+ archive. We were asked to “pipe down” more than once, but the library volunteers quietly loved our moxie.
After most meetings, a handful of members would walk a few doors down to a 24-hour diner with a short counter, a handful of booths and a charmingly outdated jukebox. Its official name was “Standee’s Snack ‘n’ Dine,” but the fluorescent sign read, “Standee’s – Coffee Shop – Restaurant – Fountain.” On any given evening, only the “Stan” or the “dee’s” would be lit.
Located under the ever-rumbling red line tracks, Standee’s smelled like smoke long after Chicago’s indoor smoking ban. The stained glass lamps told us to, “Enjoy Coca Cola,” and the sign on the single-user bathroom read, “Customers” — not “Customers ONLY” — just “Customers,” because the vibe at Standee’s was unassuming, and according to some Standee’s servers, a “customer” was anyone who walked in off the street and had to pee.
The menu’s most popular items were “Three Deuces” — two pancakes, two bacon strips, two eggs; or “Four Deuces” — two pancakes, two sausages, two bacon strips, two eggs. I usually just got two eggs with a side of toast. They never came out at the same time, but I didn’t care. Nobody did — not even when some of us heard rumors of past health code violations — because what true Chicago diner hasn’t briefly shut down due to health code violations?
The food and service at Standee’s had its critics, whose complaints are preserved on the diner’s old Yelp page. One Standee’s regular responded to the haters: “It’s a greasy, 24-hr diner, and it does what it says on the label. What the hell else do you want? This isn’t a Steak-n-Shake, it’s the real deal!” I never thought I’d agree with a guy named Kyle on Yelp, but here we are.
Of course, going to Standee’s was not about the food. For many of us, Standee’s was one of the first public spaces where we could openly and comfortably share our most authentic gender expression. In our daytime lives, we were getting kicked out of gendered bathrooms, our workplaces, our families. But on Wednesday nights at Standee’s, we could show off our nail polish, our partners, our new names. We could get amped up on watered-down coffee, choose ‘90s boy band music on the jukebox and perform expertly choreographed dance routines without fearing for our lives. Nobody seemed bothered by us, because whoever was in the next booth was probably just as weird as we were — or at least they knew to mind their business. And if a patron had taken issue with our joyous genderfuckery? There was a tough-as-nails server named Tinker Bell who probably would have drop-kicked them into the sun.
Standee’s closed in 2010 after operating for 60 years. I heard some guy in Indiana bought the sign for 500 bucks. That was over a decade ago, and even though I stayed in Chicago, I still don’t know what’s taken Standee’s place. I don’t want to find out.
These days, the people in these photos are writers, actors, artists and activists. Some of us identify the same way we did back then; others don’t. Some of us found new pronouns, new gender expressions, bodies that feel more right. Some of us moved across the country. I bet if you looked hard enough in whatever rehabbed storefront has taken Standee’s place, you’d find evidence of us — a smudge of hair dye, a speck of glitter. Or maybe you’d just sense our presence. If you’re one of us, you’ll know we were there.