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“This Queer Felt That Way…” – with Owen Keehnen

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This week we’re doing something a little different – we’re not going to a bar, a club, or even a community group. We’re embracing summer and headed to a lost queer beach! 

The Belmont Rocks were large limestone rocks on the lakefront of Lake Michigan, Chicago, that served as a gathering place for the LGBTQ+ community for decades, but were removed in 2003 due to erosion. 

I caught up with the writer Owen Keehnen, who runs ‘A Place for Us‘, a facebook page that gathers people’s memories of Belmont Rocks, to discuss his early days in Chicago in the 80s (when his dream job was to work at Ripley’s Believe It or Not), coming out during the AIDS crisis, and why it was so important to him to have access to this space.

Owen Keehnen  00:00

It was so empowering. I can’t even describe it to be able to be out and gay in the public in the middle of the city in the sunshine. It was incredible.

K Anderson  00:10

Hello, I am K Anderson and you are listening to lost spaces. The podcast that mourns the death of queer nightlife. Here is how it goes every single week I talk to a different person about a venue from their past, the memories that they created there and the people that they used to know. But this week we are doing something a little different. We are not going to a lost queer club. We are not going to a lost queer pub. We are not even going to a community drop in centre. We are getting our swimsuits on and we are headed to a lost quiere beach. And I wish I could say that I planned this episode to tie in with the heatwave in the UK. But I didn’t. It’s all purely coincidental but if you are listening to this, when we are in the midst of heatwave, I hope that it evokes thoughts of being cooled by the water to know what I’m going with. The Belmont rocks were large limestone rocks on the lakefront of Lake Michigan in Chicago, that served as a gathering place for the LGBT Q plus community for decades. We’re talking from the 60s, we’re talking pre Stonewall from the 60s. We’re talking all through the AIDS epidemic, right up until 2003, when all of the rocks were removed, and the whole thing was demolished due to the erosion of the rocks and the danger that that posed, which means that there is no longer queer beach there. But a really cool thing has happened. The rider Oh, and Keenan has set up a Facebook page called plays for us, which is gathering people’s photos and memories of spending time at the Belmont rocks and just being you know, like how important just being is. I was lucky enough to catch up with Owen to talk about moving to Chicago in the early 80s When his one ambition was to get a job at Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He mentioned that quite a few times what it was like coming out in the AIDS epidemic, and why it was so important for him to have access to an outdoor space. Oh, and if you are having trouble visualising large slabs of limestone rocks by the water, don’t worry, I’ve got your back. Just go to my Instagram, Twitter or Facebook accounts. My profile is last spaces poder across all three, where I have shared some photos of what the Belmont rocks were like. And whilst you’re there, why not? You know, give me a little bit of a follow some lovin. Yeah. All right, let’s get into it.

Owen Keehnen  03:57

For me, that was always that terror of coming out, makes yourself vulnerable. And vulnerable means possibility of rejection. And I’m very, very sensitive that way. I mean, I wish I could say I was more bold in all of it. But I was really scared. You know, it’s one of those things where it’s like the easiest thing in the world, or it was for me to put off. Because it’s sort of like, once you go, you can’t really go like Oh, yeah, I was just kidding. Or, you know, I don’t think anyone was surprised at all.

K Anderson  04:32

But you needed to have established yourself in another city and have built a life before you could open up in that way.

Owen Keehnen  04:40

I always had that. I think I’m the youngest in my family.

K Anderson  04:44

You think you’re the youngest in your family.

Owen Keehnen  04:45

I mean, I’m the I’m the youngest in my family. So I think that’s always been an issue for me. You know, sort of that you get to high school and all your brothers and sisters have been there before you know that kind of thing that’s interested in It’s a very Catholic school.

K Anderson  05:02

Okay, let’s unpack it a bit more so I can understand because I am also the youngest child. So maybe some of this will resonate with me. Do you mean like, because everyone else in the family has already done everything, nothing that you do seems that exciting?

Owen Keehnen  05:17

No, I mean it like, if you’re the youngest, you’re seen whether you like it or not, in comparison to those who came before you. So it’s like, your brother was good at sports, you be good at sports, your brother was good at math, you should be good at math. So it’s more a matter of needing to establish your own work independent of whatever people are seeing you through. If that makes any sense. Like I didn’t want to be seen through the filter of my siblings, I didn’t want to be known because of them, you know, in establishing your own identity, especially for me, because that was very quiet and very introverted, was a big challenge. You know, especially if you’re shy like that, too. You know, because

K Anderson  06:08

it’s easy to sort of just fade into the background, kind of,

Owen Keehnen  06:12

and actually, you know, there was a lot of times where I was very comfortable with that truthfully, so.

K Anderson  06:18

Yeah, yeah.

Owen Keehnen  06:20

It’s kind of a superpower at times to be invisible. Yeah, yeah,

K Anderson  06:24

I get that. Yes.

Owen Keehnen  06:25

It’s a superpower and a super hindrance. At the same time.

K Anderson  06:29

Oh, a super hindrance. Like all superpowers are, I guess. And so then, had you just been laying low in high school and then in college, or had you like, experimented or tried to push the boundaries and figure out who you were?

Owen Keehnen  06:45

Oh, god. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, there were no boundaries. It was. I was very much like, active, especially in college and through all that, and I also in college fell in love. And that made a big difference to, you know, young loves a weird thing. It was for me, because I think I romanticised a lot of times, things that weren’t love. But at the same time, there’s the instances of love where you’re like, oh, okay, that’s what that was. It’s more like, as I get older, I’m kind of redefining it, I guess. Oh,

K Anderson  07:21

so what’s your current definition

Owen Keehnen  07:23

of love with with my husband, it’s somebody who I feel completely safe with, like, the world can be so crazy if there’s somebody you know, who’s just like, always supportive, always on your side, even with disagreements being supportive. You know, when I was when I was younger, I mean, it’s your young version of love. So you’re like, a stripper with a drug addict? Sign me up. You know, it was it was like, I wanted hot, I wanted flashy, I wanted drama.

K Anderson  07:55

There is something when you’re young care about your own validation being wrapped up in what your idea of love is, right? Like, if I can find love, then I am worthy, rather than I am worthy. And then love comes from that.

Owen Keehnen  08:11

The only thing I have to say is that my version of love was that it was always very dramatic. It was always like, operatic it was always, you know, and I tell you, the older I’ve got, it’s like the opposite. I mean, love is like the even keel. Not the blips. It really is. It’s that stability that especially a lot of people like myself need because because of

K Anderson  08:39

the world, I guess. Oh, man. So tell me about this stripper with a drug habit? Was that just I’m

Owen Keehnen  08:45

just kidding. I’m just kidding. I mean, it was that sort of, I wanted excitement. I wanted excitement. Like the last thing I wanted to do was have something you know, quiet and stable.

K Anderson  09:00

And so what was this relationship then in university was that of the more dramatic variety,

Owen Keehnen  09:06

it was dramatic, but it was dramatic in a different way. That was dramatic in the tortured writers Bohemians School of we’re in love and we’re going to move to San Francisco and live in a commune. That version of drama.

K Anderson  09:22

I’m so Did you agree that on like the second date?

Owen Keehnen  09:25

No, I was serious. That had been a dream of mine. Before I had met Kevin my actual dream to start off with this. I really wanted to be part of the factory. Oh, okay with Andy Ward, like that scene. But of course, you know, it was like, all of that wasn’t around, but like that was sort of what dazzled me. But the thought of like, just sort of living in a big gay commune in San Francisco. Sign me up. And then that’s right, when sort of AIDS happened truthfully. You know, it was like seeing that whole dream sort of crumble. You know what I mean? I mean, if you thought of moving to San Francisco at that time, it just became just something very different than it was even two or three years before.

K Anderson  10:11

And so had that contributed to your decision to move to Chicago,

Owen Keehnen  10:15

that contributed to my decision to leave town, because I just wanted a fresh start. And it wasn’t going to be the commune in San Francisco.

K Anderson  10:28

And so what do you remember the most about those first days? What was the feeling

Owen Keehnen  10:33

of the big city? Yeah, I this is so this gives you a good idea of just, it’s so silly. So I got there. And I’m like, I’m a writer, of course, I’m coming the big Sunday, right? So if you learn anything about those first few days, they were like, journaling was very omnipresent. And I just remember one hokey thing. I was in Chicago, and I’m, like, you know, writing my thoughts. And I’m at this fast food restaurant, I think it was a Burger King that isn’t there anymore. But it was at the intersection of Hollywood and Broadway. It’s like a Burger King. And I remember thinking, wow, you went abroad, right? It was that kind of like, there was an excitement to it that that was very new. And I came to the city with open arms. You know, I did not come to hesitant or anything, I was thrown myself into it.

K Anderson  11:31

And did the city have open arms for you?

Owen Keehnen  11:35

Eventually, eventually, I mean, there were some pretty rough times. One time I was living in a place that was a big warehouse that was being redone. That was huge and dusty, and had windows, but no glass on the windows. So like living in that I know, I know. It was an old furniture factory. And so it was like, desk. And truthfully, hard times like that, for me, were a really good thing to go through. Because things like that really test your reliance. And the more experiences like looking back like that, and like things might be bad now or I might be short of money or something. But I can look back and say well, yeah, that was probably worse.

K Anderson  12:26

Or at least I have windows now. Yeah.

Owen Keehnen  12:29

Very panes of glass and everything.

K Anderson  12:32

And so you’d waited until you got to Chicago to come out properly. What was that? Like?

Owen Keehnen  12:40

It’s, I mean, the best way I can describe it right there is grey. Oh, I mean, everything was so grey before that about coming out, like people would knew and they kind of did it was more like that’s when I formally just

K Anderson  12:55

grey as an ambiguous not grey as in like, depressing. No, no

Owen Keehnen  12:59

grey is unambiguous. More like non committal would be better than grey. It was a different era to it was when all that happened when I came to Chicago to it was just when all the stuff with AIDS was really getting a lot of attention. So when you came out at that period, it’s also really important to think you were coming out at a really scary time. I mean, people were saying some nuts stuff in that period, like quarantine caps. Not Yes, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s easy to forget that coming out was one thing, but also especially coming out at that point in time. That was a consideration too. Or it was just like, if you fear rejection, if you have all the stigma that was happening at the same time attached to it, it was even more of like a albatross.

K Anderson  13:58

But still, everyone kind of knew already. And yeah, yeah. So when you came out, what was the response? Oh, really? Oh, no,

Owen Keehnen  14:08

no, no, no, that’s not true. That’s not true. Everyone was very supportive. But I don’t think anyone was surprised. You know, it’s so funny hindsight. So 2020 I wish I could have known the end result it would have just like changed things for so long.

K Anderson  14:23

What do you mean, meaning that I wouldn’t be rejected to knowing that you wouldn’t be rejected but you’ve changed the way Yeah, did. Did any of those fears about being rejected ever go away? Are they still with you?

Owen Keehnen  14:36

Oh, I think they’re still with me. I mean, I think at some level, I’m a people pleaser. I mean, given the choice I’d rather people likely than not I guess.

K Anderson  14:46

So he’d rather people like you then

Owen Keehnen  14:49

different. I said, I said given the choice. That depends on what my conditions are for the friendship, but I mean, if I can be myself around someone and we get along that’s Right. But if someone doesn’t like me, I’m not going to beat myself up about it, but I preferred that they do.

K Anderson  15:07

I’ve only recently started to realise that I don’t have to be right in every conversation. I used to prioritise being correct rather than having a frictionless experience with someone, which means that I didn’t make very many friends in my 20s. But you know, there you go. So you described the period of being in the closet as grey was coming out, like a rainbow?

Owen Keehnen  15:33

No. When I came out, it was more like a formal acknowledgement. I mean, I was living right in the middle of the gay ghetto. I was working at, you know, I was, there was nothing clear cut.

K Anderson  15:48

Okay, so it was less like liberation and more like, Oh, I did that thing. And now I can cross it off my list.

Owen Keehnen  15:54

The liberation was already there. I mean, the liberation was my own liberation, and a lot of that came from living in an LGBTQ neighbourhood when I eventually moved to Lakeview in Chicago and earlier than that, discovering the Belmont rocks. I mean, discovering a queer space, that size was really big for me

K Anderson  16:15

to tell me about when you found it. How did you first hear about Belmont rocks?

Owen Keehnen  16:20

I didn’t hear about the Velma. The first time I happened upon the Belmont rocks, I was you know, I was still trying to get in like to Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum so that Vetterli in Chicago. So I’m like, Well, maybe they don’t hire me because I’m not that tan. So I put 10 suntan lotion all over it. I’m just gonna walk around the city and get like a really nice tan. Going out on job interviews, I’ll be the belle of the

K Anderson  16:44

ball, sound logic sounding sound 20

Owen Keehnen  16:47

is larger. So I’m walking along the lakefront and walking down this underpass, and I get to diversity harbour, which is, you know, a nice harbour area, and then you go through an underpass. And then you went up the hill. And there was a of all things a gun club, which looked like a fort. Yeah. Oh, anyway. So and then you walked a little bit further than that. And I tell you, I got at that point. My gaydar was like upper five a lot. You could see guys up where the Belmont rocks were. And so I walked over. And it was like the, the Belmont rocks were these terrorist, enormous limestone blocks that were probably eight feet by three feet, and probably five feet thick. I mean, they’re huge. And they were terrorist, but the erosion from Lake Michigan had worn them down. So they became like these. They were like falling into the lake, but some parts were preserved and other other points, you know, rocks would dip down. It was really, really just very interesting looking area. And this is this lakefront area, these, this terrace of stones goes from diversity harbour, to Belmont harbour, which is four city blocks. It also goes from the lakefront to where the bike path is, which includes the grassy area that’s probably 150 feet to the west. So it’s a really big area, and there’s laughter and there’s, you know, boom boxes. And there’s, you know, speedos galore. It’s just this organic queer space, and it’s around right in the middle of the city. At the same time, when our bars still had black and windows. I mean, just the fact of gathering out there in the sunshine. It was so empowering. I can’t even describe it, to be able to be out and gay in the public in the middle of the city in the sunshine. It was incredible.

K Anderson  18:56

So you got there, your gaydar went off, and you were like, Oh, I think something’s going on here. What did you do next?

Owen Keehnen  19:04

Went over, went over rolled out my towel. And hello, you just dove in? I was there. Yeah. This was my Sunday day activity for five years.

K Anderson  19:14

Did you get to talking to anyone?

Owen Keehnen  19:16

Eventually. I mean, there were, it was easy to meet people there. There was cruising going on. And there were people talking and it was fun. And there were people swimming and it was easy to engage on a lot of different levels. I found it very welcoming to me. This sort of thing was what I thought of when I thought of community.

K Anderson  19:42

And so thinking of fun times at the rocks, are there any particular stories that you could share with me about things you got to share that you’re willing to share?

Owen Keehnen  19:59

You know, was always a good time. You know, you hooked up sometimes sometimes you hung out with friends. Sometimes you got stoned with the rocks reconfiguring. If you looked at the Belmont rocks, like if you stood at one end of that, say four blocks stretch, because they’re arcing, too. So imagine that like kind of a cove. So the rocks are curving. If you look down towards the end of the rocks, there would be invisible spots, because along the way, different rocks have buckled inwards, so there’d be dips. So you could be doing something invisible to the sight line. Another doing

K Anderson  20:38

something like what,

Owen Keehnen  20:39

like sex. I don’t know or whatever taboo. But one of the things too was that because of that green stretch between the bike path, and the lip of the Belmont rocks, you know that that ledge before they tear us down to the lake, you could see police cars or mopeds or whatever approaching, and there was community watching each other those people I talked about seeing them on the Yeah, people sat on that top ledge and watched out to let people know if somebody was coming. I mean, it was really this sort of sweet, sweet little sleazy community service. No, but I mean, anything like people could be getting higher. I don’t know having a beer, or whatever. Yeah, whatever that would cause a rocket.

K Anderson  21:31

But so my question was about whether or not there were any of your stories, and you’ve spoken quite generally. Does that mean you’re hiding something from me?

Owen Keehnen  21:41

About my stories at the wrap? Yeah, yeah. Well, there were a lot of them are pretty tight, but they can’t know one thing is stands out in particular, I worked out. Okay. Wait, I take that back. So, one summer, what it happened was these rocks buckled. Okay, imagine those buckling rocks, terracing downs of the lake, the waves coming in, what had happened was, they had made like a cave that you could sort of go in, because of the placement of the blocks against each other. There was like a line of light coming through. So imagine yourself standing in like, shoulder deep water, with like, kind of a grotto above, you know, you can see light coming through about you. And it wasn’t a big thing, but made out with someone in that cave. I like that, because it was very sort of like a movie, Maverick that was memorable. I will say, Well, I was terrified to because of course, I can see when somebody’s going to walk on that block. And it’s gonna keep that you know that.

K Anderson  22:46

I mean, it’s no fun or unless there’s danger involved. So we’ve talked about that as a physical space. But then there’s also this digital space that you’ve created and found other people that Ramallah rocks, and oh, yeah, I want to share their story, it was just

Owen Keehnen  23:03

incredible, because then I became part of all this. So then you’re like, part of the whole experience, you know, and then other people would come to town discover the rocks, and then they’re a part of the experience, it became this incredible thing. And it wasn’t until, truthfully, I moved out of the neighbourhood. And then I went down there in 2000, maybe six years ago. But anyway, the Belmont rocks have been bulldozed in 2003. Because of the shoreline revetment to prevent erosion. So when I went there, five years ago, I took a picture of beautiful day, beautiful, gorgeous sun, nice warmer, took a picture of the Belmont rocks flat, you know, like a landing strip, a little bit of a terrorist, but not a whole lot, just, you know, all completely redone. Not a single person there. No one. So I took a picture that I had pictures from the Belmont rocks, because they used to go there all the time, I posted a picture of what they look like now, versus bare bones, Belmont rocks with no one on them that I took, you know, 30 years ago, or whatever. And I said, are the rocks dead? And people started responding. And what it was was, I thought this place meant a lot to me, but I didn’t really think of it like as a queer space until then, but people started, you know, responding and telling stories. And then people started sharing pictures, and then I shared some more pictures. And then it became a Facebook page, which became a place for us and truthfully, I’m always shocked but it meant as much to other people as it did to me. I really am. I mean, it’s, it’s it’s truly it’s a queer space that’s discovered itself. I mean, I didn’t do anything except set up the Facebook page truthfully. I mean, there isn’t a whole lot other to do than that. I mean, just given the digital queer space, people seemed very interested and eager to sort of recreate that, you know, the real rocks in another form.

K Anderson  25:14

So in 2003, when it was initially levelled, do you remember hearing about that, like, was there a community out, I was

Owen Keehnen  25:22

completely disengaged, okay. And I think there was somewhat of an outcry. The local Alderman Tom Tunney, and a local activist Charlotte Neufeld, did their best to preserve some of those big Limestone slabs that had some of the artwork on them, because that was another thing about the Belmont rocks. So these big Limestone slabs also became this kind of open air, queer art gallery. But I mean, beautiful artwork all over them, you know, just so lovely. And the interesting thing was a sense, it was on limestone. It was a gallery that had sort of a natural, showing length of time, meaning that like two years in the lakefront elements, will, you know, wear down a layer of limestone pretty quickly. But yes, and that was such a huge part of it. So that became important. And I got some great pictures about that. So a lot of this is just trying to say, especially for the future going like, this is this magical place that existed, that just is not anymore. It isn’t like headline making. You know, it wasn’t like front page news. But it was more important, because it’s part of people’s personal history. You know, it’s Yeah, but it’s that kind of personal history that falls through the cracks. You know, it just pains me deeply. I really think it’s a way how you connect with people and get the sense of loss. You know, if you to understand loss, you have to understand the life that was lost. You know, what I mean? Like, these were people having fun fibre and people lost. I mean, it wasn’t they were not statistics, they were people doing things. And I think sometimes that can be glossed over. And I just, I don’t know, it rubs me the wrong way. It’s because they deserve a lot more than that.

K Anderson  27:21

And so what did having access to that space mean to you?

Owen Keehnen  27:28

It meant invitation, it meant like an invitation to community. And I don’t know if I can put it in any other way than that. Like, this wasn’t just, you know, somewhere where everyone just hung out that there was a bigger thing going on here. There was a lot more interaction. You know, it wasn’t all just sexual. That was the thing that made it so amazing. It wasn’t just gay men, everybody hung out there. And, you know, after the sun went down, the whole different crowd came in, and after the bars closed, a whole different crowd would come in and wait for the sun to come up. And then the sun worshipers would come in, you know, and sometimes they overlapped. But it was truly like a community centre. Kind of, I mean, not that formal, but a lot of the same functions, maybe a lot of organisations, bars, had their picnics there, and it was fun.

K Anderson  28:26

And if you could go back in time, and ran into Irwin, on that very first day that he discovered the Belmont rocks, ready to get a tan and get a job at Ripley’s Believe It or Not. What advice would you give him?

Owen Keehnen  28:41

Cut your moment? No, don’t

K Anderson  28:42

do it. Oh, and don’t do it. Leave it?

Owen Keehnen  28:46

Oh, it was fine. John Stamos. Not quite Billy Ray. So you know what? It would be something simple, like, you know, your home, man your home, something simple like that after searching for so long. It’s one of those moments where you feel like you’ve found home. And I don’t know if everyone feels that way, or queers feel that way. But this queer felt that way. And that’s when I felt that it felt it felt like a big part of struggling with over. Like, I’m coming here tomorrow. And the next day. Yeah, like no hesitation in the voice. Yes, yes. Every day I am able.

K Anderson  29:34

Do you have any memories of the Belmond rocks? Or maybe you had a similar kind of beach or outdoor space in your local area that I need to know about? Well, if that is the case, why don’t you get in touch? I don’t know why be 10 bossy sorry, go to law spaces podcast.com and find the section share a loss to space and tell me all about what it is you got up to. You can also find me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter with the user handle lost spaces pod. Find out more about Owen by visiting his website oh and kenan.com following him on Instagram where his profile is oh and Keenan and make sure that you go and look at the Facebook page a place for us. I will include a link in the show notes for this episode. If you enjoyed this episode, I would really appreciate a view subscribe. left a review on your podcast platform or just told someone who you think might be interested in giving it a little listen to I am K Anderson and you have been listening to lost spaces