Central Illinois and other places in the Midwest can sometimes be isolating to those in the LGBT community - that is those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. But for the past five years in Springfield, Pride Fest has been drawing them together with their friends, families, and allies. Politicians, drag queens, and many others in between have been involved.
Listen to my report from the scene:
While walking in, over near Capitol and 5th Street, I'm met by people decked out in rainbow gear - hawking their gay-pride wares, like little flags and necklaces. (If that doesn't tell you an event has gone mainstream I'm not sure what does...) I also meet 88 year old Maryclare McCormick, she used to live in Chicago but calls Springfield home now. She says she came: “To see all the activities and the exhibits, there's a lot of people here, a lot tents, a lot of booths, a lot of things to eat and drink…”
McCormick is here with her two sons, their wives, and her granddaughter. Her son Steve says while he's not gay, it's still a fun festival to attend. “It's just good to see … a setting where yet another group of citizens can come out and be themselves.”
To get a sense of how the fest came to be, we need to head somewhere else in Springfield, The Pheonix Center. As I walk in I am greeted by a large feline named Queenie. She's the center's "advo-cat" according to Jonna Cooley who heads this place. It's been around since 2001. Over the years it's provided STD-testing (all but HIV testing has been postponed due to state budget cuts), transitional housing for those living with HIV, support groups for gay and transgender individuals, and much more. Cooley says the center helps up to 3,000 people per year. It was her idea to start Pride Fest after attending one in Peoria. After floating the idea for a local version - she found lots of support.
“We decided the first year to keep it small. We said, 'Hey why don't we just have one city block, that way if nobody comes, it won't look like nobody came.' So we did that, and it was so packed that you couldn't even move," says Cooley. The first couple years, the event had a handful of protesters, but Cooley says they were treated with respect by festival-goers, and didn't cause a problem: “There's no event or festival out there that's for everyone.”
Cooley says the fest has grown, though it's hard to track since attendance is free. This year there were about
20 different sponsors. And another change, for the first time, the mayor accepted an invitation to do the ribbon cutting. Mayor Jim Langfelder has only been in office since earlier this month. “One of the things that I like to do is go to meet the general public, especially at events such as this and it's representative of the community and that's why I decided to do it," he says.
Back at the fest, Jerry Bowman and Rene Verry are in a tent for GLAD - the acronym stands for the Gay and Lesbian Association of Decatur. Bowman and Verry say their group and this festival help LGBT people know they are not alone - and their lives are worth celebrating: "In a lot of your smaller towns in the area, a lot of your gays and lesbians are feeling secluded," says Bowman. Verry continues, “Chicago has a tremendous amount of resources as do most large cities, but as you get downstate and out in the countryside individuals feel more at risk and we want them to know there are safe spaces.”
There are dozens of groups represented in booths here - including a cosmetology school where teens are getting make-overs and performing in drag, and the MidState Mayhem Roller Derby league, which Virginia Ferguson is on. “We pride ourselves on being a welcoming league -this is one place that encourages a welcoming attitude. And last year we got a lot of recruits out of it, so we definitely wanted to come back," she says.
As the day goes on, there are less families with young children and strollers in tow - and more drag queens making their way to the stage to perform. As the night comes to an end, it's clear that this Pride Fest can go down as another successful one - it's fifth year strong. Cooley echoes what others have said, that this day is about more than having a good time: “We have so many young people that live in smaller communities where they feel pretty isolated, and this gives them a chance to come out and see that they're not alone.”
Update: WUIS was told that while the cosmetology school painted nails, drag queens "Mahogany Knight, Deanna Knight, Jericha Knight, and Chad Whisky Knight" helped with the "Drag Academy".