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Thursday, May 23, 2013 05:14 am

Pridefest, a celebration of tolerance and progress

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PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

Other cities – Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, to name but a few – have parades. Big parades. Parades featuring outlandish costumes and leather and tattooed women on motorcycles aka Dykes on Bikes loudly leading the way.

Springfield has PrideFest, a glorified downtown block party still in its infancy that celebrates how far central Illinois has come in accepting people for who they are, regardless of sexual orientation.

Don’t call it a celebration of gay culture. A quick glance at the crowd that gathered downtown last Saturday on Capitol Avenue between Fourth and Sixth streets confirmed that there is no such thing as gay culture. There were people of all races enjoying all kinds of music and entertainment, from belly dancing to bands playing mainstream pop to karaoke. Food offerings included tacos, hot dogs, brats and burgers. Children flocked to the kids’ area to get their faces painted and receive balloons twisted into shapes of dogs and other animals.

The only thing folks seemed to have in common was tolerance and happiness in recognizing how far society has come since 1969, when the first gay pride event was held in New York a few months after the historic Stonewall Inn riots that are considered the beginning of the gay rights movement. Back then, it was illegal to be intimate with someone of the same sex in many states, and progress was often slow. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws criminalizing gay sex just 10 years ago. Now, a dozen states recognize same-sex marriage.  

To be sure, there are still hurdles, chief among them the push to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois. If the crowd around the Denney Jewelers display that featured dozens of rings was any indication, there is a pent-up demand for unions that go beyond simply civil, which are already legal in Illinois.

Denney Jewelers was far from the only mainstream business that was proud to be part of a celebration that is just three years old and growing. Macy’s. Wells Fargo Bank. Green Hyundai. The State House Inn. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois.

“It’s great to see so many companies and corporations support the gay community,” said Tina Squires of Bath, who attended the event with her mother, Kat.

Kat and Tina Squires have attended all three Springfield PrideFests, and they were among the more colorful attendees last Saturday as they strolled around in matching Mardi Gras-style masks.

“I’m really glad that we can do this,” Kat Squires said. “I love it. It’s a good way for everybody to come together and be who they are and express themselves. I think it’s part of a great awakening of our times.”

Saturday’s event began with a prayer that included a hope that the legislature will approve a bill legalizing same-sex marriage and a call for God to bless all people, even those who oppose civil rights for gay people. The Capital City Men’s Chorus was first up, kicking things off with The Star Spangled Banner before launching into such standards as Van Morrison’s classic song Brown-Eyed Girl, substituting “boy” for “girl.”

“So far, so good,” said Kevin Evans, who co-chaired the event with Jonna Cooley. “The weather’s holding out, and people are coming out.”

So many bands wanted to perform this year that organizers set up two stages, Evans said, with a smaller stage reserved for acoustic performers that included dancing acts as well as musicians.

Even in Bath, a tiny town in Mason County, not exactly the most liberal of places, it’s OK to be a lesbian, says Tina Squires, who came out about nine years ago.

“It’s been a lot better,” Tina Squires said. “I’m more at peace. People are more accepting.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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