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Thursday, May 18, 2017 12:11 am

The gayest day in central Illinois

Springfield PrideFest 2017


“I figured if Peoria was ready, Springfield was ready,” said Springfield PrideFest founder Jonna Cooley, offhandedly describing her rationale for starting up the festival celebrating the central Illinois LGBT community, being held for the seventh year on Saturday, May 20.

Back in 2010 Springfield resident Cooley was running a booth at a Peoria Pride event (since discontinued). “I wondered why Springfield didn’t have something like it,” she said. That autumn, she sent an email to a list of potentially kindred spirits, inviting them to meet and bat around ideas for a Springfield Pride event. “I was hoping for a few people at the meeting. Instead, 35 showed up,” she said. A committee was formed and permission was obtained from the city to hold the first Springfield PrideFest on a single downtown block on Capitol Avenue between Fifth Street and Sixth Street in the summer of 2011. Attendance was phenomenal from the start. “It was packed – you couldn’t even move,” Cooley recalled. Since then PrideFest has steadily expanded and is now spread across four city blocks, between Washington Street and Jackson Street and between Fourth and Sixth. As the ground covered by the festival has increased, the number of area business sponsorships has grown and attractions have been added to augment the basic components of live music, vendors and information booths.

One of the biggest additions this year is the event’s first Pride Parade, which will begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday. The grand marshal for the parade will be drag artist Angelica Sanchez of Orlando, Florida, a survivor of the deadly mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in June of last year. After the parade, there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Mayor Jim Langfelder and state senator Andy Manar, among others.

Black Queen on stage at Springfield PrideFest in 2016.
With the passing of the federal Marriage Equality Act in 2015, some of the focus of PrideFest has shifted away from activism and toward sheer celebration. When asked if she thinks the national mood under the Trump administration will affect the tone of the event this year, Cooley shrugs. “I don’t know – I haven’t heard anything.” She has observed that people are generally more concerned and tense than they have been the last few years but she has no idea how this might play out in terms of potential protests of the event by anti-gay conservatives. “It’s usually more liberal people doing the protesting these days, anyway” she observed.

“This event has energized the LGBT community,” said Bert Morton, events coordinator for the Coalition of Rainbow Alliances (CORAL), a major sponsor of PrideFest.  “As one who has spent a good portion of his life engaging this community as a gay man, and as part of a gay couple, it still amazes me.” Morton recounted his memories of an earlier era when he was regularly ignored by his state representatives, told by law enforcement that hate crimes in Sangamon County were nonexistent and witnessed friends passing away without any mention of lifelong partners in their obituaries. “It seems dreamlike on one hand,” he said. “But with the November election results, my contemporaries and I were reminded not to be lulled into a false sense of safety.”

One thing that hasn’t changed since the first Springfield PrideFest is the family-friendly nature of the event. This year, there will be a rock-climbing wall, a bounce house and other games, including several superhero-themed activities for kids. In addition, the teen area will host its own drag show featuring performers from the Phoenix Center youth group. “It’s always been the highest priority for Pride to be free and family friendly, not geared only to the LGBT community. “We have all kinds of allies who come down with their kids and grandkids,” Cooley said. “It’s just a fun event about celebrating equality and respecting each other. I like to call it ‘the gayest day in central Illinois.’ It gives people a chance to just be who they are and provides a sense of community.” She points out that there are many small communities in the region around Springfield where people live in isolation and PrideFest exists in part to give those people a chance to realize that they are not alone.

Although in many ways Springfield is a fairly conservative community, Cooley says that the Phoenix Center has had nothing but support in the 11 years she has been there. “I’ve never had anybody come at me with a negative attack, not even verbally,” she said.  “To me it’s not about celebrating ‘gay pride,’ it’s about celebrating being open and being who you are – whether you’re LGBT or not. Let’s eliminate all the differences and bring people together – just have a day of community.” Speaking of community, this year’s PrideFest is dedicated to the late, beloved community member M.T. Vann, who was founder of Prairie Property Solutions and served on the Phoenix Center board for many years. Vann was also posthumously honored as one of Springfield Business Journal’s “Women of Influence” earlier this month.

The 2016 PrideFest turnout.

One unexpected form of outreach has come about as a byproduct of the fact that the Old Capitol Art Fair takes place simultaneously with PrideFest. “Every year we have people stumbling into our festival who think they’re going to the Art Fair and some of them might never have come to PrideFest on purpose. It lets them see that it’s not what they thought it was going to be – I think that is a revelation for some of them.”

Orlando, Florida’s Angelica Sanchez – a survivor of the Pulse nightclub massacre – will act as grand marshal for the PrideFest parade Saturday at 11 a.m.
Roy Pyers, PrideFest co-chair, has noticed a shift in attitudes toward LGBT issues in Springfield in just the seven years since the festival began. “When we started, people would make comments on the SJ-R’s website.” And sure enough, during the first year’s event there were a handful of protestors gathered at the end of the block. “They ended up being pretty nice people,” Pyers said. “It was hot and we tried to feed them and water them throughout the day.”

Pyers believes that Springfield may have initially thought it wasn’t ready for something like PrideFest, but it was in fact more ready than it knew. “After that first year, people saw what the festival was like and realized the town didn’t burn to the ground and lightning didn’t strike all of us and it just became more acceptable – and I think that helped drive LGBT acceptance in the community as a whole. For such a long time, so many people didn’t share their personal life at work or in certain social circles and because of that, people become blind to the idea that their brothers and sisters and cousins and people that they work with are LGBT. This event instills pride in us but also shows the community as a whole that we are a part of it.” Pyers says that, as a city, Springfield has gone above and beyond to accommodate the festival and appreciates the diversity it helps to offer.     

Mayor Jim Langfelder took part in PrideFest for the first time in 2015, his first year as mayor, when he participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a duty he will dispatch again this Saturday.  “It’s a great way to get people downtown,” he said of the festival. “It’s a growing event.” The mayor sees PrideFest as a public service. “Abraham Lincoln said this country is ‘of the people, by the people, for the people,’” Langfelder said. “If everybody would view things that way we’d have a better world and country and community to live in – that’s what you strive for. That’s what the rainbow flag represents to me – it’s a way for everybody to come together and celebrate life.”

PrideFest entertainment schedule

11 a.m. Pride Parade
(along Fifth Street between Allen and Jackson)

NOON Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

12:15 p.m. Capital City Men’s Chorus

12:45 p.m. Ben Bedford

1:30 p.m. Kristen Ford

2:50 p.m. Starter Jackets

3:50 p.m. Wolf Crick Boys

4:40 p.m. Mary Jo Curry

6 p.m. Middle Class Fashion

7 p.m. Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes

8 p.m. Drag Show

The parade will begin at 11 a.m. at the corner of Fifth Street and Allen and proceed north on Fifth Street to Jackson Street.

Scott Faingold can be reached at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.

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