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Audio-rich stories from around Bloomington-Normal, recorded during the summer of 2023 and 2024. New episodes air throughout the summer on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

Yes, B-N's Pride Fest is a celebration, but it's also an affirmation of self

The LGBTQ+ community in Bloomington-Normal was loud, proud, and happy during Pride Fest on July 29 in downtown Bloomington. Attendees said the annual cornerstone event that draws thousands of people is important both to the LGBTQ community and to all of central Illinois.

Yes, Pride Fest is a party. It’s a celebration.

But for many it also is an affirmation of safety, of community, a chance to find new friends — and to feel less alone in what can seem like a sea of straight people who don’t understand who they are. For others, it’s about more than identity. It’s about embracing life, finding joy, and accepting oneself.

“Last year was my first Pride Fest and it was here. It was kind of a magical experience. I’m a bit of a late bloomer. It took me a minute to figure out where my place was in myself and in this world, and this is kind of where that happened. It’s like health, well-being, and joy. Those are my reasons for being here,” said Rhoq Morrigan of Champaign.

“We live in a small town in central Illinois, and this just makes me feel so happy. It makes me feel very affirmed and very loved that the community shows up for this kind of stuff,” said Zoe Przybylski of Bloomington.

“We actually have a lot more people in this (LGBTQ+) community than we think we do," said Christie Shook of Bloomington. "So, it's a good opportunity for everybody to get together and see that there are more people like us and that people actually support it.”

“It’s great to see a bunch of kids out here either to express themselves, or to learn to accept others,” said Michelle Blair, also of Bloomington. “It’s a welcoming, accepting group, fun for everybody and no judgment.”

“As a person who came out a little bit later in my life, I like to be a role model for folks who might want to live the kind of life I'm living now and show my kiddo that it's OK to be who you are,” said Kate Browne.

“You know, we're here to fight for like our rights and stuff and all that. Just so people know that they're not alone, that they're not the only one like this, said Ashton, a young bi-trans person.

A crowd of rapt kids watch a performance at Pridefest 2023.
Emily Bollinger
A crowd of rapt kids watch a performance at Pride Fest 2023 in downtown Bloomington.

“I haven’t been surrounded by the LGBTQ community at school as much. So, seeing all these individuals here being themselves, dressing the way they want and being unapologetically who they are is really freeing and liberating to see,” said Juin Jones of Bloomington.

Zoe Przybylski was promoting a new youth group called “Over the Rainbow,” under the umbrella of the group PFLAG, for 6th-12th graders.

“It's very hard being LGBTQ youth in this day and age. I struggled growing up with that. And I know a lot of other kids struggle. It's very nice to know that there's a group of other youth that can come together and support one another,” said Przybylski.

“Bloomington seems to have a really vibrant LGBTQ community. And it's really cool to see. It’s just a great street festival,” said Dan Leonard of Chicago, who was playing scrabble at a table amid the throng and the band music.

“I like to celebrate equality, I think we should all be equal. Why not? It'd be better,” said Duncan Browne of Bloomington.

Cool things

“Holy cow! The number of people. That's honestly the coolest thing I've seen, is the number of people here today with their families and their friends. Just supporting everyone,” said Christy Shook.

“It’s probably the blessing booth from all the affirming churches in town. I grew up in a community where I did not feel comfortable in the church and of seeing all these leaders coming together and blessing everybody and saying that they're loved. It's just really amazing,” said Zoe Przybylski.

“It's very refreshing. And it just makes you feel good to know that you have the support. There are a ton of straight people here and they're having a wonderful time,” said Barb Dallinger of Normal.

“Unity and love,” said Aspen Chandler Hague.

The costumes

Another feature of Pride Fest is the colorful clothing. People dress to show off, to make a statement, and just for abundant joy. They find different and creative ways to express themselves. That can include everything from a dark goth affect and rainbow paints and shirts to bright headbands, face paint and makeup. Even those descriptions pale in comparison to the visual palette seen at the fest.

Performers at Pridefest 2023 in Bloomington, IL.
Emily Bollinger
Performers at Pride Fest 2023 in downtown Bloomington.

“I'm basically a huge poofy rainbow. It's a big old tulle rainbow dress," said Aspen Chandler Hague of Bloomington.

“I went for a demon kind of rainbow style today, and I went for a goth because I'm also wearing my platforms,” said Miami Owens of Normal. “Furry masks. I love those. They're a bunch of giant animals and they're just awesome. I don't know why but I just loved watching them and watching them walk around.”

“I have a trans rights or human rights shirt on. I have two smaller transgender flags and I'm currently wearing a larger bisexual flag,” said Ashton.

“It's just a simple tank top and fish nets in short, I wanted to go as cool as possible because it's pretty warm,” said Aspen Owens.

“I've got a rainbow skirt and then my shirt has graffiti that is very LGBTQ+ ally friendly everything,” said Jade Chandler Hague.

“And they are brave for wearing them in this heat,” said Aspen Owens of Creve Coeur.

"There was somebody, an adult man, in a diaper outfit. That was interesting," said Christy Shook.

“I saw someone walk around in pretty massive heels, and so I was pretty impressed with that,” said Kevin Thompson of Bloomington.

“I actually love seeing all of drag queens half in drag and half out. You usually see them being very performative. But to see a full face on the street is something rare and special,” said Kate Browne.

“You name it. This is a very colorful place to be,” said Patrick Cortesi.

A message for those not at the fest

“Queer joy is so magical. It supersedes the things that people identify as here. It’s about embracing life. It’s about acceptance of oneself and each other no matter who you are,” said Morrigan. ”The kind of advocacy that happens in these communities and the kind of support benefits everyone because it’s about building community building. It’s about helping humanity see itself in everyone.”

“You have so many people who don't even know each other and yet are comfortable to dance and to talk and converse and support each other. I think it’s really important to keep community next to you and close,” said Juin Jones of Bloomington.

“Inclusion and love for other people doesn't take anything away from somebody who doesn't agree,” said Jade Chandler Hague.

“Happy Pride and I hope you all love yourselves,” said Rhoq Morrigan.

“It’s okay to speak out. It’s okay. You always have a safe place with somebody,” said Aspen Owens of Creve Coeur.

“Love everyone. It's OK to just be you. Everybody can be accepted and loved, and it shouldn’t matter who they choose to love," said Jade Chandler Hague.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.