Isaac Hollis strutted his way up the steps of the McLean County Museum of History on Saturday in 4-inch, patent leather, thigh-high boots.
“So before I get started, can I get everybody to give me their best yazzzzz?"
But Hollis' mood quickly turned. The Illinois State University Homecoming King, president of the Black Student Union and winner of the Stonewall Student Award, read the names of transgender women who have been killed since 2013, a year he says marked an increase in incidents of violence against those who are transgender, particularly black women.
He said Pride doesn’t have to be about marches and rallies. It can simply be about everyone, including allies, saying something when they hear or see something that’s hurtful.
“Even if you’re not sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, not doing or saying anything contributes to the problem," Hollis said.
June is Pride Month, and this year it also marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Stonewall Riots that began June 28, 1969. The riots are seen as the official start of the gay rights movement. They were sparked by a police raid and rough treatment of gay patrons and employees at the mafia-run Stonewall Inn in Greenwhich Village in New York City.
During Saturday's event in downtown Bloomington, local activist David Bentlin said a lot has changed since then but more changes are needed and that’s why Pride Month is important.
“To celebrate our authentic lives, to celebrate our history, to remember our tragedies, and to draw attention to the inequality that still faces many in our community," Bentlin said.
Brittany Clinard, a transgender woman who is also a 12-year military veteran, started B’N Trans Community. She chided President Trump for kicking off Pride Month by congratulating LGBT contributions only a month after his administration effectively banned transgender people from the military.
She said the ban has eliminated benefits such housing and education for those who’ve been thrown out of the armed services because of they are gay or transgender.
“For those of us who live on the streets because our families won’t accept us, because our jobs don’t take us, we go to get housing and now the Department of Housing and Urban Development is trying to make it so that shelters don’t need to take us in," she lamented.
“They can turn us away. That is wrong. That is a basic necessity in life—to have a shelter over your head and we deserve it,” she declared as the crowd applauded.
Clinard is referencing a rule change that could take effect in September that would roll back an Obama administration protection that required single-sex or sex-segregated shelters to admit people based on their gender self-identification.
Bentlin sees a trend toward of hard-fought victories such as marriage equality coming under attack.
“At times it appears there are forces that would like nothing better but to roll back the court decisions and laws that have provided us with a modicum of equality.”
Despite what activists see as setbacks on the federal level and in some states, they also see a bright spot in Illinois under Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Emma Todd, who has worked for Democratic candidates across the country, says Illinois advocates have had substantial wins in recent years.
“We’ve gone on to ban conversion therapy, to make it easier for trans people to update our birth certificates and just in this last session, there was a bill that was passed that’ll make it easier for nonbinary people to update their driver’s licenses to nonbinary designation and also that will teach people about LGBT history in school," Todd said.
Joel Studebaker, an unsuccessful candidate for Normal Town Council and political activist, said despite his recent loss and living in a household that boycotted companies which supported gay rights, he’s had many wins and he is ready to help others achieve the same.
“It does not matter if I feel liberated so long as anybody else in the country for whatever reason does not feel liberated. And so, this isn’t about the pride of being OK with who I am, I also need to have the pride of knowing that I’m doing everything I can for other people, and that’s what pride is to me.”
Feeling Embraced in Bloomington
Recently elected Bloomington City Council member Julie Emig took the microphone and twirled while showing off a T-shirt touting her high school alma mater—a place where she didn’t feel welcome as a lesbian. Today, she says that’s definitely not the case.
“I have felt embraced, supported and honored in this community. My child Charlett is 4 and she’s friends with everybody," Emig said. "If I haven’t met them yet, she has. Bloomington-Normal is an amazing place and we’re only going to make it stronger by coming together.”
Even if Emig and others feel welcome in Bloomington-Normal, Pastor Kent King-Nobels of the First United Methodist Church in Normal acknowledged that it hasn’t always been that way, especially in certain Christian churches.
“Unfortunately, we Christians have too often believed a lie and we have passed on that lie, that there is something wrong with you in the way that you were created," he said. "We have told you that God does not love you and that’s perhaps the worst and most hurtful lie of all and it’s not true."
He continued: ”I want you to know that when we passed on this lie, we were not following the teachings or example of Jesus Christ. So we must repent and look deep within ourselves to return to the true way of love.”
Bentlin acknowledged King-Nobels and his wife Kathy as advocates for proudly displaying a rainbow-flavored welcome sign outside their church and for offering the church to host meetings of the Prairie Pride Coalition and other LGBTQI organizations. While acknowledging not all are so welcoming, Bentlin closed his remarks saying there’s reason to be hopeful.
“Do not get discouraged. As openly gay novelist James Baldwin wrote, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’”
And with that, the group marched to The Bistro nightclub, acknowledged as the Stonewall Inn of Bloomington.
The line streamed in quietly and waited for Pastor Cara McMorris of Hope Church to give a blessing that began by acknowledging their surroundings.
“This is holy ground. This is a place where all know they are loved and not just accepted but affirmed.”
Then mothers began reading the list of 49 people shot and killed at The Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The women wore buttons that read FREE MOM HUGS. They’re from a new chapter in Illinois of moms ready to give support to those who have not felt it from their own families.
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