Chicago hosts gay pride parade

Two men with T-shirts reading “Real Men Cuddle” help carry a giant U.S. flag during Chicago´s 36th Annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade last Sunday. An estimated 400,000 attended the parade, which began on Halsted Street at Belmont Avenue. Ed Thomson

By Farah Abi-Akar

ROTC, WWII veterans, sports teams and politicians showed their colors Sunday at noon as they marched through Chicago streets in the 26th Annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. Attendance at the parade was estimated at 400,000, according to Chicago’s Office of Special Events, with 250 groups taking part. Cities including New York and San Francisco, among others, held their own pride parades, making it a coast-to-coast event.

Wilson Cruz, one of the lead actors on the television show “My So-Called Life,” was the Grand Marshal. He is openly gay and a gay youth advocate.

Also participating in the parade were politicians, including Governor Rod Blagojevich, Secretary of State Jesse White and Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka, keeping it a bipartisan celebration.

Businesses on and around Halsted Street and Belmont Avenue handed out free samples, coupons, and flyers to the large crowd outside their doors. In one restaurant, the servers wore rainbow leis as they took customers’ orders.

“I love the festivities. It’s a spectacle,” said Yatta Carter, who was attending the parade for the first time. “It’s Chicago’s Mardi Gras.”

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She and Grant Rogers, who was there for his fifth time, arrived one hour before the parade, having traveled from the south side of Chicago.

“Anything goes. Nothing is left up to the imagination,” said Rogers. “It’s a public celebration of being free, of self-expression.”

“Politically, Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the nation,” said Carter, so the crowd’s diversity makes an important statement about choice. “Even when you separate people, they will come together.”

Carter found yet another benefit from attending the parade: “You can get some great fashion out of this.”

Jenai Hobbs was one of the most dedicated spectators, having attended the parade each year for over a decade. She was dressed for the occasion, wearing a rainbow feather boa around her waist.

She said she loves how the parade promotes freedom and tolerance. Her children, however, had different motivations for coming.

“My daughter comes mostly for the drag queens,” she said of her daughter, Devinai. “I’ve been bringing her here for 12 years, even while I was pregnant.”

Devinai’s favorite float in the parade was the Wicked float, promoting the play being shown in Chicago. Overall, though, she jumped up and down as she said that the best part was indeed “the drag queens!”

Meanwhile, Devinai’s younger brother “just comes to blow bubbles,” Jenai said, pointing out her son, doing just that nearby.

Chicago police officers were a common sight at the parade, standing on every block corner. Though they preferred not to give their names, several officers commented on their jobs that day.

“This is the best parade in the city of Chicago,” said an officer who wished to remain anonymous. “There are no fights and no drunk people stumbling around because people here take care of themselves,” he said. Other officers nodded in agreement.

More officers from multiple districts were out on the streets for the event. They had varying duties, including crowd management, traffic control and monitoring the protesters.

Near the end of the parade route, there was a group of about a dozen protesters in opposition to homosexuals for religious reasons. One officer explained that the protesters bought a permit for that space and were allowed freedom of speech just like everyone else.

If anyone was to go beyond what they were allowed by law, one officer said, they could be taken in for disorderly conduct or disturbance of the peace. However, they did not expect to see any such incident.

Some parade participants stopped in front of the protesters, where both sides yelled and chanted at one another. There was no physical violence reported, though police officers were alert nearby.

George O’Neal was one among dozens who marched with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I thought it went exceptionally,” he said at the end of the parade, still wearing his green Statue of Liberty foam crown.

O’Neal and his boyfriend, Bob Shalit, were in the 2004 parade as well, with the Obama crowd. He said he enjoyed it so much, he e-mailed the ACLU two days later to ask about being in the 2005 parade.

The organizations involved started planning early. The ACLU began asking for volunteers in November or December of 2004, said O’Neal.

“I’m a 40-year-old activist,” he said. “The recent negativity has made people appreciate freedom, and has let them come out and support a great cause,” he said, referring to the national debate on gay marriage.

“I saw a lot of kids-a lot of college students in the crowd,” he said. “It’s good to see the upcoming generation is more accepting.”