Chicago’s Future Pride Parade: Where will the glitter cake the streets next?

chicago-pride-parade-balloonsChicago’s gay Pride march was one of the first to occur in June 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots broke out in New York City and sparked the contemporary gay [read: LGBTQ*] rights movement. In the 46 years since, Chicago’s Pride festivities have grown into one of the biggest and most popular in the country (2015 photos). This year’s parade, which took place in Uptown and Lakeview and centered on Boystown, is going to be examined closely by organizers and city officials to see if it should be moved to another location next year. Moving it to another part of the city will represent a radical shift in the community’s spatial relationship with the rest of the city as it breaks out into the heart of Chicago in a very visible manner. And there is good and bad to come with that.

The news broke this spring that various parties were discussing the move from Lakeview to the Loop if the crowds that descend on Boystown for the parade don’t keep themselves in check. Aldermen Tom Tunney (44th) and James Cappleman (46th) issued a joint threat statement explaining too much chaos would force a move. This is despite 55% of Lakeview residents supporting the Parade’s continued presence in Lakeview. What happens in 2016 will depend a lot on resident feedback and events that happen this year and in all likelihood the opinions of the politically connected in those two wards. As of today, 52 Pride related arrests occurred on Sunday and early Monday morning, including 2 felonies.

The move would dramatically alter how the LGBTQ* community interacts with Chicago though and the spatial role the Boystown location plays in for the community is worth serious consideration. For decades Boystown has been the focal point of Chicago’s gay community and although not as inclusive as it could be the larger LGBTQ* as a whole it is still synonymous with the larger community in a lot of ways. The numerous bars and shops, LGBTQ* friendly businesses, and organizations in Boystown clearly demarcate this neighborhood as the “gayborhood”. The parade alone does not make Boystown what it is and probably pales in significance when the entire year-long calendar of events in the area is taken into consideration as well as official recognition on the part of the city (those rainbow columns didn’t just appear overnight). But the way the parade and Boystown relate as a community building event is important.

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The rainbow pylons in Boystown were part of a place making effort after the neighborhood was officially recognized ‘gay village’ in the United States.

Keeping the highest profile LGBTQ* event in Chicago in Boystown does a lot to maintain a sense of place for the LGBTQ* community among the city’s many neighborhoods and provides local businesses and organizations a chance to rally together and maintain relations via the organizing efforts needed to carry out such a large-scale event. It also provides people on the fringes of the community an accessible introduction to community events, but also the neighborhood itself. And of course there are the economics of holding such a large event in a neighborhood versus the Loop. People will patronize neighborhood bars, shops, and restaurants pre- and post-parade, rather than establishments in the Loop, which are frequently chains and tourist oriented. But the emotional connections to the neighborhood are worth thinking about too. Part of the joy of holding the parade in Boystown is going to the lakefront or bars post-parade or getting beads thrown on you from apartment parties above the street.

There are benefits though to moving the Pride Parade Downtown. The obvious is many Loop streets and sites (State Street or Grant Park) can handle much bigger crowds much easier than the thinner streets in Boystown. Accessibility is increased due to the proximity of so many transit options, it engages more of the city and increases the visibility of the LGBTQ* community to a larger segment of the population, and could provide an opportunity for organizers to do much more (circuit party in Millennium Park or at Soldier Field or rainbow flags on the Michigan Avenue Bridge anybody?) Ironically, a Downtown Pride Parade could follow some historically significant routes. The original Pride March in June 1970 ended at the Civic Center (now Daley Plaza) and the massive anti-Prop 8 march the took place in November 2008 occurred in the Loop and snarled traffic all day as the impromptu march moved throughout the city, including along North Michigan Avenue. And it’s not like Chicago would be unique in having its parade Downtown: NYC Pride covers a huge swatch of Midtown to Lower Manhattan and San Francisco Pride still follows Market Street from Downtown to the Castro.

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The opportunity to hang a rainbow flag on a site like the Wrigley Building like the American flag is for the 4th of July would provide a huge amount of visibility of the LGBTQ* community if Pride was moved Downtown.

This however shouldn’t be taken as a free pass to move the parade without deeply thinking about the impacts a move will have, especially taken into historical context for the parade’s inflated crowds the last few years. The decision where to locate the next Pride Parade should of course be done in a way that recognizes the pressures of hosting such a large event in the neighborhoods, but not in a way that ignores the significance of creating and supporting an urban space that has relevance and meaning for the LGBTQ* community as well.

While controlling the size of the parade itself and making sure the organizational structures to maintain control and sanitation during and after the parade play big roles in the determination of where to locate the Pride Parade, taking pressure off Boystown stands apart as a major deciding factor. Event organizers and local leaders would be wise to think about the “gay” geography of Chicago though when thinking about where to host the parade. Keeping events in the neighborhoods should remain the primary goal so as not to move all the benefits of such an event to the already burgeoning Loop. Increasingly Andersonville, Uptown, and Rogers Park are rising as secondary gayborhoods on the North Side and figuring out how to bring them into the fold of summer long LGBTQ* events, especially surrounding the Pride Parade, should be part of this future planning.

As should looking back at an increasingly visible LGBTQ* history.

The recent decision by SCOTUS resulting in the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage will fundamentally change the conversation on LGBTQ* rights in America and Pride events nationwide. The last two Chicago Pride Parades were touted as being the largest ever in part, because the legalization of same-sex marriage in Illinois and nationally brought out extra large crowds. Now that same-sex marriage is no longer a major part of the debate the crowds may decline, because such a major rallying point has been removed. This should be taken as an opportunity to re-ignite conversations about other major issues facing the LGBTQ* community and such conversations should be incorporated into Pride events. This includes becoming more inclusive of women and trans* individuals as well as LGBTQ* people of color. The changing nature of the parade also plays into where to locate one.

In a way moving the event Downtown puts the Pride Parade on neutral ground (which is ironic considering Boystown’s status as a gayborhood), but as the time comes to reinvigorate the LGBTQ* community around other issues it seems appropriate to keep the parade on “home turf”, especially since that “home turf” desperately needs to opened up to more of the LGBTQ* community. It really raises the question of what the ultimate goal of the parade is and who it serves. If the parade is no more than a big party with a very gay theme, then moving it Downtown might be the best choice for security and crowd control, but if maintaining it is a major political event too that seeks to engage the LGBTQ* community in a way that is celebratory, but also promotes important issues, maybe keeping it in Boystown is more important so as to maintain the neighborhood as the cultural and political center of the community and really make it an annual rallying point and coalescing event at the heart of the gayborhood.

Whatever happens, if it does move Downtown, the City better start looking at ways to dye the river rainbow, so as not to be out flanked by St. Patrick’s Day.