By Mike Matejka
Saturday, July 28 saw an event in downtown Bloomington that was perhaps unimaginable 20 or 30 years ago, a Pride Fest, celebrating our LGBTQ neighbors and marking 25 years for Jan Lancaster and the Bistro, Bloomington’s safe space for many in the LGBTQ community.
It was 17 years ago in 2001 that first Normal, and in 2002, Bloomington, expanded their human relations ordinance to include LGBT individuals. Those were hugely controversial votes and culminated 20 years of effort to build a more inclusive community. Over those years, we’ve grown as a community, to learn that humanity comes in multiple flavors. For some people, it might mean tolerance, but the Pride Fest downtown was not just tolerance, but a community celebration, bringing our LGBTQ neighbors out of the shadows and into the streets.
It was way back in 1984 that then city council member Steve Simms pushed Bloomington to change its ordinance. It was summarily defeated, with Simms the only supporter. In 1996 Bloomington and Normal were in the national spotlight, some of the first smaller cities in the country to consider amending their ordinances. Then Mayor Jesse Smart appeared on the nationally televised Donahue Show to debate local gay rights activist Jerry Pope. Bloomington’s proposed ordinance was voted down on January 22. From my 18 years on the Bloomington city council, people sometimes ask what I am most proud of. My lone positive vote that night for the ordinance is number one on my list. In May 1996, Normal followed Bloomington’s lead, voting against the ordinance, with Mayor Kent Karraker and Garrett Scott the only yes votes.
Those defeats were hard on local advocates; it took another 5 years to come back and finally achieve inclusion in our communities.
So what can we conclude? Change takes time, but change only happens with persistence. Our local LGBTQ community kept coming back in positive ways, letting their straight neighbors see that someone with a different sexual orientation might be a desk away from you at work or at school, or two tables over at the restaurant. They did not give up the effort, continuing to share a local face as the world’s attitudes changed.
Is it all over? It was great there was a Pride Fest downtown, but sideways comments, a harsh glance or the persistence of language labeling others persists. Discrimination is still out there, particularly impacting young people who are trying to find their way toward self-understanding and acceptance. I want to commend our local LGBTQ community for their long-term vision to show they belong, just like any of us. They deserved a night to dance in the streets downtown, unafraid and open to celebrate.
Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.
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