Nothing beats the exhilarating experience of being in the Chicago Pride Parade. It’s three miles of asphalt, blaring music, bared skin and toothy grins. I’ve been an ally to the LGBTQ community for nearly half my life and have participated in Pride for the last eight years with a not-for-profit organization called the Chicago Spirit Brigade (CSB). These days, I’m a seasoned pro.
This was the second year that Pride kicked off in Uptown near Montrose Avenue, snaking its way through Boystown’s Halsted Street and ending on Lakeview Diversey Parkway. These days, CSB doesn’t have to prepare much for the parade, as in years past. Although we didn’t have to decorate a float or truck, preparations did involve: water (lots of it), music (loud), uniform, pompons, make-up, shoes and stretching to be ready to give all the parade-goers a show. I also drove my car down to Lakeview around 7 a.m. to park it near the end of the parade route and took public transportation back home. That way I could make my getaway after the parade without waiting for a cab or trekking back through the parade route.
Making our way down Montrose to our parade spot was a challenge since we were further back than usual this year. Last year we were number 80 in line and this year we were 107. As I walked, I took to the middle of Montrose, which had the best vantage to see all the floats ahead. There were drag queens galore, all of them dressed to outdo each other. Some were dressed in nearly nothing — like a swimsuit — while others had extravagant wigs and long, hoop-skirted gowns. All outfits were encrusted with jewels that shined and sparkled in the sun. This year was no exception. The sun was out without a cloud in the sky, but thankfully the cool breeze allowed me to tolerate my spandex uniform better than last year. On severely hot days, spandex feels like you’re wrapped in cellophane with a coating of tar on top — very glamorous.
We soon arrived at our spot and waited impatiently for our turn to join the parade. After taking loads of pictures with other parade participants and spectators, it was time for us to prepare for our descent upon Uptown, Boystown and Lakeview. Once we were in formation for our section’s kickoff, all thoughts of what we were going to do later were put aside. As we neared the intersection of Montrose and Broadway, the parade spectators thickened. I looked up at one of the high-rise condo buildings and spotted people I knew. Hoping they could hear me, I vigorously waved and shouted up to them. Both spotted me and blew kisses down while I shook my pom-pom at them. This is the thrill of being in a parade — seeing people that you know and them spotting you in return.
Our music blared as we entered the parade route. The idea is to give the crowd every ounce of energy you have while utilizing the energy that they’re throwing at to you. Your whole body is humming with electricity. This year, like every year, the number of spectators had increased. Last year there were a reported 850,000 spectators and this year there was a whooping one million. My first time in Pride was 2006 and the number was around 450,000.
My experience as a spectator doesn’t even come close to being a participant. If you’re lucky, you can view the parade from a friend’s window or balcony while safely sipping cocktails and socializing with the people around you. My first year at Pride, I joined a group of my girlfriends on a particular corner of the route that had already been staked out for us. Another year, I party hopped after the parade along deserted Halsted Street — people were typically willing to share whatever food or beverages they had leftover. Sadly, you can’t do that anymore. Now that more people attend Pride, Halsted is hardly deserted.
As we made our way down the route, I marched, danced and kicked beads while waving my pompons at the spectators. They were a superb cross-section of Chicago’s rich and diverse cultures and ethnicities. This mix of people makes me proud to participate in Pride and align myself with the gay community. Most of the spectators were half naked, a little intoxicated and decked out in a bedazzled frenzy of rainbow beads, feathered boas, sequins and other assorted Skittle colored adornment. All they wanted from us was to be noticed, pointed at, cheered to, hugged, high fived and sometimes kissed. I found friends along the parade route that I was happy to hug and kiss and other supporters and spectators that I was happy to high five and wave to. I gave one guy a double high five and he was thrilled to reciprocate.
Every year the crowd seems to be getting younger, though perhaps it’s because I’m getting older. Many of my friends no longer attend Pride due to the hordes of un-restrained party revelers. Maybe it’s this injection of unadulterated youth, mixed with heat and alcohol that can be combustible. At the same time, this injection of youth assists the community in advancing gay rights. Yay, youth! With the recent repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), this revelry may have rocketed to new heights. I noticed more participants marching for marriage equality and more spectators wearing T-shirts, buttons and other supportive material. Prior to our section’s kick-off onto the parade route, there was even a proposal between two men on the Hamburger Mary’s Float. This added to the joyous atmosphere and reminded me why I participate in Pride.
Although it’s mostly a happy celebration, sometimes Pride is also a way for people to vocalize their religious beliefs. Near the end of the parade there are always protestors. They’re there every year — standing in front of some non-descript church — holding the same signs with the same hateful messages. We marched past them with our faces turned to the other side of the street. In other years, we’ve turned our backs to them and performed for the other side of the street. Another time, we held newspapers up. It’s a tradition of our organization that signifies their hate has nothing to do with us and more to do with who they are as members of the human race. Now, spectators stand with signs in front of the protestors apologizing for their intolerance.
After the parade, I made my getaway back home to shower and change. Next, I headed to a friend’s house for food and beers and after a couple of hours at that party, I made my way to another bar to celebrate with more friends. Hopping from place to place seems to be part of my Pride tradition. Pride is more about your friendships than the parade. The fests and the parade are a day to congregate with other like-minded people. It’s congregating with the ones that you love for exactly who and what you are that makes it a celebration.