In 1969, the Stonewall Riots occurred in New York City, sparking in earnest the modern gay rights movement that continues to this day. This weekend, nearly 1,000 miles and some 46 years from that riotous, oppressive (though liberating) summer, the streets of downtown Champaign will feature a celebratory festival for LGBT pride. My, how times have changed.


The sixth annual C-U Pride Festival is something to be thankful for. Begun in 2010 at Lincoln Square Village by the UP Center of Champaign County, the festival was an immediate success. Attendance was strong, and there were a plethora of information booths and performances. Over the years, participation and sponsorship has grown, and last year the event moved to the streets of Downtown Champaign, complete with a parade.

Some may ask why an LGBT pride festival is needed at all. Certain folks bristle at the very notion, pointing out that there is not a 'Straight Pride' parade. Of course, many of us know the reasons, nevertheless it's good to be reminded of them ahead of our local pride festival. Lest we forget, it didn't all used to be pomp and circumstance. And there is still much work to be done.

There was a time in our nation's history, not so very long ago, when being homosexual, or participating in homosexual behavior, was enough to justify imprisonment. Suspected homosexuals were treated to castrations and lobotomies as impediments or "cures" for their condtion. Some gay people were murdered on the spot. Marriage equality? That was a pipe dream somewhere over the rainbow.

Finally, one day in late June of 1969, the then underground LGBT community decided 'Enough!'  The Stonewall Inn - at the time one of the largest gay/alternative sanctuaries in the nation - was a dingy place in a state of great disrepair. Police raids were common. It was the perfect mixture for rebellion. The Stonewall Riots brought prominence to the sexual equality movement and, while the battles continue, the victories have been numerous. Workplace protections, anti-sodomy laws struck down, marriage equality, etc.

In the intervening years since Stonewall, LGBT pride parades have become an institution across the nation, typically featured at the end of June, to commemorate the riots that sparked the movement. Outside of C-U, yours truly has been to pride festivals in Chicago and Madison, the latter of which featured RuPaul hosting a party. Fun times.

And they are fun times.

These festivals and parades are a chance for LGBT community and its allies to celebrate our indentity and to not be afraid of who we are. For so long, simply acknowledging oneself meant anything from ridicule and derision, to imprisonment and death. That is why there are LGBT pride events every year - to be proud of who we are in a society that hasn't always been very welcoming.

This year's C-U PrideFest, coming on the heels of the Supreme Court's landmark decision allowing gay marriage across the United States (despite what some uptight clerk in Kentucky may think), will occur this weekend, September 19th and 20th, with a host of activities across downtown Champaign. There will be workshops, vendors, information booths, drag shows, a parade, nightlife and a Sunday brunch at V. Picasso.

Ou PrideFest has come a long way since its inception at Lincoln Square in Urbana just a few years ago. Thanks and much appreciation goes out to all who are involved in pulling it off year-in and year-out, making it look smooth and easy. Members of The UP Center, community volunteers, sponsors, local (and out-of-town) LGBT folks and their allies all come together to make this happen, to make it a success. It's truly remarkable.

Yours truly will be in the parade this year, as a representative of the Champaign City Council. Other council members and elected officials will be in attendance. It truly warms my heart to see how far we've come. Not very long ago, being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in this community meant minding your Ps and Qs, and not making a lot of fanfare outside of a few night spots, or else you didn't know what might happen (though it likely wouldn't have been good).

Now, for the sixth year in a row, PrideFest is about to be celebrated in our community. From state, county, and city leaders to local media to businesses and open-minded community members, it will be a time of appreciation, celebration and reflection. We still have a ways to go, but look at how far we've come. This weekend, let's hear the bells of liberty, freedom and equality ring throughout downtown Champaign.

CU's PrideFest runs day and night, Friday and Saturday, at various venues in Champaign-Urbana. Check out the full schedule here.

(Photos by the UP Center of Champaign County)