Due to the pandemic, millions across the globe have been living under “shelter in place” ordinances for months. For those of us in the United States, including here in Chicago, state-wide ordinances have forced social hubs to shut their doors. Countless highly anticipated social gatherings and events have been cancelled, including Ravinia, Lollapalooza, and the world-famous Chicago Pride parade. This year’s parade would have been the 51st annual Pride parade for Chicago.
While it is easy to lump the Chicago Pride parade into the same category as cancelled reunions, graduation ceremonies and weddings — which all come with heartbreaking reverberations that are felt by entire communities — during this time of mandatory social distancing and isolation, it is important to recognize (and mourn) the profound loss of the most prominent LGBTQ+ celebration in Chicago.
For thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals, Chicago’s annual Pride parade presents an opportunity to be both seen and heard: last year’s Pride parade drew over two million people to the city of Chicago. For some of us, this is our only opportunity each year to publicly gather with our community on such a grand scale.
Historically, the LGBTQ+ community in the United States has been invisible to all but those who were a part of it. They were ostracized, persecuted, and did not enjoy the basic recognition as couples that those around them were able to take advantage of.
The Take a Stand Center at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center illuminates “Upstanders” who fought and worked tirelessly for the benefit of our LGBTQ+ community: Jane Addams, Harvey Milk, and Edie Windsor are among these notables. Their stories show how visibility has changed throughout the years in the United States.
Jane Addams lived in Chicago during the turn of the century. She was a pioneer of women’s rights, called the Mother of Social Work, and founded Hull House, all while sharing a home with her long-term partner, Mary Rozet Smith, whom she called “My Ever Dear,” “Darling,” and “Dearest One.” Even while the two were apart, they wrote to each other daily. They were together for over thirty years, but history still remembers Mary as “Jane’s companion.” Despite Jane’s high profile, her relationship was invisible.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California. He did not start out as a politician, but first served in the military during the Korean War, moved to New York, then Texas, and finally to California. This is where he became inspired to be a change-maker in his community. Anne Kronenberg, his final campaign manager, wrote of him: “What set Harvey apart from you or me was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.” Milk was vocal about the roles that LGBTQ+ people played in their communities, and certainly would disagree with his political opponents’ theory that he was “just a businessman who happens to be gay.” Harvey Milk shone a new light on the gay community and embodied the message that gay people could be heroes.
Fast forward to Edie Windsor in 2009. The United States had been home to Pride parades for almost 40 years, and while being gay no longer carried the same heavy stigma as it had during Jane Addams’ lifetime, it was still not possible to be legally married; LGBTQ+ identity was still a permissible reason in many states to be fired from your job; and companies could still refuse to do business with LGBTQ+ individuals. When Edie’s long-term partner Judith passed away, because they were never able to be legally married, the estate left to Edie was heavily taxed. If federal law recognized the validity of their marriage, Windsor would have qualified for an unlimited spousal deduction and paid no federal estate taxes. Being unwilling to accept the injustice in this ruling, a then 80-year-old Edie sued the federal government in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The LGBTQ+ community was suddenly catapulted into headlines nationwide. Edie won her lawsuit, and her successful court battle paved the way for the United States’ legalization of gay marriage in June 2015.
This year, with the cancellation of Chicago’s Pride parade, many LGBTQ+ individuals are feeling the sting from the resulting loss of visibility. While there is a wide bounty of online social hubs that provide an outlet for specific community-oriented support, and we can all connect and gather virtually through social media, the parade was our “day in the sun.” The Parade validates the existence of our entire community and reminds that we, too, are threads in the colorful quilt we call humanity.
This Pride Month, we invite everyone to learn about and reflect on the stories of silenced LGBTQ+ individuals — both historic and contemporary — who have changed life as we know it. (And remember that while Chicago’s Pride parade route may be deserted now, we will always have next year.)
Matthew Sackel, MLIS is the Associate Manager of Education at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.
Michelle Gatesy is the Marketing Coordinator at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.