LGBT Evanstonians and their allies could be forgiven the evening of July 25, if, upon showing up in Fountain Square for the first Evanston Pride Fest, they thought they were in the wrong place. Save for one sign and some rainbow-themed activities from vendors, there was not much evidence that this was a celebration dedicated to LGBT equality. Indeed, it seemed like the regular Thursday Night Live music series with a thin “pride” veneer.

Rabbi Rachel Weiss of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation gave an address wherein she discussed the implications and history of Pride celebrations. Mayor Stephen Hagerty issued a proclamation and remarked that next year Pride Fest would indeed take place in June, which most locales generally acknowledge as Pride month. That was the extent of the Pride-themed programming.

Numerous suburbs have developed their own Pride celebrations in recent years, among them Aurora and Buffalo Grove. So it is understandable and commendable that Evanston did want to mark LGBT Pride. But a Pride celebration needs to be much more than a neighborhood music performance, a sign and a few speeches. Again, there is no dearth of Pride celebrations in the region, but we felt that the lack of planning in Evanston Pride Fest was obvious – there were no Rainbow flags and no additional remarks from anyone beyond Rabbi Weiss and Mayor Hagerty.

Evanston has no shortage of LGBT residents. A former alderman who ran against Mayor Hagerty in the last mayoral election is openly gay. Rabbi Weiss pointed out that there are numerous openly LGBT clergy at various religious institutions in the City. An Evanston lesbian couple fought in court for the right to adopt their daughter, in the process winning that right for every gay and lesbian couple in the State. The City is home to a prestigious university that’s produced reams of research on LGBT issues and contains numerous resources for LGBT students, faculty and staff. LGBT liaisons are on the payroll for both the City itself and the police force.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, and that accounts for much of the enthusiasm for new Pride celebrations. But to throw one together so haphazardly and throw a “Pride Fest” label on it is disrespectful both to the history of Pride celebrations and LGBT residents who showed up expecting an event of substance.

The Stonewall uprising came about after various transgender women and gay men, among others, grew tired of the violence and harassment perpetrated upon them by New York City police in June 1969. They threw bricks and fought back, taking beatings from police clubs along the way, because they’d had enough. Pride marks a significant turning point for LGBT Americans, and further marks the accomplishments and setbacks they’ve experienced in the 50 years since: struggling with the HIV/AIDS epidemic; winning protections against discrimination in more progressive states and localities; overcoming institutionalized discrimination by the U.S. military; and winning the right to marry in all 50 states.

Those struggles are not over yet either. Numerous locations across the United States still actively discriminate against their LGBT residents. Transgender Americans, particularly transgender women of color, face enormous logistical and financial challenges – the average yearly income for persons in that particular demographic is under $10,000 – as do younger LGBT persons, a substantial number of whom disproportionately experience housing instability or outright homelessness. Much work remains to be done on behalf of their cause. And those are just two examples; each Pride celebration punctuates a continual progression of ups-and-downs for the LGBT community and marks their resilience as much as their accomplishments.

We are glad that the City of Evanston wanted to celebrate Pride. But we hope that next year they do a better job of finding out what “Pride” means for the people of Evanston, especially its many LGBT residents, and don’t merely use it as theming for an event the City was planning already. The people here deserve and expect better.

— by Matt Simonette