You may have heard: It was an event like no other … at least here in the ’burbs.
Certainly for one sweltering hot Sunday in June it did change downtown Aurora, where previous parades were known mostly for their staunch patriotic bent against a background of red, white and blue.
But this time, rainbow-colored flags were the colors of choice. And while those Memorial Day and Fourth of July events are certainly upbeat and fun, there was something almost joyous about the mood Sunday.
Whatever your feelings are on liberal causes or progressive movements, it was as clear as the blue skies that accompanied those 90-plus degree temperatures, those taking part in this parade, either marching or watching, felt a sense of liberation many of us likely take for granted.
Not that there weren’t some more traditional elements, including plenty of politicians who took part in the event. Still, the impression I got from Sunday’s crowd was a rejection of politics. Elected officials and those running for office, for the most part, received a lukewarm reception, as did an activist group marching with a huge sign and bullhorn that proclaimed “Trump Pence Must Go.”
The crowd’s enthusiasm — and there was plenty of it — was saved for the everyday folks marching in this parade whose only agenda was promoting unity and acceptance. Thousands from Fox Valley churches, corporations, businesses and other groups held banners and signs that proclaimed diversity and love, All cultures, colors and ages were represented in the streets and on the sidelines.
That included a surprising number of seniors who likely never thought they would see the day they could so publicly celebrate their own sexual identity; and far younger generations, many adorned from head to toe in rainbow colors and not the least bit shy about stepping into the limelight.
Two of those millennials were Ashley Larsen of Maple Park and Sam Miller, from Bloomington/Normal, whose banner — “I was a girl once. Turns out it was a phase” — received plenty of attention, even from marchers themselves who repeatedly shouted out, “I love your sign.”
The two onlookers decided to brave the heat and attend this Aurora parade because, as Miller described it, this weekend’s Gay Pride Parade in Chicago is “just too big and too scary.”
As the promoters had promised, Aurora’s event — the mayor’s office estimated the crowd between 7,000-8,000 — was tame by any standards. Yes, there were some protesters. And I personally saw a few attendees struggling because of the heat. But there were no major police or fire department issues, according to officials. And I was told later marchers were specifically told to keep their shirts on, which explains why we saw so few bare-chested men, despite the brutal temperatures.
A couple of politicians who have marched in myriad parades over the years told me later this one was the most fun and the most celebratory.
“Everyone wants to be validated in some way,” said State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit. “This one just touched people on a more deeply personal level … it said we accept you for who you are.”
It was certainly personal for “Mary” — the anonymous wife I wrote about in a column more than 20 years ago after her husband came out as gay; and who would not reveal her real name back then because of the stigma attached to homosexuality.
After I referred to “Mary” again in a column I wrote last week about Aurora’s gay pride parade, she contacted me. The Aurora woman, whose real name is Pam Olsen, said she and her ex-husband went through some rough times after splitting, but happily they re-connected at their daughter’s 2013 wedding and are now “good friends who love and respect one another.”
And both were at the parade. Holding a rainbow umbrella, Olsen proudly marched in step with New England Congregational Church, while her ex looked on from the sidelines.
Olsen told me she was pleasantly surprised by the impressive turnout and rousing reception the marchers received during the colorful and vibrant event.
“All the cheering and applause … It was just the most fun,” she said. “I could not believe how much support there was.”
So much so that I’ve heard from various sources other communities would like to get more involved, even proposing changing the name to reflect it as a Fox Valley event.
To which the city’s Director of Communications Clayton Muhammad quickly replied, “Of course we welcome all of our Naperville friends to come to downtown Aurora … for the AURORA Pride Parade.”