Peoria labeled 'gay-friendly'

DeWayne Bartels
Participants at Peoria's first Peoria Pride Festival declared the city "gay-friendly

“Pride plays in Peoria,” Dave Barker, head of the Peoria Pride Festival, said after the event passed.

More than 1,700 people passed through the gates at the CEFCU Center Stage on Peoria’s Riverfront Sept. 13 to celebrate alternative sexual lifestyles.

“It shows (gay) pride plays in Peoria. It shows Peoria has a strong and supportive gay, lesbian, transsexual and trans gender population,” Barker said.

“It was a group of people who came together with a common purpose. Maybe we are all learning to get along.”

Barker said he now feels Peoria is more gay-friendly than it gets credit for.

“Many gays think you have to live in a huge city to have a vibrant gay community, “Barker said. “We have proven that wrong.”

Dignified city

Rick Garcia said he considers Peoria a “gay-friendly haven” in downstate Illinois.

Garcia, public policy director for Equality Illinois, an organization designed to secure, protect and defend equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans gender people in Illinois, said in his 20 years of advocacy work he has always considered Peoria a downstate safe haven.

“When I started in this work I did most of my work south of I-80. I always spent the night in Peoria when I was on the road. I felt safe here,” Garcia said.

He went on to say in his job he hears of discrimination issues state-wide.

“I don’t hear about problems in Peoria,” he said.

“You can come here and be treated with dignity.”

Support

Bill Bradley, a Peoria Heights resident and businessman, looked out from his massage booth, at a crowded area around the CEFCU Center Stage and smiled.

“Look at all these people. We’ve got Republicans here. We’ve got a lot of heteros here supporting us,” he said.

“I think this support will do nothing but grow.”

Bradley said the gay community has thrived in Peoria because of the widespread support it finds here.

“It’s important to show others coming in here that we have a community,” he said.

“There was, and still is, discrimination. But, it’s getting better all the time. I see more and more out here everyday. We’re not proselytizing. We’re your neighbors, your customers. We will be more visible in the future. As a result we will be healthier and so will the community.”

Youth advocate

Matthew Stout, president of Peoria’s Rainbow Youth Outreach, said he has suffered discrimination in the past.

“The youth I work with see some discrimination in school, but the support systems they have are much better,” Stout said.

A good example, he said, is the Gay-Straight Alliance at Richwoods High School. The program tries to quell gay bashing by intervention through teachers and the administration.

Stout said everyone in the gay community has been waiting a long time to show their pride in a public setting.

“People can see thought this venue we want to be accepted,” Stout said.

“We want to co-exist.”

Support matters

Hector Martinez, part of the Central Illinois Alliance for Diversity and Equality, said the size of the group attending the event mattered.

“It’s empowering to see a group of that size and be how you are in this city,” Martinez said.

“Peoria has struggled to allow people to show their sexuality. But, Peoria wants to be a progressive city. Perhaps Peorians are coming to some understanding they need to be more tolerant.”

Martinez said he needed to see certain things happen at the Pride Festival.

He said he needed to see large numbers.

He saw that. He said he needed to see a diverse crowd.

He saw that too.

“I’m pleased,” Martinez said.