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A look back at the Chicago Pride Parade: 1970 – 2023

The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City were ignored by Chicago’s newspapers and it was harassment as usual for the city’s gay citizens: lesbians wearing men’s shirts were arrested for cross-dressing; an over-zealous pretty-boy cop named Sgt. John Manley continued his purge on gay men in the rest room near Lincoln Park Conservatory; and the cops, still out of control from the Chicago Democratic Convention the previous year, busted numerous gay bars, including the 21 Club, the Blue Pub and the Alameda.

And yet, in spite of the seemingly stagnant waters, there were tell-tell signs of a maelstrom stirring, as two months after Stonewall a raid at the Annex bar prompted a scuffle between patrons and police – at the time it was unheard of for Chicago gays to resist arrest. In another development, a University of Chicago student named Henry Weimoff started a Gay Liberation group on campus.

Over the cold winter of 1969/1970 the topic of homosexuality pervaded the local media: Charles Booth of ONE of Chicago was on the Channel 7 show “Exposure” hosted by Sheri Blair; Studs Terkel interviewed Mattachine Midwest members Jim Bradford, Valerie Taylor and Gay Lib’s Henry Weimhoff on his radio program; and an article provocatively titled “Homosexual Revolt” graced the pages of the Chicago Daily News. There was also a series of events that fired-up Chicago’s budding gay movement: nine Gay Libbers defied city statutes by dancing with same-sex partners at a straight dance; Mattachine Midwest newsletter editor David Steinecker was arrested by Sgt. Manley and charged with “criminal defamation”; and Gay Lib won their first victory by forcing the owners of the Normandy bar to allow same-sex dancing.

One year after the Stonewall uprising, Chicago’s 1st Gay Pride Week took place with events ranging from a Gay Dance at the Aragon Ballroom, to Chicago Circle Campus workshops on topics ranging from “How Women of Gay Lib Relate to Women’s Liberation” to “Legal Issues Concerning the Draft.” The celebratory week culminated in 150-200 lesbians and gay men gathering at a Pride Rally and March In Bughouse Square. After inspiring speeches, waving banners and chanting “Gay Power,” the marchers headed out on foot along sidewalks, down Dearborn to Chicago Ave, east to the Water Tower, then south on Michigan Ave. to the Civic Center (now Daley Plaza) for more speeches. Some marchers, caught up in the moment, circle-danced around the Picasso sculpture. Surprisingly nobody was arrested, though in the next Chicago Gay Lib newsletter, Rich Larsen noted: “By the time the group reached the Civic Center the pig brigade accompanying us numbered eight squadrons and two meat wagons.”

The 2nd parade in 1971 moved north and was less political and more festive, starting at Diversey harbor, going west to Clark St., then south to the Free Forum at LaSalle St. Although at the tail end of it, Clark and Diversey was and had been the gay neighborhood since the mid-’60s when Chicago’s gay nightlife centered around a clutch of bars in the area: the Century, 2810 N. Clark St., Ruthie’s 2833 N. Clark St., and a triumvirate of drag bars, Chesterfield, 2831 N. Clark, Annex, 2863 N. Clark, and Orange Cockatoo 2850 N. Clark St.

In the year since the first parade, gay social and political life in Chicago had exploded: the Chicago Gay Alliance had formed and opened a Community Center at 171 W. Elm St.; Chicago Gay Lib had picketed the Astro restaurant at Clark and Diversey for their refusal to serve gays; Father Robert Behnen gave the first gay mass for 12 people at the home of Wayne E., an ex-Benedictine monk; the Rev. Troy Perry visited and preached at Chicago’s Good Shepherd Parish MCC; and gay groups sprang up all over the city, including the African-American Third World Gay Revolutionaries, the S&M Hellfire Club, and the Chicago Unity Council of Homophile Organizations.

In 1972 an estimated 1,000 people braved hurled eggs and rocks as they set out from the lake, heading west along Belmont and then south on Broadway to the Free Forum for the rally; this would stay the route for some years. By 1974 the first seeds of gay life sprouted on Halsted St. north of Belmont: Augie’s lesbian bar, 3729 N. Halsted (now Bobby Love’s) opened; the Women’s Center, 3523 N. Halsted (now Las Mananitas), had a counseling and resource center for lesbians; and the Beckman House gay community center, 3519 N. Halsted, opened and was named after Barbara Beckman, a lesbian activist who die in an auto accident in 1972. The first men’s bar to open was Little Jim’s a year later.

Upwards of 3,000 people attended the 1977 Gay Pride parade, the most political so far due to its focus on two major national issues: Anita Bryant and Gays in the Military. Earlier in the year ex-beauty queen and orange juice poster girl Anita Bryant had launched her Save Our Children campaign to repeal the Dade County, Fla., anti-discrimination law. Her homophobic actions resulted in a call-to-arms by the national gay movement and a month before Pride an Orange Ball was held at the Aragon Ballroom, raising $12,000 to fight Bryant’s mission, and two weeks later 5,000 protesters greeted her appearance at a Flag Day concert at Chicago’s Medinah Temple. Representing the Gays in the Military issue, two of the special guest speakers at the 1977 rally were Leonard Matlovich and Miriam Ben Shalom, both of whom had been discharged from the military on the grounds of homosexuality.

The 12th annual Gay and Lesbian Pride parade on June 28, 1981 took one of the longest route’s ever, with a crowd of 8,000 starting out at Halsted and Addison, going east to Broadway, south to Clark, then south on Clark to Fullerton, east on Fullerton to Stockton Drive, and finally south on Stockton to the Lincoln Park Free Forum. The theme of the parade was “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to lose,” taken from a song by musician and composer Jeff Jones, and 1981 was also the first year that Mayor Jane M. Byrne designated the day “Gay Pride Parade Day in Chicago.”

Such was the joy of the 1981 parade that few saw the dark ugly cloud gathering over the community that still casts its shadow today. A month prior to Pride a gay man visiting a VD clinic in New York overheard a physician say that several gay men were being treated for a strange type of pneumonia. The gay man phoned Dr. Larry Moss, a part time reporter for gay paper the New York Native. Moss published an article May 18 headlined, “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded.” In the June 19 issue of Chicago Gay Life a small article buried on Page 2 read: “A type of pneumonia has been found in five young men, two of whom died, and may be linked to ‘some aspect of homosexual lifestyle’ … “

This was the first mention of what later became known as AIDS in a Chicago gay newspaper; chillingly, on the front page of the same issue another headline read: “Gay Blood Drive Sunday” … “Members of Chicago’s gay community are being urged to donate blood for the city’s first gay and lesbian blood drive … “

Even one year later news of the “Gay Plague” hadn’t really taken hold in Chicago as it was not a feature of the 1982 Gay Pride parade, which drew 30,000 people and was notable for Mayor Jane M. Byrne issuing an executive order banning discrimination against gays in city employment, housing and services. In 1983 she rode in the parade in her daughter Kathy’s convertible, only now she was “former” Mayor Byrne; the new Mayor Harold Washington was a no-show, as he was the following year, although in 1984 he did send Kit Duffy, his liaison to the gay community.

It was at the 17th annual Gay Pride parade in 1986 that Mayor Washington brushed aside interruptions from 30 members of the KKK and spoke after the parade at the Pride rally in Lincoln Park, saying “As a black man who has suffered discrimination … as part of a race of people who have suffered … I am not about to let discrimination exist as long as I’m mayor of this city.”

Mayor Washington’s support opened the floodgates and in 1987 politicians came out in force, including Alds. Bernie Hansen (44th), Kathy Osterman (48th), and David Orr (49th), state Sen. William Marovitz and state Rep. Ellis Levin and 9th District Democratic Committeewoman Adrienne Goodman. What the politicos witnessed that year were angry marchers shouting “Veto! Veto!” – a reference to legislation mandating the tracing of sexual contacts of persons diagnosed with AIDS or testing positive for HIV. The Call was for Gov. James Thompson to veto the bill.

The first sitting Mayor to join the parade was Mayor Richard M. Daley two months after taking office in 1989 – perhaps sitting isn’t the word as his car overheated at Belmont and Broadway and he had to finish the route on foot. When asked why he was marching, Daley answered: “I am the Mayor for all Chicago.” He returned the following year waving from a white convertible as crowds at the 1990 Gay and Lesbian Pride parade swelled to 100,000. Of the 186 entries, 51 were political. This was the year that ACT UP’s Anna Bata and Danny Sotomayor told the crowd: “There’s no going back – our only chance is to fight back. We have the power to force change.”

The 1994 Pride parade with 160,000 – 165,000 celebrants took place earlier than usual on June 5, leaving the end of the month free for the historic “Stonewall 25” celebrations in New York City marking the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. At the Chicago after-Pride rally tears were shed as sections of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt were laid out in Lincoln Park, while onstage local queer bands Pulsation and Boys’ Entrance whipped-up the crowd into party-mode.

Fred Phelps and his brood of offspring turned up in 1996 to protest what he called the “Fag Death March in Chicago,” as did Candace Gingrich, lesbian sister of Newt, to counteract the Phelps nonsense. This was also the year that the day before the Pride parade the 1st Dyke March took place, organized by the Lesbian Avengers and with the Women’s Action Coalition Drum Corps, the march left Melrose and Broadway at8 p.m. and ended with a rally in Lincoln Park.

Candace Gingrich returned in 1999 with Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, but there were rumblings of dissent as some Pride-goers saw the parade turning into a showcase for corporate interests. Queer to the Left attached large dollar signs to the rainbow pylons and carried a banner that read: “Your Pride – Their Profits.” This was also the year of the 1st Black Pride Festival.

Pride ’03 was Tom Tunney’s first as an alderman, while the Lesbian and Gay Association of the Chicago Police Department’s float featured a rainbow sign recruiting gay and lesbian police, and mingling with the crowds was Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The Best All Around Float went to the Howard Brown Health Center, while Equality Illinois won for Best Organization and Steamworks for Best Business. The special guest this year was major league baseball player Billy Bean, author of “Going the Other Way – Lessons From a Life In and Out of Major League Baseball.”

Gov. Blagojevich wisely skipped Pride ’04 after disgracing himself by not coming out in favor of same-sex marriage. Deborah Mell, his lesbian sister-in-law, marched instead to protest his homophobia. The following year at the LGBT Pride reception at the Cultural Center, Mayor Richard M. Daley ushered in Pride ’05 Week by saying: “We have a heartbeat and a soul, and each day you provide that heartbeat, that gay pride, that makes Chicago number one.”

At Pride ’07 thousands of us marched past the newly opened Center on Halsted, an impressive glass edifice symbolizing a new era in what used to be called “The Gay Ghetto.” Though we bitch about the parade’s crass commercialism, and the opportunism of politicians seeking our vote like Cruella De Vil scouring the streets for puppies, that’s not really what Pride is all about. Pride is about celebrating who we are and not what people want us to be, and it’s about living an honest life not corrupted by lies and deceit. Pride is also about honoring those who marched before us, those far distant ghosts who circle-danced around the Picasso sculpture in 1970, who protested the mission of Anita Bryant in 1977, and who coped with the devastation of AIDS beginning in 1981. An estimated 450,000 people atteneded the parade in 2007.

Pride ’10 brought support from Chicago’s professional sports teams as spectators and participants alike welcomed the Stanley Cup and ex-Blackhawks defenseman Brent Sopel to the parade. In addition to the Stanley Cup, the Chicago Cubs was one of the 300 entries. All-Star Ernie Banks represented the Cubs and the new owners, including out lesbian Laura Ricketts.

In 2011Pride marched on despite vandalism to 51 of the floats intended for the parade. Tires on floats were slashed the night before the parade at Associated Attractions on the southwest side. Most of the floats made it to the parade on time as the company rushed to fix the damage at an estimated $20,000. The 42nd annual Chicago Pride Parade was later cut short when record-breaking crowds, estimated at 800,000 people, seemed too much for Chicago Police to control. Contingent numbers 192 – 240 were redirected from the parade route to Clark St. ending the parade early.

After crowds doubled over the previous three years, the Pride ’12 route was lengthened by 5 blocks to allow more space for spectators to view the parade. The start of the 43rd annual Chicago Pride Parade was moved to Montrose and Broadway in the Uptown neighborhood instead of the traditional Belmont and Halsted start. The new route had the parade traveling south on Broadway to Halsted before turning east on Belmont, south on Broadway and east on Diversey to Canon Drive.

Pride ’13 again saw record crowds as an estimated 1 million people came out in support of LGBT equality at the 44th annual Chicago Pride Parade. There was a movement to ban politicians from the parade after the Illinois House adjourned May 31 without bringing Senate Bill 10, the state’s marriage equality bill, up for a vote. Eventually politicians, including state Rep. Greg Harris, marched in the parade and marriage equality pass in November 2013.

In 2014, Marriage equality took center stage at the 45th annual Chicago Pride Parade. The festive parade, which lasted over three hours, was the first pride parade since Illinois’ marriage equality law was enacted statewide on June 1. Gov. Pat Quinn, who signed the marriage equality bill into law, was among the more than 200 entries in the parade. Marriage equality coupled with the beautiful weather brought out record crowds, estimated at one million. Concerns of neighborhood overcrowding and security created a call to move the annual parade downtown.

After much public debate, the 46th annual Chicago Pride Parade remained in the Lakeview and Uptown neighborhoods in 2015, but was tightened to 200 contingents in hopes of shortening the parade; however, it ended up lasting over four hours. The parade was delayed for about 15 minutes when black trans, queer people and their allies purposefully disrupted the festivities. The protestors wearing black shirts with #BlackOutPride written on them chanted “Black Lives Matter.” Eight arrests were made related to the protest and Chicago Police said there were 52 arrests overall related to the parade and post-parade activities. These numbers and other factors were used by city officials to determine if the parade would return to Boystown in 2016. The crowd, estimated at one million, was bolstered by the U.S. Supreme Court June 26, 2015 decision to recognize same-sex marriage nationwide.

The 47th annual Chicago Pride Parade in 2016 was a mix of emotions under sweltering sunshine, with the temperature in the 90s: joy, pride and pain. The opening of the parade included a moving tribute to the 49 slain victims of the June 12, 2016 tragedy at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla. “That was a commemoration and tribute, and the right thing to do,” parade organizer Richard Pfeiffer told Orlando was represented, and honored, throughout the parade – with signs, banners, posters, t-shirts and more. The parade was shorter in 2016 with only 160 entrees (down from 215 in 2015) and increased security. Mayor Rahm Emanuel walked with his daughter. The Mayor, State Rep. Greg Harris and others wore a DISARM HATE t-shirt, which spoke to the tragedy in Orlando. An estimated crowd of one million people attended in 2016.

Security remained tight for the 48th annual Chicago Pride Parade in 2017, just like the previous year following the mass shooting in Orlando. The festive and colorful parade included 150 entrees and, again, drew record crowds. The Chicago Cubs brought the World Series Championship Trophy on their float, which was the first time a World Series Trophy has been included in an LGBT Pride parade. A small group of protestors – a collective of trans and queer people of color – managed to delay the parade for nearly 15 minutes. In denouncing the Chicago Pride Parade and Chicago Pride Fest, the collective announced its intention to launch a Trans Pride celebration in 2018, an event that never came to fruition. The 2017 parade ran 4 hours and 8 minutes, that’s 21 minutes longer than last year. And, controversy arose at the 2017 Chicago Dyke March when some Jewish participants were told to leave because their flags had the Jewish Star of David.

Near-perfect weather greeted spectators at the 49th annual Chicago Pride Parade in 2018. With both federal midterm and state gubernatorial elections in November that year, there was no shortage of politicians. All mayoral candidates, who planned to challenge Rahm Emanuel in 2019, participated, including openly-lesbian Lori Lightfoot, Paul Vallas, Dorothy Brown, Gary McCarthy, Toni Preckwinkle and Ja’Mal Green. Emanuel marched at the head of the parade with the message “One Chicago.” In April 2019, Lightfoot went on to overwhelmingly defeat Preckwinkle in a runoff election to become Chicago’s first Black female and first openly gay mayor. 

The 2019 Chicago Pride Parade long will be remembered as the milestone edition cut short by Mother Nature. The 50th annual Chicago Pride Parade – held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York – ended early due to “inclement weather.” Chicago’s first openly gay mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was the grand marshal, joined by her wife, Amy Eshleman. Lightfoot was one of seven honorary grand marshals, and she was joined for part of the parade by police superintendent Eddie Johnson. The parade was stopped at about 2 p.m., and officially canceled at 2:25 p.m. after the National Weather Service issued a severe storm warning, meaning, a storm was imminent.

Later that year, Richard William Pfeiffer, coordinator of the annual Chicago Pride Parade since 1974 and a member of Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, died on October 6. He was 70. Pfeiffer’s husband, Tim Frye, picked up the mantle and began organizing the 2020 parade as a tribute to his late husband. The couple was together for 48 years.

However, in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancelation of the 2020 Chicago Pride Parade, marking the first time the parade has been postponed or canceled in its 50-year history. 

The cancellation was particularly bittersweet for Frye. 

The 2021 Chicago Pride Parade was initially postponed for June and moved to LGBTQ history month in October due to the pandemic. The parade was eventually canceled. 

After a two-year hiatus, the Chicago Pride Parade returned in 2023.

LGBTQ historian Sukie de la Croix contributed to this report, which was originally published on

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