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Art Johnston reflects on the purpose of Pride

2024 Community Grand Marshals Art Johnston and Jose ‘Pepe’ Pena have attended all but one Chicago Pride Parade since 1974

With the 53rd annual Chicago Pride Parade set for Sunday, June 30, Art Johnston has decades of wide-ranging memories and emotions around Pride Month, which culminates locally on the last Sunday of June with the rainbow-drenched parade through multiple northside Chicago neighborhoods in front of about 1 million spectators.

A “special memory” came last year on parade Sunday at Sidetrack, which Johnston co-owns with his husband José “Pepe” Pena. The deck at Sidetrack was packed when a sudden summer shower drenched everyone. But no one went inside. Instead, “everyone burst into a spontaneous rain dance, throwing their arms in the air in joy, joy of being who they were in those moments, on that special day,” said Johnston, a 1998 inductee into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.

A staunch activist for the LGBTQ+ community, Johnston was a co-founder of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights (now called Equality Illinois) and has long been a supporter – and past member – of multiple Chicago’s gay sports leagues.

Pride Month is an important celebration of the victories and a critical reminder that the LGBTQ+ community is, once again, under intense political and social attack, he said.

“This is an extremely important time to remember how recently in our country the American Psychological Association considered homosexuality a mental illness and we could be legally denied employment, a place to live and access to public accommodations,” Johnston said. “We, our community members and allies, made the changes happen so that sexual orientation became a protected category in Chicago (in) 1988, Cook County (in) 1993 and Illinois (in) 2005. We, as a community, have much to be proud of.

“Our Pride Month and our Chicago Pride Parade have become mainstream with parade attendees nearing a million in number. We and the entire city of Chicago learn a bit more about who we are, how we are truly everywhere and share our Pride with our whole amazing city. Pep and I have been a part of every Parade since 1974, except for one year in San Francisco after Harvey Milk’s assassination. We are very honored to be named Community Grand Marshals for this year.”

Longtime LGBTQ+ activists, community organizers and high-profile transgender couple Myles and Precious Brady-Davis will serve as Community Grand Marshals.

Fortune Feimster, a stand-up comedian, writer and actor, along with her wife, Jax, will lead the parade procession as the grand marshals.

Johnston said his favorite Pride Parade memory came when Mayor Richard Daley was riding in the parade in a blue convertible, along with the Lambda contingent carrying large photos of supportive Supreme Court Justices. Also, “we have so many happy memories of Mayor (Lori) Lightfoot, one of our own, who marched annually,” he said.

Johnston said his memories of the early years of the Chicago Pride Parade were relatively simply: “How great it felt to be ourselves, to be gay with thousands of others, in the daytime, in the sunshine, on the streets of Chicago.”

Chicago’s Pride Parade really took off in 1988, he said, when discrimination was outlawed based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit transactions. “Professionals, for example, could participate in Pride Month activities without fear of losing their jobs,” he added.

Chicago Fire FC, which plays its home soccer matches at Soldier Field, announced May 28 programming details for Pride Night, in conjunction with Carvana. The team’s Pride Night will take place on Saturday, June 1, for the club’s match against the LA Galaxy. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.

Johnston and Pena will perform the “Glass Break,” a ceremonial beginning of the Fire’s Pride Month activities.

“We are very honored to be a part of the Chicago Fire’s recognition of our community,” Johnston said. “The Fire has joined other forward-thinking sports organizations in the way they work with our communities. We are very proud of the Chicago Fire.”

Fire fans will experience a variety of activations and entertainment throughout the night and the first 5,000 fans who attend the Pride Tailgate will receive the Fire’s Pride Night giveaway item – a Pride crossbody clear bag.

Major League Soccer (MLS) and Adidas have once again partnered to design this year’s Love Unites Pride Top, designed by Pabllo Vittar, which will be worn by Fire players during warm-ups pre-match. 

The National Anthem will be performed by the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus. Pride Night’s “Sounds of Chicagoland” artist will be musical duo DRAMA, who recently headlined the Las Vegas Pride Festival. A pre-match dance battle, presented by the Chicago Fire White Party, and the return of the halftime Lip Sync Battle are some of the entertainment offerings that will keep the party going throughout the match.

“Chicago Fire FC is extremely excited to kick off Pride Month by hosting our annual Pride Night, presented by Carvana,” said Chicago Fire FC Vice President of Matchday Operations and Guest Experience Joey Colby-Begovich. “Along with our incredible partners at Carvana, we’ll be hosting a pre-match Pride Tailgate with sponsor booths, games, and entertainment from local artists to highlight and celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community and their wonderful cultural contributions.”

“We are thrilled to support Chicago Fire FC’s annual Pride Night and are proud to play a part in Chicago’s Pride Month festivities,” said Ryan Keeton, co-founder and Chief Brand Officer of Carvana. “The vibrancy and spirit of this community inspire us daily, and we are honored to contribute to such a meaningful celebration both within and beyond the realm of sports.”

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