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Pilsen in step with 2009 Dyke March [June 2009]

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The Chicago Dyke March moved to Pilsen last year in an historic attempt to take the event to neighborhoods outside the mostly white gay enclaves of the north side.  The Dyke March Planning Committee envisioned that the march would rotate between the city’s various ethnic neighborhoods, to show that queers are, indeed, everywhere.

This year, approximately 600 people gathered at 18th and Halsted on a sunny June 27 afternoon to step off on the march, which made its way toward a rally at Harrison Park.  Participants held up homemade signs, chanted “Power to the People” and were cheered on by residents and passing cars.  The march began as a critique of the traditional Pride Parade, which many felt had become overly commercial and distanced from the radical tradition of Stonewall.  Dyke marchers tend to be a more politicized group of people than is found at Pride Parade, and many of them do not even attend that event.  Lani Montreal of Insight Arts, a group dedicated to cultural work rooted in social justice, explained why: “Pride has become commercialized.  We don’t want to march alongside AT&T.”

Sam Finkelstein of Gender JUST (of which this reporter is a member) said that the event was “a good opportunity to connect with other members of the more radical members of the community who are more focused on fighting oppression.”  GJ members gathered signatures for their ongoing campaign to ask the Chicago Department of Public Health to examine how HIV-funding resources get distributed in the city.  Other groups gathered signatures for marriage equality, while Gay Liberation Network (GLN) held up a giant yellow banner with the words: “A Chicago ‘welcome’ for Obama—Keep your @#% promises! Repeal DOMA, DADT.”

During the march, some people dropped a giant banner from the top floor windows of a building on the route, with the words “Stop Oppression and Gentrification! LGBTQs, We’re In Unity with You.”  The Pilsen neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, and it was clear that the theme of gentrification resonated with both the community and the marchers, many of whom work directly or indirectly on the issue.  Immigration rights are also a predominant theme in the area, given its preponderance of Latino immigrants, and one of the signs—“I love my undocumented girlfriend”—referenced the issue.

Among the groups marching were Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Bash Back!; Gay Liberation Network, I2I: Asian & Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago and Amigas Latinas.  Andy Thayer of GLN said that it was becoming “clear to people that Obama is moving in the wrong direction in terms of gay rights.  There’s no excuse for moving backwards.”  He said that, in the context of Stonewall, it was important to remember that “protests produced results.”

Once at Harrison Park, marchers gathered to listen to and watch speeches and performances.  They were also invited to fill out index cards with suggestions for next year’s event.  The march remained in Pilsen this year, despite last year’s announcement by the committee that it would move to a different neighborhood.  Organizer Tania Unzueta said that this was because the committee felt it was necessary for the march to make connections with a neighborhood before moving on: “We don’t just want to be a march and reinforce the stereotype of a gays moving into communities and not collaborating with the people in the area.  We can’t organize in a community without organizing with the community.”  According to her, the march will now rotate every two years in a different neighborhood.  She said that the committee realized that “a year is barely enough before we start moving on,” and that organizers would use this past year’s experience to build on developing connections to whichever community the March moved.

It was clear that the march had made an impact on the local residents.  Elpidia Torres, a resident and spectator who lives across the street from the convergence area, came by to watch and support people.  Speaking through Unzueta, who translated for her, she said that she was there because “people have a right to defend their rights, and no one should be discriminated against.”  Another woman, Yalut S.  (she would not give her full last name) , said that she was there to support a family member “who is not here today because she is not ready to come out.  I came instead of her so that next year she can be here with me; I will go home and tell her that I was here and she should be, too.”

Longtime marchers were also pleased with the event being in Pilsen.  Kathy Lawhon said that she had been initially skeptical of the move last year, but now supported it wholeheartedly: “It’s awesome that it’s in Pilsen, even if it does take me a while to get here.  And I love that we’re reclaiming the word ‘dyke,’ with its power.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, which came up in one of the presenter’s speeches.  Mika Munoz spoke about the radical roots of Stonewall, and of how the mainstream gay movement had “co-opted the story” of how “working class queers and queers of color led the charge” against police brutality.  She added that while the slogan then was, “We are fighting for our lives,” things had not changed much today, given, for instance, the police harassment of poor youth of color, and that “ [w] e are still fighting for our lives.”

Originally published in Windy City Times, June 2009.

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