DuPage County-based Awake Illinois was set to hold an event called "Out of the Echo Chamber: Coalition for Kids" at the city-owned, but not city-operated, Des Plaines Theatre Wednesday, Feb. 8. This event has now been canceled following a negative reaction from numerous northwest suburban community members.
"BG [Buffalo Grove] Pride was thrilled to be able to help our allies at SPEAK Des Plaines to mount a pressure campaign to keep hate from being spread at their local theater," said the Pinta Pride Project's Carolyn Pinta; Pinta Pride Project organizes BG Pride activities.
Prior to the event cancellation, BG Pride, SPEAK Des Plaines and their allies were set to counter-protest Awake Illinois' event outside the venue. That has also been canceled.
During a Jan. 17 Des Plaines City Council meeting, some attendees opposed to the event noted that Des Plaines specifically states on its website that the city "embraces and honors diversity in all forms including race, ethnicity, gender, transgender, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, ability and disability."
Meeting attendees cited that statement as being one of the numerous reasons why the Awake Illinois event should not take place in a city-owned building. The Des Plaines Theatre was purchased by the city in 2018 for $1.3 million, with additional assistance coming from the nearby Rivers Casino, and the city spent $6.7 million for repairs and renovations. The space has been managed by Onesti Entertainment, which is based there, and is used for events such as concerts and film screenings.
The Awake Illinois event, according to its website, was set to have Gays Against Groomers Founder and President Jaimee Michell and 2022 GOP candidate for Lt. Gov. Stephanie Trussell as featured speakers. Sponsors included the organizations American Education, Chicago Log Cabin Republicans, Freedom Tunes, Ironclad Resolve, One God, Public Square and Turning Point USA.
"This was a rental by an independent organization that sought a venue to present their diverse group of speakers," said Des Plaines Theatre operator and Onesti Entertainment Corporation President and CEO Ron Onesti in a press release. "Neither I nor [the] Des Plaines Theater had any involvement whatsoever in the production or coordination of this event. I had no deep knowledge of the subject matter, or how controversial it may be. It was to be an innocent rental and nothing more."
"Mr. Onesti's decision to cancel the event was the right call," said Des Plaines Mayor Andrew Goczkowski. "Groups like AWAKE Illinois do not reflect the diversity and inclusivity of this city. Moving forward, I will work with the city council to establish clear standards to ensure that the Des Plaines Theatre remains open and welcoming to everyone."
In a response to Onesti canceling the event, Awake Illinois has posted a message on the group's Facebook page soliciting donations "to help us secure our very own First Amendment Arena for events. The time is now for free speech; or lose it forever."
Their message was posted above the letter informing the group's followers of the event being canceled, which said that "due to threats of physical violence directed at the venue and participants, this decision was made by Onesti Entertainment, which has no affiliation with our organization. We are grateful to all citizens who support the first amendment right to free speech and the right to peacefully assemble."
Onesti maintained in his statement that his booking of the event was not intended to harm the LGBTQ+ community.
"People began accusing me of supporting anti-LGBTQ+ events which made me sick to my stomach. I hosted one of the first civil union ceremonies at my Arcada Theater in Illinois ten years ago this week. I was the best man at the wedding of a gay couple, my mom was their first dance. Homophobia is a disease [with] which I have not been afflicted.
"…What saddens me was the amount of hate that surfaced during all of this. People mailing bullets to me, asking their neighbors to fill my garbage cans with dog feces, countless hateful calls and outwardly targeting the Des Plaines Theatre, wishing its demise. And how would that have been good for the community?
"…I pray for the day when we can all come together and discuss these important issues, respectfully and with conviction."
Pinta, for her part, questioned why it took a community outcry to motivate Onesti to do the right thing.
"While I am happy to see the event cancelled, I was struck by Ron Onesti's being accused of being anti-LGBTQ as making him 'sick to his stomach,' Pinta said. "Honestly, if this were the case, he would have acted immediately upon finding out earlier this week that groups like Awake Illinois are hate groups. I very much hope that he will put a more rigorous vetting plan in place for who is able to rent the theater in the future."