On Saturday, June 25, 2016 people of every age, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, expression and non-binary identification will flow along an approximately half-mile route through a Chicago neighborhood in a demonstrative river of celebration, defiance, passion and, above all, community.
But there will be none of the extravagant floats replete with corporate branding and bikini-clad men gyrating together to thundering repetitions of the complete works of Lady Gaga or fawning displays of political support to the hordes of drunken revelers awkwardly crammed together behind barricades.
For 20 years, the Dyke March has been a visceral and profound display of self-worth and visibility but it has never been and never will be a Pride Parade.
In an event where the rules established by convention or society are dispensed with in favor of absolute freedom, it is the only statute that has been followed since the winter of 1996 when a Chicago chapter of the direct-action activist group The Lesbian Avengers ( formed four years after the first Dyke March in New York City took place ) began planning a march in Chicago.
The first Chicago Dyke March took place at 7:30 p.m. on June 29, 1996. It was the day before the Chicago Pride Paradea shrewdly timed 'up yours' to that event and a tradition that continues even today.
There was a pre-march rally in the playground of a school at Melrose and Broadway in East Lakeview. Drumming by the Women's Action Coalition Drum Core prepared the approximately 1,000 attendees for their journey south down Broadway to Diversey and then east to conclude with a rally at Lincoln Park.
There, famed LGBT activist Candace Gingrich spoke alongside representatives from grassroots organizations including the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, STOP AIDS and the Lesbian Community Cancer Project ( now a part of the Howard Brown Health ).
Today a researcher on bisexual women's health, Wendy Bostwick was one of the organizers of the first Chicago Dyke Marcha group that eventually would become known as the Dyke March Collective.
"The Dyke Marches rose out of a very political and explicit statement against 'Pride Parades' that were seen as overwhelmingly male and, at times, overtly sexist," she said. "They were an intentional statement of visibility."
She added that such a statement was also the reason that the first march took place along a portion of the route that would be used in the Chicago Pride Parade the following day.
Bostwick's involvement began when she moved to Chicago in late 1995 having been an activist in college.
"I was sleeping on a friend's couch," she said. "Her roommate was Syd Mutschler who was involved with The Lesbian Avengers in New Orleans and she started up a chapter in Chicago."
When Bostwick joined the core group, she recalled there were between 8-to-12 women.
"There was a national Avengers mailing list," she said, "and they had created a guide that was basically 'so you want to have a Dyke March!' The cover read 'The Lesbian AvengersA Handy Guide to Homemade Revolution.' It talked about the history of The Lesbian Avengers [beginning] in June of 1993 and then it laid things out in terms of meetings, the importance of graphics and visuals, how to fundraise, mailing lists, phone trees and dealing with police and permits."
However, in keeping with The Lesbian Avengers philosophy of "we do not ask for permission," the Chicago Dyke March organizers refused to get a permit.
"The Lesbian Avengers did not want to work within the structural systems of power," Bostwick said. "We were, in fact, railing against those things which by their very nature are sexist and racist. So to move forward in getting state-sanctioned permission to congregate was antithetical to what The Lesbian Avengers believed in."
As for following the rest of the guidelines:
"Oh I'm quite sure we didn't," Bostwick remembered with a laugh. "What activist follows anything to the letter? Many of us had previously been involved in direct-action politics so we knew some of the ropes already. I don't know if we were sort of blessed but, if there were any challenges at all, they were related to issues of safety."
When word began to spread that a Chicago Dyke March was being planned, Chicago Police Department ( CPD ) Officer Lori Cooperwho would go on to become Chicago's LGBT police liaison in 1998reached out to the organizers.
"She came to one of our meetings," Bostwick said. "We explained our philosophy to her and why we were not going to get a permit. She had concerns predominantly about our safety and she really did a lot behind-the-scenes to make sure that traffic was stopped and we were able to march without any problems."
According to Bostwick, the only problems which occurred in 1996 were technical.
"We had the shittiest sound system," she said. "Somebody brought a portable megaphone with a mini-amp. It was entirely makeshift and we made do."
They also had to make do without the cumulative power of social media. Despite heavy publicity provided by Windy City Times and Outlines ( now Windy City Times ), the Chicago New Times and the Chicago Reader among others, organizers had no idea if anyone would show up.
The eventual turnout floored them.
"It was indescribable," Bostwick said. To look and see what had to be almost a thousand women was just breathtaking. There were women who came from surrounding states. People came from all over. It was unbelievable that a scrappy group of dykes with zero resources had accomplished this."
The other surprise was the welcome the marchers received from the neighborhood as they headed through Lakeview carrying banners made out of sheets.
"I do not recall any counter-protests," Bostwick said. "As there have been every year, there were pockets of queer boys who stood on the sidelines and cheered us on. It was a very joyous and powerful experience. It was exhilarating and like nothing I've ever done since."
"It was a message of visibility and safety; that queer women exist, that queer women are part of the community, that queer women are not secondary to gay men," she added. "I mean this literally and figuratively, that women should be allowed to take up just as much space as men and that we should not feel unsafe in our own community."
It was Bostwick's only tenure as a member of the Collective.
Just as the Dyke March steadily migrated into new neighborhoods across Chicago ( Andersonville from 1997 to 2007, Pilsen in 2008 and 2009, the South Shore in 2010 and 2011, the Argyle/Uptown neighborhood in 2012 and 2013 and Humboldt Park from 2014 to this year ) the faces of its principal organizers have been as dynamica constant progression of inclusion and a disruption of the status quo.
"What is now the Dyke March Collective clearly is a living breathing thing that each successive year and each successive generation of queer women is meant to take on and make their own," Bostwick said.
According to the history of the Dyke March on the Collective's website, the move from Andersonville to Pilsen was born out of a desire "for inclusiveness and accessibility particularly towards communities of color."
Pilsen organizers founded the statement: "WE MOVE to create visibility, to honor our histories and identities, to disrupt oppression and dominance, to challenge silence and fear. Because we are everywhere. Because we must survive."
Liz Thomson was a member of the Dyke March Collective during the Argyle/Uptown years.
At the time she was working ( and still works ) with Invisible to Invincible: Asian Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago ( i2i )a community-based organization that "celebrates and affirms Asians & Pacific Islanders who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Queer in the Chicago area."
Thomson began participating in the Andersonville Dyke Marches as a representative of i2i.
"I had always appreciated the Dyke March even before I was a Collective member," she told Windy Times. "Because of it not being corporate, not having politicians. There were more queer people of color. There were no entry fees. It literally was community."
According to Thomson, the move to the Argyle/Uptown neighborhood was heavily influenced by i2i.
"We wanted to be in an Asian neighborhood and build community there," she said. "So we submitted a proposal to move it to Argyle and it was accepted. Looking back, i2i sees that as a significant part of our own history."
Any concerns that the neighborhood would not be as welcoming to the march as its predecessors were proven needless.
"The first year it was totally fine," Thomson said. "The second year, even more businesses owners were affirming and supportive."
Just as in year one, integral to putting together the Dyke March were the Collective meetings. For Thomson, they were an education in themselves.
"When I was part of the Collective we would have three- or four-hour meetings really talking about some hard stuff," she recalled. "There was a lot of consensus building that protected the minority vote. If someone disagreed or had issues with something, you'd talk it out until everyone was at some kind of agreement level. It was not majority rules. There was never a leader. The Collective models what they want to be in thinking about community."
Absolute transparency is just as essential.
"The Dyke March does not get grants or foundational support," Thomson said. "So if someone donates $5, we want to make sure that person knows where their money is going."
While a CPD presence at this year's Pride Parade will in all likelihood be overwhelming and militaristic in nature given the horrific June 12 shooting in Orlando, Fla., The Dyke March has always tried to keep the numbers of CPD officers to a minimum and instead utilizes its own Safety Marshalls who also fulfill both a political and philosophical need.
"Every year there are a few police officers to help with traffic," Thomson said. "But this is more about restorative justice. Our community can do what our community needs."
Even in the four years since she was a Collective member, Thomson has seen the Dyke March flourish in numbers and the level of inclusion.
"One of the first meetings that I went to during the Argyle march was centered around a tagline of queer and trans resilience," Thomson remembered. "But they didn't have the Bi community overtly stated. So I brought that up, we talked about it and they added it. Both in the Collective and the marches, no matter what neighborhood we've been in, there has been an increase in people of color, the transgender community and youth."
Bostwick remembered a number of early and contentious discussions about trans inclusion during the first Dyke March.
"Something that The Lesbian Avengers were trying to work through was where trans women fit," she recalled. "I don't remember explicitly excluding trans-identified women but I don't think we were super-open either."
Alexis Martinez is one of Chicago's most celebrated transgender activists. She has been a member of the Dyke March Collective for seven years. Her conversation with a Dyke March member in 2009 about the lack of transgender involvement from 1996 onwards and her determination to leverage her long history of organizing as a part of the Collective proved to be the catalyst for a resounding change.
"At that time there were no trans people involved with the Collective and most Dyke Marches across the country still exclude non-binary people," she told Windy City Times. "The Dyke March began to move away from that paradigm right about the time I became a member of the Collective. Chicago was one of the first to include trans women and trans men."
When she became a part of the Collective, Martinez was "warmly welcomed."
"That was very important to me," she said. "Being accepted in a radical collective of women as a woman was transformative. There were a lot of trans people at last year's Dyke March. They were openly welcomed as performers. The Collective has about 10 people and four of them are trans. To me, that is living, breathing evidence of how far Dyke March has come. "
Like the march itself, nothing is static in the way the Collective works.
"There is no committee chair," Martinez said. "Even when it comes to taking notes, we revolve responsibilities as our skills and abilities dictate. The Collective is my family. It is the most loving environment that I have ever been consistently around."
However, it is the skills and abilities of the Dyke March volunteers which the Collective cherishes above all.
Just as i2i had been instrumental during the Argyle years, the Chicago chapter of The Trans Latin@ Coalition have been the guiding force for the Humboldt Park Dyke March.
Thomson remains heavily involved as a volunteer. She has organized the smaller 'dinner and dessert' events that have taken place around the 20th Anniversary of the Dyke March using restaurants in the neighborhoods that are a part of the event's history.
"We started doing them during the Argyle years," she said. "We were trying to get people excited, get information out and recruit volunteers but also to support local businesses and restaurants in the neighborhood."
The restaurants are vetted by Collective members who determine factors such as politics and accessibility.
"Sometimes we'll have people come to these restaurants who have just moved to Chicago, they've heard about the Dyke March and this is their first time," Thomson said. "Then there are people there where it's like their tenth Dyke March."
In the 20 years since it first set off in Lakeview, attendance at the Dyke March has over doubled in size. The conclusion of the Dyke March now includes donated food, tables manned by grassroots organizations and an array of different speakers and acts.
"Last year we had about 2,300 people," Martinez said. "I suspect that every year is going to get better because every year has. A lot of people come from outside the community. I met people last year from Atlanta, even Poland. They had come for Pride but then heard about the Dyke March and realized that, as lesbians, Pride didn't exactly fit them."
With The Dyke March's growth in size has come an exponentially increased amount of labor and money required to ensure its success.
Nevertheless, even when it comes to the people and money a corporation could supply, such help is neither required nor desired.
"It's a lot of tedious work," Martinez said. "Table participation, Porta Potties, the stage, the food. It gets done though."
Meanwhile fundraising is a combination of table and T-shirt sales, house parties and individual donations.
"The costs are going up but we do not want to adjust our principals," Martinez said. "We will make the $10,000 we need this year by hook or by crook. There is an integrity to the Dyke March and we want to maintain that."
Bostwick last attended The Dyke March five years ago.
"While it is much better organized now, it's not like politicians or Bud Light shows up," she said. "It still manages to exist outside of this structural societal stamp of approval where there are politicians and corporate sponsors."
"We pay all our performers," Martinez noted. "But it's not like anybody is going to get rich off it."
But anyone who has performed at The Dyke March will tell you that isn't the point.
Nikki Patin participated in the 2006 rally at Foster Beach in Andersonville.
"They asked me to do a spoken-word performance," she said. "At the time I was working with the Center on Halsted with their youth program. I had never been to a Dyke March before but I had a lot of friends in the community who had gone and loved it so, when they asked me to perform, it was really a no-brainer. A lot of the young people I worked with were going to be there and it felt really good to offer up something for them and to be in solidarity with them."
"The beautiful thing about Chicago is that there have historically been a lot of women-centered and women-identified-centered events," Patin added. "One of the things those events have in common, including Dyke March, is just this feeling of safety and affirmation and that you can say things in front of that audience that you might not be able to say in front of a more mainstream LGBT celebration. I loved performing at Dyke March because I felt I was with my people who could understand where I was coming from and what I was talking about."
Despite Thomson's efforts, Bostwick believes there is still a community which the Dyke March has yet to comprehensively include.
"It makes me feel good to know that the Dyke March is still there," Bostwick said. "It obviously is very necessary and there are obviously still areas in which transformation needs to happen. As a bi-identified woman and from an academic perspective, we still need to make space and welcome bi-plus populations."
On the other hand, Bostwick believes such a diverse crowd marching together has far exceeded the declaration on one of the first photocopied 8-by-10 Dyke March posters: "Be heard with thousands of other women! Make Herstory!"
"It's very encouraging," she said. "It deliberately makes space to address issues like police brutality, immigration, povertyall queer issues brought forward in a way that Pride never touches upon. To me, The Dyke March is always a happy place to be. In general, it speaks to the better parts of this thing called the queer community."
The 20th Anniversary Dyke March is Saturday, June 25, starts 2 p.m., starts Western and Division and ends in Humboldt Park near California and Division. See www.facebook.com/events/811890772248673/ or chicagodykemarch.wordpress.com/ .