Puerto Rican Arts Alliance (PRAA) held the a panel discussion"Community Parades and Activism: LGBTQ Claiming its Space"June 4 at the PRAA Center.
According to its website, PRAA is "a premier cultural organization exemplifying arts excellence through music and arts educational programs, performances and exhibitions to more than 30,000 participants each year. PRAA partners with the Chicago Public Schools and operates through three community centers: PRAA Center and gallery, the Humboldt Park Field House, the Latin Music Project Center and has a residency office at The Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean."
Panelists included Alden Bell, Bonsai Bermudez, Robert Castillo, David Gauna, Liliana Macias, Charles Nelson, Mona Noriega, Julio Rodriguez, Iyera Santiago and Shelton Watson. PRAA Program Director Jorge Felix moderated.
The discussion focused on panel elders and activists Bell, Castillo, Nelson, Noriega, Rodriguez and Watson talking about their experiences as out LGBTQ+ leaders in public spaces.
Felix spoke about PRAA's upcoming expansion efforts and then asked the panelists how old they were when they marched in their first parade as an out LGBTQ person.
Rodriguez said it was 1992 when he was in his mid-20s. Nelson said he was in his late-20s and his first parade was Chicago's Pride Parade. Watson said 1993 in the Bud Billiken Parade when he was 29 years old and then the following year he marched in Chicago's Pride Parade and many parades ever since. Castillo said he first participated in 1992 with Queer Nation during Chicago's St. Patrick's Day Parade and many parades up until the most recent Memorial Day Parade with American Veteran's For Equal Rights.
Bell said Chicago's Pride Parade was the first time he participated. Noreiga said it was Chicago's Pride Parade when she was in her mid-20s with her children and they helped carry the first banner in the march. She said it was "both exhilarating and terrifying." Her second parade as an out lesbian was during the Bud Billiken Parade where she encountered affirmative responses from the crowd which "reduced my fear" going forward. Felix added that his first parade was Chicago's Puerto Rican Parade in 1993 when he was still in the process of coming out.
Felix asked how each panelist's mental health was in the days and weeks and months before marching in their first parade.
Rodriguez said that one's personal feelings are secondary, that they have to be put to the side as an activist otherwise nothing will get done. He added that being involved in the logistics for marching in parades there are safety concerns that have to be considered and communicated to fellow marchers.
During these parades "your full self comes out," said Rodriguez. "That first step is a step you can never take back."
Nelson spoke about going to the March on Washington in 1963 as a child and that instilled in him that marching is something he had to do. He added that there was no fear for him to march as an out gay man because he was not going to lose his job but that for many the opposite is the case so he did not take that lightly. Nelson said other people's safety was his concern.
Watson said he felt like Noriega did during his first parade, exhilarated and terrified. He spoke about watching the Bud Billiken Parade as a child never imagining that he would one day march in that parade as an out gay man. Watson also talked about a CNN interview he did where he had to tell his mother he would be talking about being gay to a national audience.
Castillo said he has been an activist since his college days at Northeastern University where he was the co-chair of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and with Queer Nation and ACT Up so being out and proud came naturally to him.
Bell said he was not afraid of losing his job but was concerned about how people would react, which turned out to be positive. He added that the coalition of, at that time, gay and lesbian people helped the movement as it was becoming more visible to the general public.
Noriega spoke about her time working at Lambda Legal and how that organization came to march in the Bud Billiken Parade on Chicago's South Side. She said it was important for her children to never feel shame for having a lesbian mother and this is why she and other queer women held Mother's Day gatherings where their children could interact with each other.
Other topics included LGBTQ people moving in diverse circles in the early days and how that has dissipated in recent years, the deaths of other elders in the community, the need to be open-minded when it comes to the needs of the younger generations of LGBTQ people and the fear of aging in America where they might have to go back into the closet to receive care.
Then, panelists Bermudez, Gauna, Macias and Santiago were asked to weigh in on what they gleaned from the elders' conversation.
Macias thanked the other panelists for leading the way. She also spoke about how different it was for her because her very accepting father took her to her first Pride Parade when she was 17.
Gauna said it is a privilege to hear the panelists tell their stories, especially their organizing efforts. He also spoke about how he felt marching in (his first parade) Chicago's Pride Parade in 2017 after the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, where he thought about his safety in a public space for the first time as an out gay man.
Bermudez, a leader with the Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP), passed the microphone to fellow YEPP leader Santiago, who spoke about how things in her life made her step back from being an LGBTQ activist but hearing the elders speak has inspired her to get back into the game.
See praachicago.org/ .