Pride means something different to everyone. And to LGBT historian and Chicagoan Owen Keehnen, its definition is pretty simple. “All that Pride really is is just the feeling of being safe, that it’s OK to be who you are.” he says.
Pride has changed a lot over the years just like the world has changed, he adds.
One of the first places in Chicago that the community could go and feel safety was The Belmont Rocks.
Chicago is a very LGBT+ friendly city today, with many places the community can come together to feel security and express themselves. Some of these areas include Hollywood Beach on North Halsted (formerly Boys Town)--but it hasn’t always been this way. The community used to have The Belmont Rocks as one of their only spaces for refuge from society, Owen says.
“From before Stonewall, in the early 60’s, when it was still a firable offense to be gay, when bars were being raided, when our bars still had blackened windows, this was a place you could go out with your friends in the middle of the city. Studying that queer space is fascinating to me,” Owen says.
The rocks were a stretch on the waterfront where the community could gather. It was the ultimate queer space, where people could be with those and have a shared identity, Keehnen says.
“The rocks were bulldozed by order of the Army Corps of Engineers in 2003 as part of The Shoreline Reinvestment. The thing I associated with as coming out and finding joy is gone,” Keehnen talks of the overall importance of remembering and sharing the city’s history for the LGBT community because a lot of it isn’t available for people to read or hear. “So much of it is just not being chronicled and collected,” he says. That’s why Owen does what he does, passing on the crucial history for the young generation–including speaking on everything from the AIDS epidemic to the politicalization of the community.
Keehnen is originally from Rockford, Illinois, and grew up closeted in a factory-filled town. Times were very different. “It was very isolating. A gay group in a school–I couldn’t imagine. It was such a different time,” he says. Keehnen talks about feeling like he had to wear a mask, knowing that he couldn’t fit in a town that seemed to give off that there was a very specific way you should be. So he got on an Amtrak train, and got out in Chicago. “There was no plan. It was clearly a geographic escape,” he says.
Over the years Keehnen has watched Pride change, and become a more commercial event–also a much bigger celebration. “When I first came to Chicago, Pride had been around for about a dozen years. A lot of big businesses advertise now and that was never the case for years. Now the fact that all these businesses have floats in the parade is wild. The cynical part of me thinks that I kinda don’t wanna think of this as a commercial. I started seeing politicians who didn’t support us come to Pride as a photo op,” Owen says.
After attending Pride for years, Keehnen began to take the celebration for granted. That cynicism stopped when Owen saw the effect the event had on the younger generation.
“The thing that stopped me dead in my tracks in that line of thinking was when I looked in the Pride parade and in a break in the floats, I saw a kid, and from the look in his eyes I could tell exactly where he was mentally. He was seeing the world open up. That’s who this parade is for. That experience of seeing Pride for the first time, and that sense of opportunity and acceptance and joy–I don’t think we can really estimate how powerful that is to a young mind,” Owen says.
One of the things great about Pride is it’s a way for young people to see acceptance of their community and have more safe spaces than Owen had with the Belmont Rocks, he says. “My sense of community when I moved to Chicago was very closed. I think with a lot of kids today, they can come and be here and their safe space can be bigger and much more fluid.”
You can learn more about Owen and his story on his Thursday Talk with comedian Sonal Aggarwal on The Conquer Life App.
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