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BOLINGBROOK – This community about 40 minutes southwest of Chicago is all about diversity.

Bolingbrook is considered the third-most diverse Chicago suburb, topped in diversity only by Romeoville and Aurora. Its population is 60 percent non-Caucasian. An overwhelming 81 percent of poll respondents at Niche.com chose “very diverse” as the key phrase to describe Bolingbrook.

It’s also a community that began  increasing its accessibility to people with physical disabilities 23 years ago, long before many communities were even considering such changes. “We have lots of diversity, and we all live next to each other,” says Allaina Humphreys, who is co-chair and director of community engagement for the LGBTQ+ nonprofit Bolingbrook Pride.

With so much intersectionality all around it, Bolingbrook Pride has taken a distinctive approach to its mission. Humphreys describes its leaders as “advocates” rather than “activists,” and its whole-hearted focus is creating safe spaces, especially for youth. She identifies as queer and is married and leads the group along with co-chair Jessica Parks.

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LGBTQ Friendsgiving Dinner in Bolingbrook

Bolingbrook Pride’s LGBTQ+ Friendsgiving Dinner takes place tonight at Friendship United Methodist Church; pre-register here to attend for free. Cover photos (clockwise from upper left) are Bolingbrook Pride co-chair Jessica Parks, collaborator Jameson Pagano, and Pride co-chair Allaina Humphreys.

Here’s how Bolingbrook Pride’s mission translates in the community of about 76,000 within an hour of Chicago:

• Holding explicitly LGBTQ+ affirming events like tonight’s LGBTQ+ Friendsgiving Dinner, where at least 80 are expected to gather for a holiday meal, companionship and conversation at Friendship United Methodist Church. It’s the second time for this event by Bolingbrook Pride, which was founded in 2018.

• Guiding Bolingbrook Pride to intersect through collaborative events with many other “niche” groups in the community – including arts projects, animal welfare leaders, faith groups, groups fighting domestic violence, and the broader business community.

• Undertaking highly visible projects on public property, including a temporary mural along the walkway behind Bolingbrook City Hall, and an LGBTQ+ flag raising at City Hall.

• Connecting directly with the area’s transgender community by working with Partners in Pride Wellness,  a therapy center founded by Jameson Pagano, a pioneering leader of transgender visibility in Bolingbrook that is staffed by almost all LGBTQ+ people and serving mostly LGBTQ+ clients.

• and starting a monthly youth drop-in program at Friendship in January. The drop-in program has been in the works for a year, and organizers hope it will grow to be a weekly drop-in program for youth.

LGBTQ+ Friendsgiving a chance to celebrate inclusive safe space

Saturday’s Friendsgiving Dinner is a growing event that couldn’t happen for two years because of COVID. It’s an opportunity to further  “understanding through conversation,” organizers say. First held in 2019, when 20 people attended, this year’s event tonight is already drawing more than four times that number.

Pagano, who lives openly as a transgender man,  has helped provide safe spaces for the region’s transgender youth and adults for at least six years.  He says he’s “happy and excited to be part of something so inclusive.” He is working with Bolingbrook Pride to create the upcoming youth drop-in program.

“Someone had contacted me about the Friendsgiving Dinner and asked, ‘is this only for LGBTQ people? ‘ said Pagano. “And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ It’s a bunch of people just wanting to celebrate the holiday in a safe space. We’re not trying to separate ourselves. It’s a great chance to get to know each other, too.”

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Yet, a holiday event for LGBTQ+ people remains an important service for people who identify as such. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that LGBTQ+ people are 2.5 times more likely than heterosexual and cisgender people to experience depression, anxiety and substance misuse or abuse, and the holidays can be an especially trying time for a demographic already struggling. Bolingbrook Pride sees the annual holiday dinner as a pivotal part of its commitment to ensuring LGBTQ+ youth in the area feel supported and safe.

Bolingbrook Pride will provide the main course for tonight’s meal, including a vegan option. Attendees are asked to sign up for their free ticket here. The night will also feature a silent raffle and auction.

Bolingbrook aims to be “part of the fabric of our community” amid nearby protests

Overall, Bolingbrook’s LGBTQ+ community has experienced almost no “pushback” since the Pride group started in 2018 and consistently pushed for greater visibility including the youth program, Humphreys and Pagano say.  That’s noteworthy considering that Illinois was recently declared the state with the third-highest number of drag protests nationwide, and that Bolingbrook is within 30 to 60 minutes of five communities that have experienced highly visible LGBTQ+-related  protests in the past year. They include drag protests at Plainfield Pride; drag events and debates about police presence in Aurora; a drag brunch protest in Downers Grove,; another in Naperville; still another in Lake in the Hills, and several in Chicago.

One way the group avoids getting caught in the crosshairs of protests is by focusing on its mission of providing safe spaces, especially for youth. All three collaborators are parents and say they know from their own kids’ experiences: kids in Bolingbrook still need more support.

“Even though the adults in Bolingbrook are pretty accepting, young people are still struggling in Bolingbrook,” Humphreys says. “A lot of kids don’t feel supported at home, or don’t have the resources they would need to understand themselves.”

All of Bolingbrook Pride’s events are blatantly “family-friendly,” and the group has made a conscious decision to avoid featuring drag while it gets its new youth program off the ground. Down the road, Humphreys says that policy may change, but for now, “We have lots of other people (offering drag),” Humphrey says. “Drag is wonderful, it’s great, and while there’s great value in that expression …. if we don’t need to go there, why put on events for children that are pretty much guaranteed to attract protests?”

“The majority of the LGBTQ+ experience has nothing to do with that. We are primarily other things first,” Humphreys says. “Everybody is getting divided over this one subject. But other things desperately need to be addressed.”

The group intentionally aims to be “part of the fabric of our community,” Parks says, describing the group as one way she can live her commitment to ensuring “no kid has to grow up without a safe place to be themselves.”

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For their next steps in serving LGBTQ+ youth in the southwest suburbs, Bolingbrook Pride and Partners in Pride will aim to first expand the monthly drop-in program to a weekly opportunity. Down the road, the group hopes to connect with larger providers of LGBTQ+ support services.

More LGBTQ affirming holiday events coming

For a quick peek at other LGBTQ+ affirming holiday events happening throughout Illinois and Iowa, check TRM’s calendar. Below are a few key upcoming events throughout the two states, plus links to learn more:

 

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Click to list your holiday event on The Real Mainstream calendar. It’s free and typically appears on many different pages. With questions, email reachus@therealmainstream.com.

(This article was originally published Nov. 25 and most recently updated Dec. 3)