MOUNT VERNON, IL. – For some communities, celebrating Pride is about gathering thousands of people together for glittery, hour-long parties.
But in Mount Vernon, which is holding its first official Pride event Saturday, the goal is a picnic that draws more than 200, a renewed spirit of unity – and no community controversy.
“I’ve definitely always wanted to see the community come together,” says organizer and Mount Vernon native Alexia Stallons. “As I got older, friends were harder to find. So I wanted people to experience the love and acceptance of other people around them and know there is (an LGBTQ) community here.”
Saturday Pride Kick-off follows two years of LGBTQ empowerment in Mount Vernon
Saturday’s event, Pride Kick-off – Out Mt. Vernon, takes place from 4 to 8 p.m. in the public Veterans Memorial Park at 800 S. 27th St. and features 50 vendors, as many as some large Pride events. Stallons and her coordinating team also recruited 13 sponsors. The party at the Rolland Lewis building in Veterans Memorial Park will also offer goodie bags for the first 100 people to attend.
Stallons worked to increase her local community’s LGBTQ+ awareness for two years before founding Out Mt Vernon, the group organizing Saturday’s event.
She started in 2021 with Trevor Fornwalt and other Mount Vernon residents who asked the city to light up the pedestrian bridge over Broadway with rainbow colors. That gesture lasted for just a few days before social media complaints arose and city officials took down the lights in reaction to some citizen complaints, WSIL-TV reported at the time.
The next year, Stallons worked with a group to quickly organize a picnic for Pride month that drew about 100 people. Next, Stallons began upping her efforts.
“I went to as many Pride events as i could,” she said. “I think I went to 12 events between June and October. I just kept going, and it was just so fulfilling. I was like, ‘I want to bring this home.’ “
Among the communities where Stallons attended Pride events: Alton, Carbondale, St. Charles, St. Clair, St. Louis. She partook in the joy while also picking up ideas for her hometown. She and two dozen other local residents also held a Stand OUT for Trans Rights event in March.
This year, in addition to a picnic and vendors, Mount Vernon’s Pride Kick-off features some key community institutions, Stallons said. They include the nationally-accredited Rend Lake College, and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in town.
She hopes the event will help inspire a year-round revival of inclusiveness. Stallons recalls a wave of both openness and backlash that began in Mount Vernon around 2014, when the school system started a Gay-Straight Alliance.
“We’re pretty split,” says Stallons. “There are definitely some people who don’t know there are others like them here.
“That’s the point, to bring our community together. Some of our values are outreach, understanding and togetherness. We’re trying to bring togetherness to the community and understanding from those who aren’t in the community, and outreach to everyone we can.”
(photos courtesy Alexia Stallons. Cover photo features Stallons and OUT Mt Vernon logo)