BLOOMINGTON — June is Pride Month, an opportunity to commemorate the LGBTQ community's push for and progress in obtaining equal rights in the United States.
Among the limited freedoms gained over the last 50 years are the federal right of same-sex people to marry freely and to adopt; state protections from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and state anti-discrimination housing laws.
And the Illinois General Assembly this spring passed two bills aimed at decriminalizing HIV transmission and including LGBTQ health in sexual education. Both policies are awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker's signature.
But inequities still persist across other public spaces, like bathrooms and businesses, especially for transgender people.
In recognition of the struggles and the successes, as well as the people behind both, The Pantagraph interviewed seven members of the Bloomington-Normal LGBTQ community who play a role in the ongoing push for codified freedoms.
Their stories of advocacy, loss and acceptance are a sampling of the LGBTQ community's larger narrative and offer insight into its odyssey for inclusion.
Creating a safe community
For more than 40 years, David Bentlin has worked tirelessly to lobby for and make Bloomington-Normal a safe, inviting community for LGBTQ people.
Bentlin, 58, is president of the Prairie Pride Coalition — first founded in 1995 as the Advocacy Council for Human Rights — which strives to provide support and advocacy for the LGBTQ community.
“Initially, I didn’t find much of a gay community here," said Bentlin. “Before I knew it, this is what I was calling home. I think at that point a lot of us felt, instead of moving to a larger city, we wanted to bloom where we were planted and really work on making this community a safe, more welcoming, more inclusive place.”
Most recently the group has successfully lobbied to decriminalize HIV transmission in Illinois, and for the Keeping Youth Safe and Health Act, which requires comprehensive sex education that is LGBTQ-inclusive.
Despite the progress that's been made, there is still plenty of work to be done at the local, state and federal levels, said Bentlin.
"Our transgender community is another sector of our community, and nationwide, that is underserved, underrepresented and marginalized in a lot of ways," he said. "They continue to experience levels of discrimination that some of us in other parts of the community do not.”
The PPC recently opened a gender-expansive resource center in collaboration with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington-Normal. The program provides health products such as chest binders and shapers.
Advocacy and serving the community, Bentlin said, remain a priority for the PPC. While the group continues lobbying efforts, he said nothing will change until people's attitudes toward the LGBTQ community change.
“That doesn’t happen in a State Capitol or a Hall of Congress or in the Supreme Court," he said. "We can pass laws, and the Supreme Court can find on our favor in different cases, but until we get to the point where we can change hearts and minds in society, we’re still going to have a big struggle ahead of us.”
— Sierra Henry
Fighting on the battleground of big ideas
Jenn Carrillo views Bloomington-Normal as a battleground of big ideas.
It’s here where Carrillo, a progressive activist who represents Ward 6 on the Bloomington City Council, advocates for LGBTQ accessibility and equity by “challenging people's misconceptions and worldviews.”
There’s a lot at stake.
“If all the queer, cool, weird people decide that this is not a place that’s welcoming for them and they move to a larger city, then places like this get stuck,” Carrillo said. “Kids coming up here won’t have anyone that they can look up to that’s living openly and authentically and publicly.”
Carrillo, 31, who identifies as pansexual and genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns, knows that scenario well. They grew up without a readily-accessible Latina role model in politics, and without a visible LGBTQ person they could identify with.
“You know, you can’t see yourself if you can’t see yourself,” Carrillo said, explaining why they entered local government. “As someone who exists at the corners of a lot of intersections of identities, I want to help bridge the gap between those and show that this is a place where you can be yourself and you can govern.”
There have been some small victories for the movement so far, like changing Bloomington City Council titles of “alderman” and “alderwoman” to “council member.” Nonetheless, some long-term goals remain, like ensuring all public bathrooms are accessible for transgender people.
The former may not seem like much of a change, Carrillo said, but it “opens up possibilities for who can think of themselves" as a person in a position of power.
The latter, they said, “is something very achievable," and "if we as a city are serious about that, we have to put up the capital for those changes."
But the biggest risk to LGBTQ activism and policy wins is complacency, Carrillo said.
"We have to keep telling those stories and socializing those big ideas," Carrillo said. "Ultimately I think it will make us a better, a more welcoming and more attractive community for trans people and the LGBTQ movement."
— Timothy Eggert
Protecting LGBTQ students
For the first half of his teaching career, Brandon Thornton’s sexuality was never an issue; it never came up.
“It wasn’t until being gay in a position of power became politicized … where I felt more like my identity is important,” he said, noting anti-trans legislation and the prevalence of gay straight alliances in schools. “Now I need to be this person for kids who know that there’s an adult in the building where they can just exist.”
Thornton, 31, teaches special education at Bloomington High School and just finished his 10th year as an educator. In that time, he's noticed LGBTQ students are often the ones who join the clubs he sponsors, like Anime Club — “and oftentimes it’s just because I’m the other gay in the building.”
Identifying as queer has become increasingly important to his students in recent years, and he sees this as a good thing.
When a student trusts him enough to come out to him, especially trans and nonbinary students, Thornton takes that seriously.
“It’s my job to protect that and to not out them,” he said. “I know a lot of teachers might say, ‘I don’t want to know that,’ but if a student trusts you and identifies you as an adult to come out to, I think we have a moral obligation to protect that.”
But having heard members of the community speaking against the inclusion of LGBTQ health and diversity, equity and inclusion in education, Thornton said he "know(s) there’s a storm coming.
“I know as the token gay Black male in the building ... parents could say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with my student in his class.’ It hasn’t happened yet, but I know those people, those mindsets exist.”
While it wasn’t his experience growing up, Thornton said he knows there is some taboo regarding queerness in the Black community, so he worries about his Black students.
That community “does not embrace queerness, and I think it’s because we are raised, as a Black male, to be tough, to be hard, because you’re not going to make it in this world if you’re not. It’s like anything other than that is less, and queerness is less, inherently,” he said.
But seeing more successful LGBTQ Black role models can help to show young people, “not to sound cheesy, but that it gets better," he said.
— Kelsey Watznauer
Julie Emig will often pause and reflect on how acceptance of her sexual orientation has evolved in the last three decades.
When she was 16 and living in Oklahoma, the parents of her Pentecostal girlfriend learned of their relationship and forbade the two from being together. Her identity was “definitely closeted” through her teenage years and through college because "it was very hard to be openly gay or lesbian at the time."
“That kind of thing almost seems like a different world,” said Emig, who represents Ward 4 on the Bloomington City Council and serves as executive director of the McLean County Museum of History.
Emig, now 52, didn’t come out until she met her partner, Mary, in college. The two have been together for more than 30 years and are parents to a daughter.
“I probably have some deep scars from growing up in a conservative and deeply religious community,” Emig said. “But at this point in my life, I’m very comfortable about being open about my identity.”
But the ultimate acceptance came when she ran for a seat on the council.
“People evaluated me on my ideas, my accomplishments and the things I believe in and stand for," Emig said, rather than her sexual orientation.
As a gay woman in a position of leadership, Emig regularly uses her influence to advocate for and codify that same acceptance of people in the LGBTQ community.
That was the case this spring during conversations over renovations to the west side O’Neil Pool and Park, when Emig pushed for the new aquatic facility to feature gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms.
“I really was trying to communicate the value of having a space that was gender neutral and just, as we go forward and build these new structures, make sure that’s always part of the plan,” Emig said.
Having those conversations is an essential first step, Emig added, but developing a sense of normalcy around different identities is more important.
“I didn’t have a community that understood where I came from, and I so often felt like an outsider,” Emig said. "We need not just an effort to educate, but also make sure we, as local government and a community, officially codify and create spaces that recognize those identities."
— Timothy Eggert
Building an all-inclusive community center
Looking around Bloomington-Normal, Laurie Bell sees a need in her community.
For nearly 30 years The Bistro, a bar in downtown Bloomington, has served as the only communal spot for members of the LGBTQ community.
"This bar has been the place that has made it all possible and witnessed it all," said Bell, who has spent decades fighting for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. and Canada, where she immigrated from. "But we need somewhere, especially for young people, where you don't need an ID to get in."
At 61, Bell is leading the initiative to build an LGBTQ community center in downtown Bloomington. The reason, she said, is to better serve LGBTQ youth in McLean County and surrounding areas.
"People are in really serious danger," said Bell, who moved to Bloomington 12 years ago. "For LGBTQ youth, the rates of homelessness, suicide — you name it — it's just so high. If you don't receive family acceptance, you're on the doorstep of homelessness."
Bell is part of what she describes as the "coming out generation," the first wave of young people to openly identify as gay. At the time, that meant facing a lot of loss, along with violence.
She was also involved in social activism in Toronto and San Francisco during the AIDS and HIV crisis. There, Bell helped start an LGBTQ youth program that provided transitional housing and foster care.
"Anybody who wasn't an activist had to become one," Bell said. "We had to do everything, from sit in at the health minister's office, to do all of the hands-on care as they were sick and dying."
Society has come a long way, Bell said, but LGBTQ people still face violence across the globe. But, by developing an inclusive community center, she hopes to provide resources for mental health, intervention and a safe place to meet and hang out locally.
“LGBTQ people all over the world don’t even have even the most basic rights," she said. "LBGTQ people are just simply killed and the objects of violence everywhere in the world.
“You get all those legal rights so you can start doing the work of taking care of your young people.”
— Sierra Henry
Offering spaces, language to explore an identity
Even though she didn't become Bloomington's first openly LGBTQ mayor, Jackie Gunderson still found a victory in her 2021 bid to lead the city.
"While I didn't win, I also showed a whole community of people that you can do that, too — you can live authentically and do whatever thing you want to do," Gunderson said. "That matters."
Self-described as "queer because it takes into account a spouse who is non-binary," Gunderson, 33, is a procurement manager at Illinois State University who also serves as creative director of the nonprofit Penguin Project of McLean County and volunteers with Healing Rides Ministry.
She ran in the April election with a mission that included prioritizing social services and expanding accessibility for people living with disabilities as well as members of the LGBTQ community.
Two weeks after losing the mayoral race, Gunderson said she was able to accomplish the latter goal by coordinating an event where transgender and non-binary teens could shop for clothing to wear to prom in a safe and accepting environment.
"We made space for people to feel like they got to be celebrated," Gunderson said.
A similar space was introduced to Gunderson while she was a student at ISU, attending the charity drag show.
"I was just surrounded by so many people that were just living so authentically and they seemed so happy to be in community with other people like them," Gunderson said. "Just feeling that energy all around me ... seeing such a inclusive space ... that was it for me."
Gunderson said she may have come out earlier if she had had the language or the experiences to identify, process and explore her feelings when she was younger.
Because of that experience, Gunderson said she aims to create a community "where kids get to see themselves reflected and they have language and they have support for who they are."
Ultimately, she hopes creating areas in health care or education to "explore whatever labels" will foster more inclusivity in other spaces.
"Just paving the way so that more people have the opportunity to understand that the way there were made is perfectly fine," Gunderson said. "That they shouldn't have to change that in any way to be celebrated and included."
— Timothy Eggert
Better for the next generation
Elizabeth Fox Anvick never set out to be the first anything.
“I just wanted to live my authentic life, and it just so happened that we ended up being first for a lot of things,” she said with a laugh.
Fox Anvick was the first "out" member of the LGBTQ community to hold an elected position in Bloomington when she was elected to the Bloomington District 87 school board in April 2017.
"I wanted to make sure that everybody was going to have a seat at the table because I knew after the election in 2016 that maybe not everybody was going to be able to have a seat at the table, holistically," she said, noting her concerns for LGBTQ rights being "slashed" in the last four years.
Another first she can claim: She and her wife, Caroline Fox Anvick, were the first married gay couple to obtain a foster license in McLean County. They now have two daughters, ages 8 and 10.
As a school board member, Fox Anvick, 45, said bringing her perspective can be valuable for students and the district. One example is her suggestion to install all-gender bathrooms during renovations and construction at Bloomington High School, before a state mandate was in place.
“Not everything that comes out of my mouth comes from an LGBT slant, but having lived a non-heteronormative existence, I think it allows me to see things from a different perspective and I ask questions appropriately,” she said.
Fox Anvick has been an active member of the Prairie Pride Coalition since 2002, working for non-discrimination policies and marriage equality.
When people ask her why she wants to stay in Illinois, “I say you know what, the state of Illinois is actually a really amazing place when it comes to human rights,” she said, as it is one of less than half of the states in the U.S. with non-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ people.
“The winters may stink, but I know me and my family are legally protected in the state of Illinois," Fox Anvick said. "I can’t be federally guaranteed that, so it’s very important to me.”
Of her advocacy work, Fox Anvick said: “I didn’t know I was going to have kids at the time, but I wanted the next generation to have it better than what I had."
Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.
"... Until we get to the point where we can change hearts and minds in society, we’re still going to have a big struggle ahead of us.”
— David Bentlin, Prairie Pride Coalition