WAUKEGAN – Lake County’s LGBTQ+ Center might not have a building to call home yet, but those behind it say community support is building.
That support took center stage during a recent PrideFest in downtown Waukegan. In only its second year, the free outdoor festival – hosted by the center in collaboration with community partners and event sponsors – featured music and performances, food trucks, a beverage tent, craft and artisan vendors, a resource fair, children’s games, multiple drag shows, a dance tent and more.
“It was amazing to see so many people there with such big smiles on their faces feeling affirmed and joyous,” said Nikki Michele, executive director and founder of the LGBTQ+ Center. “That was really what the whole thing was about for me.”
Michele formed the nonprofit center in 2020 after moving from Racine, Wisconsin, to Waukegan. She previously had gone to a LGBTQ+ Center in Wisconsin looking for support after her oldest child came out as nonbinary and she came out as a lesbian. She found a community and a family.
Moving to Waukegan, she said she couldn’t find a similar center within a 40-mile radius as she looked for local resources for her family.
“If I’m going to go through this process with my own family, I might as well help the community while I’m at it,” she decided. “The center was born.”
Forming during the pandemic, the center looked to address social isolation by offering a virtual drop-in space. As restrictions have eased, more in-person activities and resources have been offered.
Among numerous services – available through lgbtqcenterlakecounty.com – the center offers a lineup of regular programs and events, including support groups for adults, youth and parents. Activities include movie screenings, Queer Happy Hour, a Rainbow Families Picnic on Aug. 7 at Bowen Park in Waukegan and more.
Michele also hosts Community Safe Zone Trainings throughout Lake County to strengthen competency and knowledge about the LGBTQ+ community. The center’s next goal is to raise funds to move into a building.
“We’ve had to have events and meetings and sessions just anywhere we can,” said Bonnie Shorr of Gurnee, one of the center’s 50 to 100 volunteers helping to raise awareness.
Shorr, whose 15-year-old child is transgender, became involved to find parental support.
“It’s really important. There are so many people who need these services that we can provide,” said Shorr, a special education paraprofessional at Grayslake Central High School. “As an educator and a parent, I just feel like I want to really be as involved as I can. My dream would be to have a building where people can go.”
At the recent PrideFest, Shorr offered a face painting booth. The activity was free, but a donation box for the center was available.
“It was a delightful day,” she said of the festival. “It was just nice to be in a place where it felt like a family. That’s the thing about this community, all the judgments, all the things that make us afraid of other humans, that falls away with this group. These are people who accept you no matter what. This is the most accepting community of people I’ve ever seen.
“It was just love, love, love everywhere. Everyone could just enjoy themselves.”
Shorr has brought LGBTQ+ themed books to area libraries and helps organize youth activities, including the Rainbow Picnic and teen and tween meet-up groups where families meet for ice cream and crafts.
“It kind of gives them the chance to be with other kids who may have the same issues,” Shorr said.
Among the LGBTQ+ Center’s efforts, members have advocated for area communities to gain ratings on the Human Rights Campaign Municipal Equality Index, which examines how inclusive municipal laws, policies and services are of LGBTQ+ people.
One of the requirements is for the municipality to have a LGBTQ+ law enforcement liaison, Michele said, and Waukegan recently filled that role by naming Officer Cory Kelly to the position. Michele also would like to see hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community recorded and mandatory LGBTQ+ training for law enforcement.
The center’s PrideFest originally grew out of talk of having a sort of after-party for a parade hosted annually by Waukegan Pride, a nonprofit organization formed about three years ago.
“For me, the parade is great and all, but what I really found to be the most impactful is a festival where everyone around you is celebrated for who they are and who they love without reserve and with total abandon,” Michele said. “Having a family event like that is pivotal.”
The event started strong last year and grew this year, she said.
Among the many participants, Tiffany Knotek joined about five other members of the Abbey of Brew City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence of Milwaukee to help escort families past any protesters at the event. The nonprofit group advocates for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the community at large, providing resources and services for those at-risk.
“We were there as a barrier, basically,” Knotek said. “We tried to engage [the protesters] in a positive way so they would leave the attendees alone.”
Just being part of the festival meant a lot to the group, she said, and to the community.
“I think it just shows acceptance,” she said. “It helps to educate the community and individuals on, yes, they may love someone differently, they may have a different viewpoint or lifestyle, but we’re all humans. We’re all on this planet just trying to live our lives. We’re not here to hurt anyone.”