Pride fills the Peoria Riverfront

Drag queens perform on the River City Pride Fest mainstage on Saturday, July 16. Photo by Tom Wray

The River City Pride Festival returned to the Peoria Riverfront this past weekend after a two-year hiatus.

The festival was the first Pride event for Elizabeth Heathers of Bloomington. “This is my first year out and proud,” she said. Heathers had come with her daughter and a friend.

“I wanted to bring [her daughter], this is her first Pride,” Heather said. “So nice having something that easily accessible and on the smaller end as opposed to large and bigger crowds. It’s nice to have representation in general.” She wants her daughter to have access to more representation and seeing it. And she does plan to come again next year.

Leia and Mia enjoying their first Pride Fest on Saturday, July 16. Photo by Tom Wray

Leia and Mia, both of Peoria, had waited for two long years to attend Pride. “I missed it last year,” Leia said. “I was so bummed.”

Coming to the festival was a chance for them to come out, celebrate and see other people, Mia said.

The current political climate has raised almost forgotten concerns. River City Pride Fest had a single entry point and multiple emergency exits in case of situations such as the attempted attack on Coeur d’Alene, Idaho’s Pride festival and the July 4 shooting in Highland Park. Thankfully, the festival saw a total of only three protesters throughout the 12-hour event, all of whom were in a designated free speech area.

“It’s concerning because a lot of people have influence and it makes people active,” Mia said. “I feel like it’s bad for the safety of others. But it’s not really gonna stop us.”

Vendors were also present in larger numbers, many for the first time. Megan Couri was vending at the festival for the festival for the first time with Drag n’ Paint. Working with local drag queen Miss Flo NoMo’, Drag n’ Paint is an all-inclusive, all-ages event producer in the Peoria area.

Megan Couri of Drank N’ Paint in her booth at the River City Pride Fest on Saturday, July 16. Photo by Tom Wray

“This weekend has been fantastic,” Couri said. “There’s been a lot of support for us here. We actually started this during COVID.” When the lockdowns ended, that’s when they really started to move forward.

The Peoria Public Library also made their festival debut this year. “It’s part of an initiative we’re doing to be more inclusive and to make sure we are welcoming to everyone in our community,” said Elise Hearn, manager for the Lakeview branch. She said that they had material for people to put together Pride bracelets and sign up Peoria residents for library cards along with a survey so they could add more services.

For other vendors, it was a return to a favorite event. Central Illinois Friends, an HIV/AIDS service organization based in Peoria, had returned to do testing, education and outreach. This year they had two mobile units on loan from the state.

“We’ve been a staple since they started it,” said Executive Director Deric Kimler. “But over time, we’ve been able to become more involved.” Previously they’d only done testing. Now, Central Illinois Friends is one of the main sponsors for the event.

“Yes, we’re getting heckled more,” Kimler said about the current political climate. “We’re getting a little more hate mail. But for the most part, people have come to support and to show that they are in support of us.”

Kimler also said events like the festival also create a safe haven. “As this becomes more political, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, it’s not gonna get better there,” he said. “And so where do they go. If Chicago’s not home for them, we have to create safe places down here in downstate Illinois.” His and other organizations such as Peoria Proud and the Peoria Transgender Society create a place for those who don’t want to live in a large city.

All photos by Tom Wray