Bistro Pridefest returns to BloNo

Attendees sign a banner during The Bistro Pridefest on Saturday, Aug. 13. Photos by Tom Wray

The Bistro Pridefest returned to Bloomington/Normal with a bang and more space.

After missing a couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival took up three blocks just off Bloomington’s Museum Square, the largest it’s ever been. Past years had seen more than 4,000 people attend with more expected this year.

The Pridefest, organized and hosted by LGBTQ bar The Bistro, included artists, agencies and organizations celebrating Pride in the college town. Live performances and plenty of food were present for attendees. Some of the organizations included Central Illinois Friends, the West Bloomington Revitalization Project, PFLAG and the Maclean County Public Health Department. Sunny weather with temps just under 80 made for perfect festival weather.

This year was Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe’s first Pridefest. And his first visit was good. He gave a welcome at the start of the festival.

“I told them it’s their community, it’s our community,” he said. “If one person is uncomfortable, we’re all uncomfortable.”

Mwilambwe said we need to get into the habit of being welcoming to everyone. “If we allow one person to be discriminated against, we might next.”

Meighan Hopper and her family at The Bistro Pridefest on Saturday, Aug. 13.

Meighan Hopper of Bloomington was attending the festival for the first time with her family in support of her trans son.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “Perfect weather. I love seeing so many people in our community just coming out to support LGBTQ.”

It wasn’t the first time for Billy Blue. In fact, it was his third time at the citiy’s Pride. He was with his friends Laura O’Connor and Beth Fritz, all from Bloomington and all repeat visitors to Pride.

A friend, Laura O’Conner, Billy Blue and Beth Fritz at The Bistro Pridefest in Bloomington on Saturday, Aug. 13.

“I love that every year it’s gotten bigger and bigger,” he said. “It started really small and now it’s almost taken over downtown. I can’t wait to see where it goes.”

“It’s just very warm and welcoming,” said O’Connor. “People bring their families out. There’s lots of information for people who aren’t fully aware. They could learn a lot here.”

“All the inclusivity,” Fritz added. “It’s all about different stroke from different folks.”

The state of politics, both local and national, is a concern. Illinois is a blue state, but that’s because of Chicago and its suburbs pulling the state that way. “But we’re still in a rural area and a lot of times, I know us as queer folks get really scared because we don’t know what to expect,” Blue said. “Having places like this and events like this for kids to see people like me, like anybody, like Mama, owner of The Bistro, empowered doing things like this, is just an amazing thing for kids and youth to see and it brings out a positive light in the LGBTQ community.”

The friends also voiced their support for those who haven’t come out yet: Take your time.

“There’s no pressure, do it in your own time,” Blue said. “Be you. Be free to be you. And don’t be scared because you’ll have people like us supporting you.”

“You are never alone,” Fritz said. “There’s always family here for you.”

The music and crowd seemed to be the big draws for this year’s festival. People had come from across Central Illinois for the event. Despite recent attacks on the LGBTQ community, they were coming out to enjoy themselves.

Bethany of Bloomington said there had been some issues recently with harassment, to the point where she expected to see protestors at this year’s Pridefest. Luckily none had showed up and there was a police prescience in case something happened. When a friend said that the rhetoric may have even encouraged more people to come, she agreed.

“That’s the other thing, if you want to come here and start that, you’re more than welcome to,” she said. “But you’ll be in kind of the minority.” The political climate, in fact, would make the event grow. “It’s a galvanizing effect. You’ll be with like-minded people.”