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CARBONDALE — Hundreds marched down South University Avenue Saturday to kick off the Southern Illinois region’s inaugural LGBT Pride Month celebration.

Undeterred by the sweltering early-summer heat and decked out in rainbow attire, members of the Southern Illinois LGBT community and allies made their way through downtown Carbondale for the first-ever Southern Illinois Pride Walk, which was followed by a festival at the Carbondale Pavilion.

Although the Church of the Good Shepherd hosts a long-running annual Pride Picnic each September, Saturday’s events marked the first LGBT festival during LGBT Pride Month in Southern Illinois.

Before the march, Carbondale City Council member Jessica Bradshaw told the crowd that the city’s inclusivity was one of its strengths.

“I hope you’ll all join me in making this the most radically inclusive community in the region, if not the Midwest. … Why not make Carbondale a little enclave of radical diversity?” Bradshaw said.

Sparkles La Fae, a Carbondale resident who identifies as pansexual, attended the event with her gay stepson.

“He’s coming out in a totally different world,” she said. “He didn’t have to come out to us. We just knew, and it was like, ‘OK, cool.’”

La Fae said she often feels like she can’t be who she is when she’s at work, or when she’s with some family members.

“But at Pride I can be,” she said. “ … (It’s about) being who you are, loving who you want.”

Anna Madura, of Anna, said it was her first time attending a Pride event. She said she chose to come as a show of solidarity with the LGBT community — her brother and her best friend are gay.

“I don’t want people to hurt because of who they are. They need to know that they’re accepted no matter what,” Madura said.

Cade Bursell said she loves the history of LGBT Pride Month, which is celebrated in June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.

“We need to remember that history and how far we’ve come, but that there’s so much work to do around issues that have to do with the economic lives of LGBT people, and discrimination. I’m glad we have marriage, but there’s so much else to be tended to,” Bursell said.

She said she believes it is important to have organizations and events supporting LGBT people in rural areas, where LGBT people can feel isolated.

“I think this is really good because I like to see the diversity … I see a lot of young folks and the older generation, and I hope those folks connect so that history doesn’t get erased and forgotten, the history of what it is to be LGBT here in this rural location,” Bursell said.

Deb Endres, Bursell’s wife, was present for much of that local history. She is one of the unofficial founders of “The Pit” — an abandoned-pit-mine-turned-swimming-hole on private property that served for decades as a queer safe space and hangout.

“Back then it was just a group of women who were lesbians — I said, ‘Man, I know this cool place we can hang out and go swimming,’ and so we started going up there all the time,” Endres said.

Tara Bell-Janowick, one of the organizers of the festival, said she was “amazed and overwhelmed with the turnout.”

In a speech at the Carbondale Pavilion, Billy Rogers, a longtime member of the Southern Illinois LGBT community, traced the history of LGBT people in Southern Illinois and elsewhere, beginning with the Stonewall riots.

“They were led by trans women and gay women. They all think it was the boys, and we were part of it, but they were led by these heroines, guys,” Rogers said.

Rogers, who was born and raised in Johnston City, said his parents forbade him from ever coming to Carbondale, which was known for riots and protests at the time.

But he moved to Carbondale in 1973 and found acceptance there: Rogers danced with men to disco music and hung out with members of the SIU Gay People’s Union.

“Carbondale was in the middle of a bigoted, Republican, Christian, Southern ‘God, guns and guts’ area in the state of Illinois, but for some reason, Carbondale was a vortex of progressiveness and inclusion. I had finally found a place that I could be a gay man,” Rogers said.

Rogers spoke of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, calling it the gay community’s “lost years.”

“I, we, the community — we lost way too many people,” Rogers said.

Rogers and his partner, Hal, later bought “The Pit” and reestablished it as a safe space for the LGBT community. (It was closed down a few years ago.)

Rogers called on younger members of the LGBT community to hold lawmakers accountable and continue the work of prior activists.

“I want you to recognize the importance of the history of the LGBTQ community, the impact, the legacy, as we blaze a trail for the freedoms and the rights that are not special rights. Here in the political climate of today, our work is far from over,” Rogers said.

janis.esch@thesouthern.com

618-351-5082

On Twitter: @janis_eschSI

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Janis Esch is a reporter covering higher education.

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