Rockford to have its first pride festival

ROCKFORD, Ill. — A group of organizers and residents plan to bring the first-ever LGBT pride festival to the state’s third-largest city this June.

The festival will be held at Davis Park in downtown Rockford June 9 and will feature live speakers, food and goods vendors, civil union ceremonies and other festivities. Organizers expect about 1,000 to as many as 5,000 people from the city and surrounding areas to attend.

“It’s the first year, so we’re going to start off small,” said Ron Almanza, president of the planning committee. “We don’t want to bombard Rockford and we know that Davis Park is perfect for it.”

He added that they do not intend to have a parade until they’ve had a few years of successful festivals.

Jose (left) and Ron (right) Almanza. Photo: Tony Merevick.

Almanza was inspired to create Rockford Pride Fest after he and his husband, who were married in Iowa in 2009, experienced discrimination from his employer shortly after civil unions were legalized last year. Almanza demanded the benefits from the company’s CEO, and after an apology from the company, was allowed to add his husband to his life insurance policy. The two are still waiting for ability to get on the same health insurance plan.

“Me and my husband — we wanted to do more,” Almanza said. “Rockford has never had a pride fest.”

Since plans began, Almanza and his six-person planning committee have seen massive support from both the local LGBT and the straight community. They’ve garnered 4,000 likes on their Facebook page and several thousand visitors to their website, RockfordPrideFest.com.

“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of support,” Almanza said. “The city has been great about it. We have not had any negative reactions at all.”

Rockford Pride Fest planning board. Photo: Tony Merevick.

In addition, they have seen support from Spring Creek United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists church and the Exelon Corporation, which is listed as an event sponsor on the festival website. Over 10 people have signed up to volunteer for the event, plus nearly 20 others who signed up at a Friday night planning event at The Office bar in Rockford.

Longtime activist and policy director at The Civil Rights Agenda Rick Garcia spoke at the planning event, reflecting on the struggle for civil rights over the last three decades and looking forward to the next year.

“You are the margin of victory,” Garcia told the crowd.

Several attendees waited in line to sign up to volunteer shortly after Garcia finished his remarks.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said B. Ashley Varboncoeur, 37, of Rockford. “It will finally bring the community together. [The community] is there, but there’s nothing to bring them all in one place. Before this, I never realized it was there.”

The goal of the festival is to unify and educate the Rockford LGBT and straight communities, said Almanza’s husband, Jose, who serves as the vice president of the planning board. The slogan of the festival is, “Pride sees no prejudice.” The couple plans to emphasize the issues of marriage equality and bullying as key themes at the event.

“We understand where Rockford is,” he said. “It’s a very conservative city with very liberal politics, and we’ve got to fit into that somewhere.”

The planning committee will be hosting a Bowl-A-Thon fundraiser May 12th at Don Carter lanes in Rockford. Tickets are available on the organization’s website.