It might have looked like just another Friday late afternoon at Sidetrack.
Show tunes videos were playing on the TVs, the side bar was filling up with people ready to celebrate the end of another work week. But something was different.
At Equality Illinois’ monthly First Friday networking event earlier this month, the crowd included players and front-office representatives of Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire. They were on hand to talk up the Pride Night to be hosted by the Fire next month.
It’s a partnership that may have seemed unlikely, if not impossible, a few decades ago when sports organizations – always conscious of their image – may have shied away from any association with the LGBT community. But that was then and this is now, according to Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov.
“We’ve achieved in Illinois a lot of legal rights for the LGBT community,” Cherkasov said, citing hate crimes and anti-discrimination laws along with the introduction of civil unions. “But something that we’ve noticed: that doesn’t automatically lead to social change.
“People in a society, at large, they participate in a conversation in different ways. Some conversations are triggered when they see elected officials support LGBT equality, others when they see teachers or professors or religious (leaders) present LGBT equality in positive terms.”
And there are dialogues that begin when sports teams demonstrate their support for the community. It’s a phenomenon that is becoming more and more common in Chicago, Cherkasov noted.
The Cubs work with Lambda Legal to celebrate diversity with the annual Out at Wrigley day (this year’s event is scheduled for this today). And the White Sox and Equality lllinois have for the past two years co-hosted a Baseball for Equality event, whose guests have included Chicago baseball icon Minnie Minoso.
“The fact that we have these great sports teams coming out in favor of LGBT equality really goes to show this is beyond politics, beyond religion,” Cherkasov said.
Now the Fire has also stepped up to be among those standing in support of diversity. The partnership with Equality Illinois came together fairly quickly and seemed like a natural fit for both sides, according to Cherkasov.
EQIL officials noticed a high level of interest in the Fire on the part of the LGBT community, and, he said, the club was on the same wavelength. “The Chicago Fire was looking for a way to forge a stronger connection with the LGBT fan base,” Cherkasov said. “They love their LGBT fans and they wanted to be sure the fan base knew that.”
So was born the idea for the Pride Night on Saturday, Aug. 4, when the Fire hosts Toronto FC at 7:30 p.m. at Toyota Park in Bridgeview. That will be just one of a series of events that will demonstrate the Fire’s commitment to equality. Members of the club’s organization marched in the Pride Parade on June 24, and some will also take part in the Celebrity Pie Toss at Sidetrack on Saturday, July 28. At that event, bids will be taken for the chance to throw pies at the celebrity volunteers, with the proceeds supporting Equality Illinois programs.
“That’s a true measure,” Cherkasov said jokingly. “Your ability to take a pie in the face is a true measure of just how committed you are.”
The evidence suggests the Fire, and other local pro sports teams, are quite committed indeed.