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updated: 6/25/2012 6:10 AM

LGBT community celebrates Pride, progress in the suburbs

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  • Dawn Ferencz, a Elk Grove High School English teacher and member of the Gay-Straight Alliance. talks to recent Palatine High School graduate Gilberto Vaquero, Jr. and others at the "Out in the Suburbs" panel discussion group last week.

       Dawn Ferencz, a Elk Grove High School English teacher and member of the Gay-Straight Alliance. talks to recent Palatine High School graduate Gilberto Vaquero, Jr. and others at the "Out in the Suburbs" panel discussion group last week.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • As they did here in 2010, members of the Marin Foundation traveled to Chicago Pride Parade on Sunday as part of their "I'm Sorry" campaign to apologize for past poor treatment by some in the religious community.

      As they did here in 2010, members of the Marin Foundation traveled to Chicago Pride Parade on Sunday as part of their "I'm Sorry" campaign to apologize for past poor treatment by some in the religious community.
    Photo courtesy Michelle Gantner

 
 

While many the Chicago region's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community spent Sunday celebrating with a parade on the city's North side, there was no such celebration in the suburbs for what some call an "invisible" community.

"You look at what happens during Pride Month and everything is in the city. More and more LGBT people are living in the suburbs and it's really kind of an invisible community here," said Amy Skalinder, executive director of Links North Shore Youth Health Service.

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Though members of the LGBT community live in the suburbs for the same reasons as everyone else -- good schools, jobs and less traffic -- Skalinder said one of the only suburban events celebrating Pride Month was an "Out in the Suburbs" discussion forum held in Elk Grove Village last week.

"We wanted to bring pride to the suburbs," she said of the event that started last year in Northbrook.

Gilberto Vaquero, 18, of Palatine, shared his mainly positive experience leading Palatine High School's Gay-Straight Alliance club and even being elected prom king.

"I'm one of the few who had a great experience," Vaquero said, acknowledging others who face bullying for being open with their sexuality in high school.

One Palatine couple became a little more visible last summer when they were among the first 30 couples to get a civil union in Millennium Park after they became legal in Illinois.

Paul Dombrowski and Joe Serio met in the suburbs and have been together for 15 years,

"That was a huge step," Paul said of the couple's civil union. "But it's still not marriage."

The couple admits they're lucky to have had such a positive experience. Both of their workplaces even threw them showers to celebrate.

But, not everyone has been so accepting.

"You probably get more looks, more questions in the suburbs," Serio said. "At the gas station we stop at every morning they keep asking us if we're brothers. It's just a lack of awareness."

A few years ago on Halloween Serio overheard a mother telling her child not to go to their house because the couple is homosexual.

"It caught me so off guard," he said. "Normally I would be very offended and would have said something but I was so taken aback because that behavior really is the exception to what we usually see."

While their suburban experience has been calm -- with a few hiccups -- both are concerned about how the next generation will fare.

Dombrowski, a teacher in Palatine Township Elementary School District 15, has spent nine years as a volunteer with Pride Youth, a group for LGBT high school students that meets weekly in Northfield, Evanston and Palatine. The group saw more than 200 kids from 45 different suburbs last year.

The couple said there needs to be more of an effort to acknowledge the LGBT community in the suburbs, starting from a young age.

"While on the whole there is a perception that it's getting better, that may be true for a white middle-class kid, but it may not be true for a Latino kid," said Serio, who manages the adolescent programs for the Kenneth Young Center and sees the issues immigrant families sometimes face.

Experts at the "Out in Suburbs" event said schools need more training so everyone from teachers to bus drivers are equipped to deal with bullying.

While Serio said much of the disapproval he sees relates back to religion, that's another barrier some in the suburbs are working to break down. More churches are welcoming LGBT members, and some even offered a Pride service such as the one Dombrowski and Serio attended a few weeks ago in Arlington Heights.

Others are making reconciliation a personal mission. One example is the Marin Foundation, a nonprofit started in Chicago to try to build relationships between the gay and religious communities.

As part of that effort, a group of people go to the Pride parade every year wearing shirts that read "I'm Sorry," as an apology for how churches have treated the LGBT community in the past. A blog post from one of the group's members went viral last year, bringing more attention to the idea.

"It's a window of opportunity to talk to the people around us to say we're sorry for the way Christians have acted toward you," said Nathanael Vitkus, 27 of West Aurora, who has been part of the "I'm Sorry" campaign since it started in 2010.

Vitkus said growing up he was taught to view the LGBT community one way, but when he got older and went to college, his views started to change. He said the stories he's heard from people at the Pride parade over the past few years have humbled him.

"It's my way of saying God loves you as you are," he said.

While Vitkus and his group apologized to the crowds on Sunday, Dombrowksi and Serio traveled to the city to march with Pride Youth, as much for the kids as for themselves.

"The coolest thing about it for me is watching the kids react to people cheering for them," Serio said. "It's a very affirming day for them and so a very affirming day for us because we work to get them the respect they deserve."

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