From her home in Victoria, British Columbia, Robin Stevenson is watching what’s playing out in Wheaton.
She knows Wheaton Mayor Phil Suess issued a proclamation declaring June 22–28 Pride Week. She scrolls through the photos of the windows downtown painted with rainbows and affirmation. She read District 200 director of communications Erica Loiacono’s statement celebrating Pride Week and encouraging students to learn more about the LGBTQ community’s contributions to history.
“It’s so wonderful,” Stevenson told me Tuesday. “I’m just so happy to see that young LGBTQ people in Wheaton are getting to see so many people in their own community support and celebrate and accept them for who they are.”
Stevenson, you may recall, was uninvited from Wheaton’s Longfellow Elementary School last fall after her publisher told her that parents complained that her book, “Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change,” highlighted Harvey Milk and other champions of the LGBTQ movement.
Stevenson wrote an open letter to District 200′s leaders and posted it on her author website. “Students in your district have been hurt by your actions,” she wrote.
Parents and other Wheaton residents rallied in support of Stevenson. State Rep. Terra Costa Howard hosted an event for the author at Glenbard West High School a few weeks after the original school appearance was canceled. People packed the place.
And Wheaton resident Jacob Kniep, 26, watched the whole thing with a mixture of heartbreak and hope.
Kniep is a hairstylist who grew up in Glendale, Arizona He moved to Wheaton a few years ago to work at an LGBTQ-affirming hair salon called Namaste. (He has since moved to Marek Ashley salon in South Wheaton.)
Last summer, one of Kniep’s teenage clients came out to him as nonbinary.
“At the end of the service, they said to me, ‘Please don’t tell my mom,‘” Kniep said.
They worried their mom wouldn’t love them anymore, Kniep said. It took him back to his own childhood, where he was bullied and stigmatized by classmates for being gay.
“I thought, ‘I need to help these kids because this is still happening,‘” he said.
That client was still on Kniep’s mind when he read about Stevenson’s talk being canceled.
“At a school three miles from my house,” Kniep said. “It broke my heart. And I was like, ‘OK, now we actually have to do this.‘”
He launched an organization called OUTspoken Illinois to provide a safe, affirming place for LGBTQ people of all ages. The group hosts weekly discussion groups (at the Wheaton Park District, pre-coronavirus; virtually now). There’s a podcast.
And now there’s #WheatonProud, a campaign Kniep launched to encourage Wheaton businesses, organizations, health care providers and other community members to display their support for their LGBTQ neighbors and customers. Kniep’s group made rainbow stickers for the participants to display. So far 47 places have opted in: (You can read the complete list at wheatonproud.org.)
“I feel overwhelmingly encouraged,” Kniep said. “This is a Wheaton I really never thought I’d see, with all the rainbows and love and support.”
Next year he hopes to host a Pride festival and parade.
Kniep emailed Stevenson last fall when he read about her event being canceled.
“I told her, ‘I’m sorry this is how my community is being reflected,‘” he said.
Stevenson remembers his note.
“He talked about wanting to start a support group and do some work to bring about change,” she said. “I’m so happy to see how well that’s gone and how much support there’s been for that.”
At 2 p.m. on Sunday, the last day of Wheaton’s Pride Week, Kniep and other OUTspoken Illinois members will meet at Wheaton’s Dry City Brew Works to celebrate a job well done and a community well supported.
“We’re going to have a gay, old time if anybody wants to come,” he said. “The more the merrier.”
Stevenson will raise a glass from Canada.
“One of the things I always tell kids is how important it is to speak up, even if it feels like a small thing, because you don’t know what ripple effects that will have,” she said. “Even if the person you’re speaking to doesn’t change their mind, someone might overhear you and that can cause a ripple effect.”
In 2016, Stevenson wrote a book called “Pride: Celebrating Diversity & Community,” which she still tours schools to talk about. She said she spoke at a school last year about the book and the history of the Pride movement, and a group of 10- and 11-year-old students approached their principal afterward to ask if they could paint a rainbow crosswalk outside the building.
“When I wrote ‘Pride,’ I was originally thinking how important it is for young people to know the history,” she said. “But I also think it’s really important for older people to listen to younger people. We all have a lot to learn, and young people are really leading the way.”
And we’re all better for it.
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