PAXTON — There was a time when some people in the small town of Paxton shunned, harassed or teased people like Tyger McClure.
Sunday, however, showed McClure how much things have changed in the Ford County seat.
With the exception of two Champaign County residents who stood at street corners holding signs displaying phrases such as “Repent of your wickedness” or “Jesus or sin? Whom will you serve?”, the community appeared overwhelmingly supportive of Sunday’s inaugural Paxton LGBTQ Pride March.
At least 169 people from no fewer than 20 communities participated in the event, gathering at Pells Park for an hour of music and mingling before marching down Orleans Street to the downtown area while displaying their LGBTQ pride or support.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said the 54-year-old McClure, the event’s organizer. “At first I thought there would maybe be a small group of 50 to 100 of us ... but I really had no idea it was going to explode.”
The openly gay McClure decided to organize the event in his hometown because pride marches, while common in larger cities, have rarely, if ever, been done in a town of this size — and because no matter how small of a town it is, there are plenty of LGBTQ people who need some love and support.
“It’s important to have this here in a small community because this is where people come from,” McClure said. “We are here. We are here in Paxton. We are here in Loda, Ludlow, Hoopeston, Gibson City.”
“It’s really awesome to kind of flip the script a little bit and not just have it be a major-city thing,” said event participant Ainslie Heilich of Tuscola.
The Paxton community’s acceptance of the event may not have been the same a few decades ago. When McClure was at Paxton High School in the 1980s, he was bullied by a teacher in front of his peers for being different, making it “open season on me in school after that,” he said. Other than his family, who supported him unconditionally, there was only one person who “stepped forward” to defend and support him — his math teacher.
“I wanted to leave Paxton as soon as I could, the way I was treated here,” McClure said. “My family treated me with love, but the community did not, especially those who saw me as different and treated me harshly because of it.”
After graduating from high school, McClure did leave Paxton, seeking acceptance from a community who would have him. After college, he immediately went to Chicago, where he called home until 2010, when he returned to Paxton to be with his ailing mother.
Since then, McClure has found many others in Paxton just like himself, but some are still too afraid to come out of the closet, fearing the reaction of their family, friends and community.
With Sunday’s event, McClure hoped to show that there is indeed support, though, for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people in Paxton and in other rural communities.
“You are showing them that there’s a community for them, that there’s love for them, even if they can’t find it in their immediate family or in their school or in their community,” McClure told the march’s participants before departing for the downtown from Pells Park.
“To be able to celebrate life with people who understand what you’ve been through is amazing,” McClure added. “Nobody could really understand (what an LGBTQ person experiences) unless they’ve been through it themselves.”
Not just LGBTQ people marched Sunday. So did their supporters of all ages and sexual orientations.
“My eyes were closed for many years, but they were opened when my son and my sister came out,” said Paxton resident Tony Lee, a former longtime state’s attorney for Ford County, who was joined in the march by his wife, Ellen. “I think this is terrific. I think it’s a unifying event, and in a small community like this, I think it’s important for something like this to happen.”
March participant and Loda resident Paula Rossow, representing the Democratic party in Iroquois County, said she was somewhat surprised to learn a pride march would be held in Paxton, but she said she feels it was “long overdue.”
“Democrats, in general, support LGBTQ rights,” Rossow said. “We support everybody’s rights, but particularly, I think, this is a group of people who could use some support from allies and Democrats everywhere. ... I think this is terrific — it gives people an opportunity to bond together and come out and support one another.”
Some Paxton residents who did not march still supported the event by handing out bottled water to participants. Paxton residents Marc and Jenna Amore and members of the Hope Vineyard Church were among those doing so.
The Arcade Cafe & Pancake House in downtown Paxton also eagerly opened its doors for the pride march’s participants, who gathered there for food and drinks afterward.
“It takes a village,” McClure said. “I’ve been so fortunate that I’ve had a wonderful village helping me along the way.”
Josh Davis of Sullivan, who is gay, said the support on hand Sunday was worth the trip to Paxton.
“I think it’s important for people in small towns to feel connected to other people,” Davis said. “I know that especially where I come from, with a population of less than 5,000 people, I definitely feel alarmed sometimes, but if I can reach out to other people, I feel like I’ll be better off.”
Love continued to be the theme even as pride march participants passed by two people from Champaign County who were standing downtown with signs denouncing their behavior. The march went peacefully despite the counter-demonstration.
“We want people to repent of their sins, which is stealing and lying and adultery, things that God says in the Bible that He hates,” said one of the two protestors, both of whom would only provide their first names.
“We’ve all sinned ... and we all need Jesus to realize that we’re sinners and to repent and stop following what our desires are and look into what God’s desires are,” continued the man, who said his first name is Josh. “What they’re doing is wrong, I believe. As far as the homosexual stuff, God says that’s wrong.”
Meanwhile, McClure said the response from the community was “overwhelmingly positive,” and he plans to make the small-town pride march an annual event each year on the last Sunday in June, which marks the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City.
“I’m hoping to make it an annual event, but I never had the plan to always have it in Paxton,” McClure said. “I’ve had people come forward saying, ‘We need this in Tuscola,’ ‘We need this in Hoopeston,’ ‘We need this in Gibson City.’ So there’s no reason for us to stick to Paxton.”