As Chicago's annual Pride Parade wound its way through the North Side on Sunday, onlookers said there was something sweetly historic about this year's celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California and struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act that withheld federal benefits from married same-sex couples.
Among the thousands who marched through the city's Uptown, Lakeview and Lincoln Park neighborhoods, some dressed up as judges, and others held signs thanking the court. Many thousands more on the sidewalks — the police crowd estimate of more than 1 million made it the best-attended Chicago Pride Parade ever — were equally enthusiastic.
"We thought we'd never see it in our lifetime," said Bob Miezin, 64, who drove down from Milwaukee to take in the event with a longtime friend.
Miezin recalled that being gay in the 1970s was "very secretive and secluded," a sharp contrast with Sunday's raucous crowd, where a mostly younger group of men and women openly celebrated their sexuality and reveled in the high court's rulings.
Chrissy Aupke, 18, showed up with two friends six hours before the parade began and painted a rainbow pattern over her eyelids. From her spot on the sidewalk near the starting line, Aupke, who identified herself as pansexual, said she was witnessing history by being at a parade that so closely followed a significant milestone in the gay rights movement.
"I feel like this is going to be in the textbooks," said the recent high school graduate from west suburban Lombard.
For some, the joy over the Supreme Court rulings was tempered by frustration that Illinois doesn't allow gay couples to wed. The state Senate passed a bill in February to legalize gay marriage, but the House did not vote on it before the spring session adjourned. The state does, however, allow same-sex civil unions.
"I'm really disappointed in Illinois," Aupke said. "The politicians didn't speak up for what we believe in, for the people of this state."
Some expected the Illinois politicians who marched in Sunday's parade to get a cold reception, but most were greeted with reactions ranging from polite applause to enthusiastic embrace.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who supports gay marriage, received a loud ovation. Gov. Pat Quinn, marching behind a banner urging legislators to send him a bill that would legalize gay marriage, also was greeted with hearty applause.
Despite disappointment with the state's General Assembly, many at the parade said they sense momentum behind their cause that makes it only a matter of time before gay marriage is legalized in Illinois and the other states where it has yet to be approved.
Significant opposition to gay marriage remains in Illinois, where Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, and other religious leaders have stated publicly that marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples, a position shared by many conservative lawmakers.
And while older participants like Miezin could attest to the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, Cecil Gunderson, 34, said there remains quite a bit of difference between attitudes on Halsted Street and in her hometown of Bloomington, Ill.
"We can be gay in public (in Chicago), and no one cares," said Gunderson, a chef who attended the event with her girlfriend. "You can't walk down the street holding your girlfriend's hand in Bloomington. They'll kick your ass."
Joe Wibbels, an attorney who lives in Louisville, Ky., said this year's parade was distinctly different than the ones he witnessed as a Chicago resident in the 1990s, when he said it was mostly white men.
"It's very diverse," he said of the day's crowd of gay and straight, and male and female members of all races. "It's good to see all the young people as well."
Spectators sat on lawn chairs or anywhere else they could find an open spot — one man watched from atop a light post on Halsted.
The official crowd estimate topped last year's 850,000, then the record high.
Toward the northern end of the parade route, where the crowd was more sedate, Jeffrey Parsons, of Rogers Park, celebrated his 22nd Chicago Pride Parade and offered bottled water to passers-by.
Parsons, 46, and the group he was with waved signs asking lawmakers to "Call the vote" on the gay marriage bill.
But more than anything, Parsons said, he sensed progress Sunday.
"I came out 26 years ago with a lot of feelings of shame and was absolutely persecuted. My belief is DOMA and Prop 8 goes deeper than marriage," Parsons said, invoking the legal names of the federal and California laws that the Supreme Court ruled on last week. "It goes to a sense of me feeling less shame."
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