Crowds  gather as today's expanded Pride Parade kicks off

Victoria Paredas hurries her balloons to the Office Max float at the start of the Gay Pride Parade. ((Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune) / June 24, 2012)

A record number of onlookers gathered along the newly re-routed path of the annual Chicago Pride Parade, officials said.

City officials said this year’s parade drew a record crowd estimated at 850,000.

Delores Robinson of the Office of Emergency Management gave that figure as the crowds continued to disperse. Last year’s attendance was estimated at 750,000. Robinson said no “unusual incidents” had been reported.

The parade kicked off at noon today with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn  at the front of the parade as it began its march from the Uptown neighborhood.

Minutes before the parade began, Emanuel, dressed in khaki pants, a blue gingham shirt and tennis shoes, was speedwalking around, shaking hands with police, posing for pictures with parade goers and greeting the throngs gathered behind metal barriers on Broadway and Montrose Avenue.

The final floats were embarking south down Broadway as the parade began to wrap up.

Though the route was reinvented because of crowding concerns last year, the thousands who lined the street saw that the parade's aesthetic was unchanged.

The procession was the usual mix of politics, commercialism and unabashed sexuality, with politicians leading the parade followed by men in hot pants dancing to techno music, women on loud motorcycles and floats branded with the logos of businesses such as Walgreen's and Chipotle.

Marissa Zesinger of Chicago marched for the first time since coming out of the closet in January. Carrying a sign for the Center on Halsted, Zesinger said it was gratifying to see people, gay and straight, supporting one another.

"It makes you feel not alone," she said.

Parade coordinator Richard Pfeiffer said the event had run smoothly as of 2 p.m. and Chicago police reported no serious disturbances.

Last year, the event was marred by pre-parade vandalism of dozens of floats.

"So far, so good. We just hope the weather holds," Pfeiffer said earlier in the day before gray clouds moved out.

"We'll march rain or shine."

As vendors hawked rainbow flags and observers planted lawn chairs along Broadway, marchers made final embellishments to the floats that were lined along Montrose Avenue.

Instead of stepping off at Halsted Street and Belmont Avenue, as it has for the last 20 years, this year's parade started farther north at Montrose Avenue and Broadway and headed south through the Uptown and Lakeview neighborhoods, wrapping up at Diversey Street and Cannon Drive.

Organizers cut the number of groups in the procession and altered the route to ease the congestion that plagued last year's event, when some 750,000 people turned out.

"Last year, we had some crowd control issues," Pfeiffer said.

The grand marshal is Evan Wolfson. He is founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a national campaign to win gay marriage rights.

Moving the route didn't change the nature of the floats and groups marching, whose causes ranged from politically serious to whimsical or overtly sexual.

Wearing combat boots and camouflage shorts as he practiced twirling a fake wooden rifle, marcher Jason Hess of Chicago said he hoped the parade's revised logistics would make the day a more pleasant experience for everyone.

"It's safer," he said, continuing to practice with the rifle he would carry alongside other members of the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps.

This year the community celebrates a year of landmark LGBT civil rights victories.

Over just the past year and a half, civil unions have become legal in Illinois, President Barack Obama has expressed support for same-sex marriage, the military has done away with its "don't ask, don't tell" policy and two lawsuits have been filed challenging the constitutionality of the Illinois law that bans same-sex marriage.

Religious groups were a notable presence toward the front of the queue. American Baptist pastor David Weasley strummed a mandolin on the grass along Montrose Avenue. He was wearing a clergyman's collar and a t-shirt reading "Queer to the World."

Religious groups' presence at the front challenges the perception of faith organizations as intolerant, he said.

"I'm really proud that the faith community is toward the front," Weasley said. "It's a good opportunity to just be really clear about that."

Today's parade wound past Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, which officials said has been supportive about being along the route. Organizers considered moving the parade to a 10 a.m. start time, but stuck with noon so Mount Carmel could celebrate Masses and get parishioners in and out before the parade, he said.

The CTA's Belmont station had to be closed five or six times last year because of overcrowding. Organizers hoped the extension of the parade north will disperse crowds among the Addison, Sheridan, Wilson and Lawrence Red Line stops.

The old route formed a "V" shape that trapped residents and emergency vehicles, officials said. The new route allowed for viewers to get to the east side of the route with the help of stationed police officers.

chicagobreaking@tribune.com

Twitter:@ChicagoBreaking