PAXTON — Tyger McClure knew from an early age — about 7 years old, he recalled — that he was different from his peers growing up in the small town of Paxton. In high school, after rumors were started revealing he was gay, he was repeatedly bullied — and not just by his fellow students.
“I had one (teacher) who made fun of me in front of my speech class, and that was around the time that the whole rumor got started,” said McClure, now 57. “I couldn’t be who I was, really. I had to kind of hide.”
Thankfully for McClure, another one of his teachers tried to put a stop to the harassment after noticing that he kept missing her class and leaving school immediately after his physical education class, during which much of the bullying occurred. Because of that teacher, “some changes were made,” McClure said.
Four decades later, McClure still remembers how lonely and isolated he felt back then, but he now knows he is not alone, even in a town of 4,450. That certainty was realized when some 200 people from no fewer than 20 communities took part in the inaugural Paxton LGBTQ Pride March that McClure organized on Sunday, June 30, 2019.
“There was a great response,” McClure, a Paxton resident, said last week as he discussed plans for another pride march to be held in the Ford County seat on Sunday, June 11. “I just saw so many comments from people saying that they never expected this and what a great thing for Paxton to do.”
Like the first pride march McClure organized four years ago, the one planned for next month has two primary goals: to show others, especially young people, that there is an LGBTQ community for them, even in a small town where it may not seem like it, and to celebrate LGBTQ pride with an event during Pride Month.
“The members of the LGBTQ community are really happy to celebrate pride during Pride Month, and not having to go to a bigger city to do so is great,” McClure said. “I mean, the big-city pride (events) have politicians and corporate groups, and it’s a big, huge, very festive, very fun celebration. Ours is different, because it’s members of the community who are marching and celebrating. … The community is strong in numbers, and bringing that to a small town is a big thing, because there aren’t visible numbers here.”
McClure said it is difficult to tell whether another big crowd will show up at this year’s pride march, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, June 11, starting at the intersection of Market and Holmes streets by the fire station and railroad museum downtown. People of all ages — from members of the LGBTQ community to allies and supporters — are encouraged to take part and bring signs, flags or “anything they want to celebrate,” McClure said.
“You never know what the turnout will be,” McClure said. “Last time, it was organized in 10 days and we had over 200 people. That was a bit of a surprise to me.”
With more time to plan it this year, there is much more advance promotion of the event being done, both on social media and through the news media, as well as through flyers that will be posted around Paxton and the surrounding area, including at the Uniting Pride (UP) Center of Champaign County, which has also added the event to its calendar, McClure said. Also, a website dedicated to the event was recently launched at prideinsmalltown.com, providing more information and opportunities to buy pride-related merchandise such as T-shirts that say “Small Town, Big Pride — Paxton, Illinois.”
While a big turnout would be nice, McClure does not need one to feel the event is a success.
“The main point (of the event) for me is not having hundreds of people and anything really fancy,” McClure said. “The whole point is just having it and the symbolism of it and the power of it, especially when it’s visible to the people in town who are part of the community (but) might not know it (or) might be too young to know there is a community. That’s the important part for me, which is why, after living in Chicago for so many years, I had the idea of bringing pride to small towns where a lot of us lived and kind of in a way suffered in silence, not knowing there was a community out there. So, the number of people, it would be great to have a good crowd. We’ll see.”
Plans for the event are being organized at a time of national political conflict over LGBTQ rights.
“The climate in other states, especially, is negative,” McClure said. “It’s turned to the negative as we approach the election of 2024 against mainly the trans community. All the legislation that they’re putting in place is very troubling.”
Participants in the June 11 march will gather for lineup by the fire station starting at 1 p.m. before the march begins at 2, heading south on Market Street to the Clayton Haile Walk Bridge. Using the walk bridge, they will cross the railroad cut and then U.S. 45 before continuing east on Orleans Street to Pells Park, where McClure has reserved the main pavilion for an afternoon celebration of food, music and mingling, likely starting by 2:30 p.m.
“I’ve lined up a DJ for music,” McClure said. “We’re also going to have a food truck there, and there will be drinks. And I believe somebody’s going to have popcorn. It’s really just a time to gather and celebrate.”
McClure said participants in the march can either park downtown or at the park. McClure said he and at least one other driver will be available to shuttle people from the park back to their vehicles if they parked downtown prior to the march.
McClure noted that the march will take up the entire street as it moves through town, and local police and Paxton Emergency Management Agency volunteers will be present to provide traffic control.
“I already talked to our chief of police, (Coy) Cornett,” said McClure, who is employed as an implementation architect for a company called Affinipay. “We discussed the route, and he said that we’ll have safe passage through the streets.”
While this will be the second Paxton LGBTQ Pride March, it will be the fifth consecutive annual event that McClure has organized to celebrate LGBTQ pride. After the first march in 2019, McClure restructured the event in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic to one in which people were encouraged to decorate their vehicles and drive through town. The events are always during Pride Month in June around the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City.
With the exception of two Champaign County residents who stood at street corners holding signs displaying phrases such as “Repent of your wickedness,” the community appeared overwhelmingly supportive of the inaugural march in 2019.