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Richard Pfeiffer, longtime Chicago Pride Parade coordinator, has died at 70

Under his leadership, the Chicago Pride Parade grew from a few hundred participants in its early years to what’s estimated to be hundreds of thousands

Richard Pfeiffer, longtime Chicago Pride Parade coordinator, in 2003.
Richard Pfeiffer, longtime Chicago Pride Parade coordinator, in 2003.
Jim Frost / Sun-Times

Richard Pfeiffer watched Chicago’s first Pride Parade in 1970 from the sidelines, too shy to join in the march. By the parade’s fifth year, the local LGBTQ activist had become its lead coordinator.

“He went from the sidelines to running the parade out of his apartment with his longtime companion,” said Albert Williams, a teacher at Columbia College Chicago and former editor of GayLife newspaper and the Windy City Times. “It was a totally volunteer operation because he just loved the idea of making the parade work.”

Mr. Pfeiffer, who died Sunday at 70, continued to organize the Chicago Pride Parade for the next 45 years. Under his leadership, the parade grew from a few hundred participants to what’s estimated to be hundreds of thousands of spectators this year, which marked 50 years since the Stonewall Riots.

“Richard’s passing is a huge loss for the Chicago LGBTQ fabric,” said Williams, who knew Mr. Pfeiffer from early LGBTQ activism and helping organize the first parade. “But I’m happy that for his last parade, he was able to select Chicago’s first openly gay mayor as the grand marshal. It really was a full-circle moment from its beginnings.”

Richard Pfeiffer and his partner, Tim Frye, stand outside the Cook County Marriage Court while waiting to be married in 2014.
Richard Pfeiffer and his partner, Tim Frye, stand outside the Cook County Marriage Court while waiting to be married in 2014.
Jessica Koscielniak / Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a Facebook post that she and her wife, Amy Eshleman, were saddened to hear of Mr. Pfeiffer’s death. She commended his decades-long advocacy for LGBTQ people in Chicago.

In addition to organizing the annual parade, Mr. Pfeiffer was a founding member of the city’s Committee on Gay/Lesbian Issues, advising former Mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley on the LGBTQ community, according to his bio in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.

Mr. Pfeiffer also headed the Chicago Gay Alliance, which ran the city’s first gay community center, and founded the Gay Activist Coalition at Harold Washington College, which was the first LGBTQ group at a City Colleges of Chicago campus.

“But Richard’s greatest legacy lies in Chicago’s own iconic Pride Parade, which for nearly 50 years he has worked so hard to organize, guiding it to become the overwhelming celebration of love and acceptance that it is today,” Lightfoot said. “Richard was a living example of the power of speaking out and fighting for what you know is right.”

Richard Pfeiffer, circa 1980.
Richard Pfeiffer, circa 1980.
Photo from GayLife, courtesy of the Windy City Times

Williams, who called Mr. Pfeiffer a “gentle, sweet soul and hugely skilled politician,” said they really got to know each other in the early ‘80s when Williams was editor of GayLife.

Every year, Williams would publish a column by Mr. Pfeiffer the day after the parade that analyzed its media coverage.

“He’d sometimes host a party after the parade, so a lot of us would be at his house, drinking, and he’d be sitting at the TV, channel surfing to see who covered it,” Williams said. “He meticulously reported on who was covering us.”

Jackie Richter, founder and president of Heels and Hardhats, a northern Illinois-based contracting business that promotes women and LGBTQ folks in construction, said her company was the first to enter Chicago’s Pride Parade as a business.

Richter, a transgender woman, said Mr. Pfeiffer was committed to including transgender people in the parade.

“Every year, it was Heels and Hardhats in the parade right next to the Chicago Gender Society. He was very good to us trans women and appreciated the transgender community,” she said.

Richard Pfeifer, photographed in 1975
Richard Pfeiffer, photographed in 1975
Photo courtesy of the Windy City Times

Richter said Mr. Pfeiffer “gracefully” coordinated the Pride Parade through its massive growth, navigating an array of challenges like homophobia, the AIDS crisis, political ups and downs and business interests to ensure its continued success.

“As friends, we spoke a lot about being elders and watching this parade and the LGBTQ movement evolve. He was passionate about handing that torch over to the youth,” Richter said.

Longtime LGBTQ ally U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., released a statement remembering Mr. Pfeiffer as one of the parade’s “most fervent leaders.”

“He guided the parade from its origins as a march protesting injustice, through its growth into a celebration of the LGBTQ community, and in recent years, its turn back toward protest,” Quigley said.

Tracy Baim, publisher of the Chicago Reader and LGBTQ historian, said Mr. Pfeiffer’s consistency and passion characterized Chicago’s annual Pride Parade. She said Mr. Pfeiffer ensured that the annual celebration steered clear of the infighting and financial issues that have impacted parades in other major cities over the years.

“And he did most of this work behind the scenes, not for any accolades or attention,” she said. “He did it to make sure the LGBTQ community had this treasure to turn to each June.”

Baim said she anticipates major changes for Chicago’s Pride Parade without Mr. Pfeiffer’s leadership.

“Without him, the table of our community is missing a leg that needs to be fortified,” Baim said. “I think the community needs to really think about what the next phase of this parade should be and keep in mind the true vision of what it is.”

Mr. Pfeiffer is survived by his husband, Tim Frye. His funeral services are set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Drake & Son Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western Ave., followed by visitation until 7 p.m.