Gay Pride will be on full display next week in Wheaton, a west suburb long known for staunch conservatism — but where many residents say attitudes are changing.
While a Pride parade would be off-limits because of COVID-19, dozens of businesses are taking part in #WheatonProud, a campaign that’s led to rainbow colors flying in windows in the suburb’s downtown. It’s the brainchild of a not-for-profit group called OUTspoken Leaders, which aims to empower the LGBTQ+ community in Wheaton and beyond.
The organization was created in November in response to a decision to cancel an elementary school visit by an author. Canadian writer Robin Stevenson had been scheduled to talk with students about her book, “Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change,” but the event was nixed at the last minute.
Some, including Stevenson, said it was because her book had a chapter focused on gay activist Harvey Milk. The Wheaton school board blamed it on a procedural issue — that school officials didn’t follow policies to inform parents of author visits.
The controversy led Wheaton resident Jacob Kneip, who is gay, to create OUTspoken Leaders. In May, Kneip’s group began launching #WheatonProud, in which businesses could display a sticker supporting gay rights in June, the month of LGBTQ+ pride.
Kneip, a hair stylist, said he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction.
“I started reaching out to businesses May 22 and have 40 businesses on board right now,” he said. “I was expecting maybe 10 businesses but people are signing up left and right. . . . And now that we have a little more traction and our stickers have gone up in windows, people are finding us.”
Elle Withall, executive director of the business group Downtown Wheaton Association, said she saw the positive reaction to the #WheatonProud campaign and was inspired to do something festive.
“We saw the list of companies participating and approached them to encourage the movement. We contacted them to see if they wanted a graffiti artist we hired to paint their windows and they did. It really took off,” Withall said.
Diane Moore, owner of Moore Toys & Gadgets in Wheaton, said she saw stickers on other businesses and reached out to OUTspoken Leaders. She said while she didn’t think about the campaign’s effect on her business, she would welcome increased business because of her support.
“I would think that it may translate to someone who might not have walked in my store before might think ‘Wow, this is a welcoming place and I’m going to check it out,’” Moore said. “It would be great if it results in that.”
The stickers — which read in part “this business proudly supports all LGBTQ+ People” — create an atmosphere of inclusion, according to Maggie Buckley, an OUTspoken Leaders volunteer.
During her 16 years in Wheaton, she says she’s seen attitudes change in her community, which is home to Wheaton College, whose conservative alumni include late Christian evangelist Billy Graham.
“The town is changing. I think people want to be in a place where they can raise their kids and not be so conservative in their thinking and love everyone,” said Buckley, who is married to the suburb’s first openly gay city council member, Lynn Robbins.
On Monday, Mayor Philip Suess issued Wheaton’s first-ever proclamation declaring June LGBTQ+ pride month in Wheaton. Suess, who has been mayor for a year, said that although the proclamation was issued by him, it reflects a consensus of the city council.
“Wheaton has always been a very generous and inclusive community. If you look at the history, we were involved with the Underground Railroad. If you look at the churches and the work they’ve down as far as worldwide missionaries — the work they have done bringing immigrants into the country — you’ll see that the perceptions that some people have are a little different than the reality,” Suess said.
For Kneip, his work continues. He has started a #GlenEllynProud, a similar initiative in neighboring Glen Ellyn.
His goal for next year? For Wheaton to host its first-ever Pride Parade.