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Paxton Pride organizer didn't give up on hometown
by Joshua Irvine

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When the first hateful comments against Paxton's planned Pride parade appeared on the Ford County Record's Facebook page, organizer Tyger McClure had a new problem: talking his octogenarian father out of carrying a rifle at the celebration.

Paxton—about 110 miles south of Chicago—may seem like the sort of town where one has a better chance of banning dancing than hosting a Pride parade. Its 4,400 residents are overwhelmingly white. Carhartt and camo are perpetually in vogue, and Republican primaries decide elections. Less than a decade ago, a teenager was beaten within an inch of his life for being gay.

"Anybody that's different is harshly treated," McClure told Windy City Times, going on to describe racist and sexist behavior inherent to the town's culture.

And yet McClure—who has been openly gay since his early 20s— keeps coming back to Paxton. He'd visit every other weekend after he first moved to Chicago in the late '80s, and he moved back full-time in 2010 to care for his mother, who passed in 2011.

His family moved to the town in 1969, when McClure, the fourth of five kids, was four years old. He knew he was different by the time he was seven, though he didn't know he was gay yet. He also knew that there was no way he could talk about it to anybody.

The bullying started in high school, initially because McClure hit puberty late and looked it, but continued because of a rumor he was gay. McClure recalled an incident in his drivers' ed class where multiple male students groped him as part of their torment.

"There were many times I wish I'd been able to be raised in even Champaign-Urbana," McClure said.

McClure saw his first taste of a different life when he moved with a gay peer to Schaumburg in 1987. This "trial run" was his first exposure to the larger LGBTQ community; he found a job and his own place to live, and after a few months back in Paxton he moved to the city in 1988.

"I can't imagine what it's like for people who never left," McClure said.

A year later, he visited home with his partner at the time and came out to his family.

Well, almost all of his family: His mother told McClure he would never be able to talk to his father about it and, 30 years later, he never has.

And even in Chicago, McClure wasn't entirely comfortable. He recalled bringing female friends to work functions in the '90s, even though he had a partner, because of an "unwritten rule" within the company.

Things got better for McClure in Chicago as time went on; he settled in Edgewater, and went on to march and perform in Pride and the Gay Games. But Paxton was stuck in the same spot.

"It still seems like a community that wants to maintain some kind of 'Paxton purity,' unfortunately," McClure said.

This year, McClure decided to tackle Paxton purity.

Organizing began only 10 days before the June 30 parade, but the makings of the parade went back to a few years before McClure moved back to Paxton, when he partook in "guerilla gay bars" that would take over a straight bar for a night. He and his Chicago friends had considered for years bringing the idea to the small towns in which many of them had grown up.

McClure obtained a permit from the mayor's office, put the event on Facebook and bought supplies, including 150 handheld Pride flags his family helped him assemble—and one six-by-10-foot flag.

And, despite the hateful comments and an armed senior citizen, the date of the parade came.

More than 200 people ultimately marched; the Ford County Record described the community as "overwhelmingly supportive." McClure's lesbian niece carried the flag in the honor guard.

"This resonates a lot further than Paxton, Illinois," McClure said.

McClure said he was overwhelmed only twice: when the editor of the Ford County Record showed him the proofs for the next day's front page, with the Pride parade front and center; and when his dad showed up.

"It was something you wanna bottle up and just have with you," McClure said.

The giant flag now hangs in McClure's house, signed by the marchers. He's planning for a follow-up march next year, although he doesn't know how much longer he'll continue to live in Paxton. But he'll undoubtedly be back.

"It'll always be home, even if I'm physically living somewhere else," McClure said.

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