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Shedd Aquarium jazzes with Pride
by Theresa Volpe

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After 22 years of the Shedd Aquarium hosting its popular Wednesday night summer-event series "Jazzin' at the Shedd," it held its first on-site pride-focused event, LGBTQ Pride Jazzin' June 28 in an effort to connect new audiences with the aquarium.

At first glance, the event screamed pinkwashing, with its reception-style round tables draped in white linen encircling the aquarium's 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef exhibit, each table decorated with a pair of miniature Pride and Bisexual Pride flags while enormous rainbow flags swung from balconies at every turn. But the experience and message for the evening proved differently.

This gathering, where singles go to meet and mingle, had an LGBT-inclusive vibe to it. Amongst the diverse crowd of around 500 people were queer couples holding hands, stealing kisses, and wrapping their arms around one another as the relaxed tempo of cool jazz scattered soft sound bites throughout the terrace over looking the lake and city skyline.

One couple, Cheryl Cesario and Kim Beck, toting Sweetness, Beck's Maltipoo, in a roller-bag pet carrier, appreciated the welcoming LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere. The two danced closely, exchanging romantic glances as the band played Cesario's song request, "Fly Me to the Moon."

"It's nice the Shedd is doing a Pride event. I wanted to take my beautiful girlfriend some place spectacular and this is special," said Cesario.

"We go other places that are more straight," said Cesario. "I would still ask Kim to dance, but I definitely feel more comfortable dancing here," she said. "We know this event is for us and other [straight] people know it's LGBTQ as well, so they are going along with it."

The couple were touched to hear positive reactions from other attendees. "A mother and a daughter saw us at the Wild Reef Exhibit and commented on how wonderful it was to see our love for one another," Cesario said.

"People pick up on positive, loving intentions, whether your gay or straight. It's all about love," added Beck. "This event allows people to get to know the LGBT community."

The couple admitted a band member appeared taken aback when they made a song request. "Then the musicians saw we were having fun and we're pretty good dancers, so they got into it," said Cesario.

The evening included a Science Pub Chat, titled "Celebrating Diversity: The Living Rainbow," that Shedd Aquarium marine biologist Keoki Burton presented; it explored the beauty and importance of diversity in the aquatic world. The topics ranged from examples of sequential hermaphroditism—where marine life such as clownfish change sex at some point in life—to parental roles under the sea, citing how the male sea horse gives birth to babies.

"Diversity is needed in the animal kingdom for it to exist and for beauty to happen," explained Burton.

Based on follow-up questions, it was apparent audience members fell into the post-millennials category due to the numerous references to the Pixar film Finding Nemo. When Burton explained how the clownfish takes on the role of child-rearing while the female watches to make sure he is doing his job, the crowd roared with approval applause.

The Shedd thoughtfully and purposefully planned content for the presentation. "We wanted to provide information for the audience so they could make a connection to their own lives," said Johnny Ford, the Shedd's manager of communications.

The Shedd's new special exhibit, "Underwater Beauty," also emphasized the importance of diversity and individual beauty in the world. Signage with themes about "life working together in harmony" were evidence of inclusive content as was the "Discover a living rainbow" section of the exhibit.

James Horine attended the event with two friends. He came out to hear the Lakeside Pride Music Ensemble and was happy to support the Shedd. "It's important to support public places when they are aligned with inclusivity and diversity to the LGBTQIA community," said Horine.

The evening concluded with guests taking in Navy Pier's weekly fireworks display on the aquarium's terrace on the lake.

Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and Chicago Ald. James Cappleman ( 46th Ward ), both openly gay, also helped kick off the event at the start of the evening.

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