By Tom Holmes
Kate Webster remembers wondering how open she could be about her sexuality in her daily life, even though she was out as gay in her then-home in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. It was the mid-'90s, and Webster was struggling with her identity.
Then she went to her first Pride Parade.
"The pride parade had a huge impact for me," she said. "My jaw just dropped at the freedom and openness of people kissing and loving and how many straight allies were there supporting them."
Now Webster has gone from watching to walking, and plans to march in the 49th annual Pride Parade in Chicago on June 24. The theme of the event, "Remember the Past, Create the Future," puts into words how the chair of Forest Park's Diversity Commission views this moment.
Remember the past
Webster went to her first Pride Parade 20 years ago, and that experience was a major confirmation of the identity she was in the process of owning. For most of the 30 years of her life, Webster was, in her words, "straight as straight could be. I dated men and had that vision of marriage, children and a white picket fence."
Her identity was defined as a heterosexual white woman. She grew up in New York City with open, liberal parents who worked in the arts and music industry, so she was surrounded by many different kinds of people, including those who identified as LGBT, but she viewed her own identity through the narrow lens of her privileged upbringing.
That perspective began to change when, after graduating from Harvard University, she spent two years teaching in Kenya.
"There, I started to see a world that was different than the one I grew up in, especially around women, women's rights and the lack thereof," she said. "I learned a lot about issues of race and gender that I had never seen in the United States because of my white privilege."
Webster returned to the U.S. and started doing graduate work at the University of Chicago, continuing to date men. But one day, she attended a woman's self-defense program and fell head over heels for her instructor. She realized then that she wanted to be emotionally, physical, intimately and romantically connected to a woman. The instructor also talked about feminism and standing up for herself.
At the same time, she resisted the notion because she thought, at 30, she was "too old to become a lesbian."
She said her six-month, coming-out process was aided by "geography."
"I lived in Andersonville," on the North Side of Chicago. "So I was around women walking down the street holding hands."
She realized there was more than one way to be out as a lesbian.
"For a long time," she explained, "I thought to be gay I had to have this external appearance — no skirts, no make-up, little jewelry. And I gradually came into my own that I love my femininity. I love purple and pink. I love wearing femme clothing. I could be gay and still have that external appearance."
As she prepares to walk with Rush University Medical Center this year — where Webster serves as director of student diversity and multicultural affairs, among other things — she remembers her experience as a teacher at a girls charter school on the South Side of Chicago in 2005. Webster and some of her students made a sign that read, "Gay Teachers Rock." It was her first time marching in the parade.
"From the beginning to the end, so many people were clapping and shouting over and over, 'Thank you for being out.' I'm practically bawling the whole way," she recalled. "I realized that no matter how commercial the parade had become, seeing 'Gay Teachers Rock' may have moved some of those with their own ability to out."
Create the future
When Webster and her wife Marcia married, their decision to live in Forest Park was a no-brainer because most people in the village are accepting.
"But I still don't feel comfortable holding my wife's hand while we walk down the street," she said. "There aren't many pride flags on the front of homes and few rainbow stickers on the front windows of businesses.
"A lot of gay people feel they have to 'cover' when they go to work in a business or the corporate world. They feel they have to wear their hair a certain way or not put a picture of their same-sex partner on their desk.
"In Forest Park, the more we can be a community in which people feel safe to 'uncover,' the more they can walk with their heads up, hold hands and feel more comfortable being who they are."
In the programs Webster leads on diversity and inclusion at Rush, she begins by saying, "Some of you have come here wanting specific tools to navigate unconscious bias. My one tool to give you is compassion. Compassion can be the biggest tool for letting go of and being aware of unconscious bias because the more compassionate you are about people who are different, the more you will let go of 'Why are you doing it that way?' and 'Why did you say that?'
"With compassion I can be curious instead of defensive and can ask questions about the person's journey. I can also be compassionate with people who are blatantly sexist or homophobic or racist. I don't have to change other people and I can stay true to my own identity."