Gay-friendly Illinois: Personified Jonna Cooley, Springfield

By @ 05/07/19 in Gay travel, Gay-Friendly, Gay-friendly Illinois, Illinois, LGBT Illinois, LGBT travel Illinois, Personified, Travel

Jonna Cooley in ManAboutWorld gay travel magazineJonna Cooley is an LGBTQ trailblazer, a pioneer and an Illinois native. She grew up in Meredosia, and then moved to Springfield in 1979. She began working at the Phoenix Center, Central Illinois’ LGBTQ Community Center, in April of 2006. The center provides a variety of services and activities for the LGBTQ community, including youth groups, transgender support groups, and a parent group, among others. The organization also provides various social and educational events such as an LGBTQ Film Series, Springfield PrideFest and drag shows.

The center also provides safe, supportive housing for homeless HIV+ men and women, transitional housing for homeless LGBTQ individuals, a variety of prevention programming and counseling.

Jonna is also one of the people proudly responsible for bringing pride to Springfield. In 2010, she brought a group of people together because she thought it was time to talk about having pride in Springfield. The attendance was overwhelming and Springfield PrideFest was born.

The first event was on Harvey Milk Day in 2011, one city block of 3,000 people. Today, the event has grown to 4+ city blocks, food and drinks, vendors, a kid’s area, and a teen drag show competition. Last year there were an estimated 20,000 people in attendance. Jonna’s been with her partner, Lisa Tomasino, for 19 years. They have a daughter, Erin, who lives and works in Florida. They live in Springfield with their three cats: Doc, Cleo, and Oliver, and their big five-pound chihuahua, Dino.

We sat down with Jonna to chat about LGBTQ life in Springfield and how the city continues to inspire her.

Jonna Cooley: tell us about life as an out gay person in Springfield. Is there a strong sense of queer community here?

While Springfield is a capital city, it is small and surrounded by rural communities and farmland. I love that because I grew up in a small community and my grandparents were farmers. Springfield tends to have a conservative image, but I have to say that overall, I’ve found Springfield to be supportive of the LGBTQ community.

I think there is a strong sense of queer community here – in a small-town kind of way. On one hand, the LGBTQ community seems to be fragmented. There are a lot of people who hang out together, who do stuff together, but they may or may not participate in LGBTQ-focused events or even be out to others in the LGBTQ community. On the other hand, everyone seems to come out (pun intended) for PrideFest and there is always great support from all factions when Phoenix Center is in need of assistance. In addition, there have been successful gay bars in Springfield that seem to be another common gathering place.

How does Springfield standout from the rest of Illinois?

For a small city, we really have a lot to offer. We are the only city to have an LGBTQ Community Center south of I-80. There are Jonna Cooley's gay-friendly Springfield, Illinois in ManAboutWorld Magazineother groups and organizations, but there is no other not-for-profit facility to go to for services, housing, groups, counseling, etc. on a daily basis with full-time, professional staff.

In addition, Springfield is a clean and friendly city with a small-town feel. We have lots of history and great places to visit like Lincoln’s Home & Tomb, the Old State Capitol, the Dana-Thomas House, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Every time I go there, I say to myself, “I can’t believe this amazing place is in our great city!” We also have a lot of locally owned shops and food establishments that are amazing and unique, and great local theatre. At the same time, we don’t have a rush hour and you can get from one end of the city to the other in 15 minutes!

What are some places in Springfield that inspire you?

Having lived here 40 years, I still get a feeling when I drive down Capitol Avenue and see the capitol dome. My partner always says it never gets old, and it doesn’t. Just the sense of history here is inspiring—to think of all those who have walked the streets of Springfield before me, including Abraham Lincoln. I am always inspired walking or sitting in Washington Park or Lincoln Memorial Park where, regardless of the season, I find beauty in so many things.

What is it in Springfield that should entice LGBTQ travelers to visit. And how can LGBTQ visitors support the queer community when they visit your area?

Springfield PrideFest of course! It is free, family friendly, and lots of fun. Regardless of who you are, everyone should visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. It is a phenomenal experience as are the many other historical sites. LGBTQ visitors can support the queer community by visiting businesses and restaurants that are LGBTQ owned and/or supportive.

How would you like to see the LGBTQ community change or evolve, if at all, in your area? What’s missing? What could be better?

I would like to see us all work together to create an even greater LGBTQ community within our city. I would like to see more LGBTQ individuals get involved and be active and out in city and county government and in key positions to create change.

Tell us your perfect Springfield day.

An early morning visit to the amazing downtown Farmer’s Market, maybe grabbing breakfast with friends at D&J Cafe. Then going for a long bike ride on one of the many great trails or a walk at Lincoln Memorial Gardens, sitting at Café Papo or Vans and drinking an ice tea and reading a book. Finally, dinner with my amazing partner at one of our favorite places; maybe Nick & Nino’s or The Old Luxemburg.

What local tips do you have for people visiting Springfield for the first time?

Don’t miss the Lincoln Presidential Museum, Lincoln’s Home & Tomb and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House. Take a walk at Lincoln Memorial Gardens. Have a “horseshoe” (a local favorite food dish) or try the “fire brand” chili at The Chili Parlor.

Visit downtown Springfield. If in the summer, get tickets to the Springfield Muni—our great outdoor theatre. Whether you are here for a day or a week, do not eat at a chain restaurant. We have so many great local places.

More Gay-friendly Illinois

This is just one of our many favorite stories and hotspots to help you discover gay-friendly Illinois for yourself. Continue your exploration here.

Enjoy a more immersive Illinois experience in the magazine:

ManAboutWorld is an app-based travel magazine by gay men which provides travel inspiration and trip-planning information for all whether you’re in the LGBTQ+ community or are an ally. It’s built exclusively for mobile devices and is not available in print. We first published these articles in the spring 2019 issue and make them available here for your enjoyment. The app and issues are all free. Download it for Apple devices or Android devices.

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