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Awake Illinois event canceled at Des Plaines Theatre amid opposition from LGBTQ+ advocates

Chicago Tribune

Friday, January 20, 2023  |  Article  |  Robert McCoppin

A February event that LGBTQ+ groups planned to protest at the Des Plaines Theatre was canceled Thursday after the venue operator said he was subject to attacks and threats online.

The Feb. 8 speakers panel was to be hosted by Awake Illinois, a group that opposes gender identity and sexual orientation instruction in schools, and which has criticized kid-friendly suburban drag shows as “perverted.”

Numerous people had criticized the event at Tuesday’s meeting of the Des Plaines City Council, with some calling Awake Illinois a “hate group.”

The city owns the theater, but it is operated by Ron Onesti, president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment. Onesti told the Tribune that he didn’t seek out and doesn’t know the people in Naperville-based Awake Illinois, but supports free speech, and would have rented the venue out to pro-LGBTQ groups as well.

“I do not take sides,” Onesti said in a written statement. “What saddens me was the amount of hate that surfaced during all of this. People mailing bullets to me, asking their neighbors to fill my garbage cans with dog feces, countless hateful calls and outwardly targeting the Des Plaines Theatre, wishing its demise.”

Onesti said it “sickens” him to be called homophobic, saying that years ago he hosted one of the first civil unions at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, which he also operates.

Des Plaines Mayor Andrew Koczkowski said he wouldn’t have scheduled the event, but that the city could not infringe on the First Amendment right to free speech.

The event was billed as the Coalition for Kids, with speakers including Shannon Adcock, Awake Illinois founder and chair of Moms for Liberty DuPage; Jamiee Michell, founder of Gays Against Groomers; and Terry Newsome, founder of Parents Involved in Education, who has been criticized by the Southern Poverty Law Center for associating with the “hate group” the Proud Boys.

Former Republican Lt. Gov. nominee Stephanie Trussell was also listed among the speakers, and sponsors included the Chicago Log Cabin Republicans.

Awake Illinois became the center of controversy last year when Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas spoke out against “hateful rhetoric” by one member after the group called Gov. J.B. Pritzker a “groomer” for adopting new sex education standards for the state.

The group also called “perverted” a kid-friendly drag show at Uprising Bakery and Cafe in Lake in the Hills. The cafe’s owner temporarily canceled but then held that event after saying it was the target of threats. A man was charged with smashing the cafe’s window.

Awake Illinois did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Adcock advocates on the group’s website for “academics over activism” in school.

“We must work together to stop an entire generation of children from being molded — via public schools — into illiterate, sexualized activists,” Adcock said.