The first Chicago Pride Parade in 1970 saved Richard Pfeiffer’s life.
He said he was a depressed, closeted teenager in therapy. But seeing the ragtag crowd of queer hippies publicly proclaim their identities stirred a change in him, beginning a lifelong commitment to gay liberation.
“It was a horrible era to be gay,” Pfeiffer told WBEZ in June. “Practically everybody was in the closet. And I just saw this group of people marching. There were about 100 people who looked like me. It just brought me out of my funk and … I just grew as a person.”
After 45 years as Coordinator of PRIDE Chicago and organizing the pride parade, Pfeiffer died Sunday at age 70.
On Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised Pfeiffer’s “tremendous contributions.”
Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame chairperson Gary Chichester was shocked to hear his longtime fellow activist died.
The two came up together in the gay rights movement, Chichester said. Pfeiffer had been a member Chichester’s Chicago Gay Alliance. That early gay rights organization founded Chicago’s first gay community center at 171 W. Elm St.on the city’s North Side.
“He was an amazing person,” Chichester said. “One of the reasons he ran the parade so well is because Rich understood the community and its diversity from leather people to drag queens to people of color.”
Ald. James Cappleman, 46th Ward, marched in the parade the year he came out as gay. The parade was a space for him to be himself, he said.
“That was such an impactful moment for me, just as it is an impactful moment for anyone who is coming out,” he said. “We are forever thankful.”
He remembered Pfeiffer as a man who disliked compliments. Pfeiffer preferred to be the background, he said.
But before the parade drew the estimated 1 million it does today, Pfeiffer was much more visible.
Chicago Reader publisher and gay historian Tracy Baim said when she was first reporting for the Windy City Times in the mid-1980s, Pfeiffer was one of the few gay people willing to put his name and photo in the newspaper. His position as a realtor and entrepreneur gave him freedom to be open when others could not be.
She said during the 1980s when the parade ended with a rally in Lincoln Park, Pfeiffer would often address the crowd.
She said unlike other poorly managed pride celebrations marred by infighting and money problems, Chicago’s Pride Parade was a reflection of the humble man he was.
“What it was, was consistent,” she said. “It was just this Midwestern, hardworking parade.”
With the parade now out of Pfeiffer’s control, it may be influenced by interests that want to bring the parade from the North Side to downtown, she said.
As a young student, Pfeiffer founded the first gay student organization at a Chicago city college. He was an early volunteer for the social service agency Horizons Community Services and became president in the mid-1970s. Today, that organization is known as Center on Halsted, a community center in Boystown.
Pfeiffer also founded the Gay Speaker’s Bureau, an organization that brought conversations about gay life to schools, churches and universities. At its height, Pfeiffer would give up to six talks a week.
Baim said these talks likely prevented several closeted people from committing suicide.
Pfeiffer advised mayors Harold Washington, Eugene Sawyer and Richard M. Daley as head of the Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues.
Pfeiffer’s funeral will be at Drake & Son Funeral Home in the Edgewater neighborhood. The time and date have yet to be announced. He is survived by his husband, Tim Frye.
Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ.