Des Plaines Theatre operator cancels conservative groups' event after outcry
The CEO of the company that operates the Des Plaines Theatre has canceled a Feb. 8 event booked at the city-owned venue by conservative groups after LGBTQ advocates encouraged the city to stop it.
Ron Onesti did not explicitly give a reason for the cancellation in a statement Thursday night, but he referred to the controversy and suggested he and the theater received threats.
"What saddens me was the amount of hate that surfaced during all of this," he wrote. People threatening to mail "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. And how would that have been good for the community?"
On Wednesday he had defended leasing the venue to the groups behind the Feb. 8 event that included DuPage County-based Awake Illinois, which has been criticized for making queerphobic social media posts and other controversial statements. That came after LGBTQ advocates criticized the groups, especially Awake Illinois, and some of the scheduled speakers.
Onesti described himself as a proponent of the First Amendment and said Awake Illinois has the right to hold meetings and discuss the issues it pleases. "It's not for me to be judge and jury," Onesti said.
Several city officials, including Mayor Andrew Goczkowski, said at Tuesday's city council meeting that they shared LGTBQ advocates' concerns about the event but said they couldn't demand that Onesti cancel the gathering. But he and other officials also said they'd seek to talk with Onesti about the types of events and groups the theater hosts.
"There's no place for politics in a building that's publicly owned," Goczkowski said.
Called "Out of the Echo Chamber: Coalition for Kids," the event was open to anyone for a $5 donation. Awake Illinois' website described the event as "a diverse group of advocates (gathering) together to transform the conversation on issues affecting children."
The speaker lineup included Jaimee Michell, founder of a group called Gays Against Groomers; Stephanie Trussell, recent Republican candidate for lieutenant governor; Shannon Adcock, founder of Awake Illinois and a leader of Moms for Liberty DuPage; and former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Matt Dubiel.
Awake has railed against suburban drag events, medical treatments for transgender youth and the state's new sex education standards, among other topics.
As he said Wednesday, Onesti in his statement Thursday said he hadn't taken sides in the controversy or the content of the event.
"This was a rental by an independent organization that sought a venue to present their diverse group of speakers," he wrote. "Neither I nor our Des Plaines Theatre had any involvement whatsoever in the production or coordination of this event. I had no deep knowledge of the subject matter, or how controversial it may be. It was to be an innocent rental and nothing more."
"People began accusing me of supporting anti-LGBTQ+ events which made me sick to my stomach. I hosted one of the first Civil Union ceremonies at my Arcada Theatre in Illinois 10 years ago this week. I was the best man at the wedding of a gay couple; my mom was their first dance. Homophobia is a disease of which I have not been afflicted."
He wrote that it was never his intention to be political personally.
"I also did not intend to put the City of Des Plaines or any of its Council Members in any compromising situation. I am proud of what we have brought to the City of Des Plaines."
The Des Plaines city council was divided Tuesday night about the event taking place, with one member saying the Des Plaines Theatre was not renovated and reopened at public expense for political reasons, while others said free speech must be considered, as well as opposing viewpoints.
Awake Illinois has defended the event and criticized those wanting it shut down.
"Why would anyone take issue with an event that is protecting children from indoctrination and sexual exploitation? #groomers," the group tweeted Wednesday.