Jacob Kniep had tears of joy when he watched a virtual city council declare Pride Week in Wheaton.
The proclamation read last week by Mayor Phil Suess felt like another affirmation of his work supporting and mentoring LGBTQ+ youth, a turning point in a city known as a conservative, religious bastion.
"I do see a shift, and it's refreshing, but I don't want to lose the momentum," Kniep said.
His efforts are most visible in downtown. For the first time, Pride art emblazons dozens of storefronts with vibrant displays of rainbow flags, hearts and welcoming messages.
The Downtown Wheaton Association commissioned Aurora artist Jose Sanchez for the window paintings, an outgrowth of #WheatonProud.
Kniep started the campaign to have businesses post stickers embracing the LGBTQ+ community, initially expecting about 10 to sign up.
Now, the number displaying #WheatonProud and rainbow-hued colors is 47 and growing, providing a burst of energy and inclusion during a Pride month disrupted by the pandemic.
"Sure, we can't meet in person, but know that you can go to these 47 businesses and feel safe and welcome and accepted the same way that you would if you were going to Pride," Kniep said.
A hairstylist living and working in Wheaton, Kniep founded the nonprofit OUTspoken Leaders last year to form LGBTQ+ discussion groups and other avenues of support. The idea was born when one of his young clients was afraid to come out to their mom.
Kniep knew he had to push forward with OUTspoken after Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 quashed an appearance by author Robin Stevenson. Official disinvited Stevenson after they objected to some of the LGBTQ stories -- profiles of trailblazing gay and transgender rights activists -- in her new children's book.
"There was a lot of a fallout to that, a silent fallout," said Maggie Buckley, an OUTspoken board member who is married to openly gay Wheaton City Council member Lynn Robbins. "There are kids that because that happened, they kind of went back into their shells again, and they're afraid to come out, afraid to be themselves, and we're just trying to show people, especially these kids, that you can be a leader in the gay community."
The 18-year resident recognizes evolving attitudes in Wheaton, but Buckley and Kniep see the business displays as a springboard for building more awareness and acceptance. Kniep said he lost several clients after he told them he was gay and as he was starting OUTspoken.
"In general, there's a different vibe I think in downtown Wheaton, and I think people want it, but there's still a lot of people that have not come out and said anything," Buckley said.
Stevenson, the author of "Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change," called the displays a "sign of progress" and praised Kniep and OUTspoken.
"To see so many businesses stepping up to show their support for the local LGBTQ+ community, through these gorgeous and powerful window displays, is just fantastic," she said. "I know many students, librarians, teachers and parents have been working for change."
Stevenson said she also was delighted to see District 200 release a statement for Pride Week expressing its commitment to inclusive, supportive schools and encouraging people to learn more about LGBTQ+ history and rights.
"I hope that this visible celebration of Pride this year helps to show young LGBTQ+ people in Wheaton that they have the support of many people in their own community," she said. "For me, it is a good reminder that we never know what ripples might be sent out by one small action, and that it is important to always speak up for equality and justice."
The Downtown Wheaton Association first reached out to #WheatonProud businesses about adorning their storefronts for Pride Week, and the response grew from there.
"It turned into a really united effort on the part of the business district," Executive Director Elle Withall said.
Sanchez will decorate two more restaurants -- Sogno and Adelle's -- Wednesday. "We want to try to continue to make art for a better place for a better community," he said.
Kniep hopes the window displays pave the way for a Pride festival in Wheaton next year. His longer-term goal for the nonprofit is opening an LGBTQ+ community center.
"I know I've got a lot of work that I can't wait to start working on," he said.