Discover Peoria had only removed the video featuring a Black trans artist… Despite assurances otherwise, they understood the removal to be an act of erasure, not a simple mistake.

By Taylor Michael 

A decade ago, Alexander Martin moved to Peoria, Illinois, from their mountainous West Virginia hometown, because “the vibes were right.” The mid-sized, midwestern city in America’s heartland was affordable, especially for an artist. Even on a fixed income, the multidisciplinary visual artist, drag performer, and adjunct professor of art history and studio art at Bradley University could create, live, and have fun. So, they laid down roots, creating their community, co-founding a nonprofit to support Black artists, and developing an artist residence for historically marginalized artists. Martin has not regretted the choice. While living and working in Peoria, they’ve enjoyed watching others start businesses, community organizations, and collectives to “make things happen” in the city known for containing the most average Americans. And so, at the end of summer 2021, they readily agreed to participate in a marketing campaign to encourage more people to move to Peoria. Martin enthusiastically agreed to tout their love of Peoria, but was shocked when even after the success of the campaign, they learned that some folks weren’t on board with the kind of “mainstream American” Martin represents.

Discover Peoria, which is the Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, commissioned McDaniels Marketing to film three videos profiling artists in the area who have been able to find work, develop friendships, and discover fun things to do in the city. Uploaded in September 2021, Martin’s video includes clips of the artist at work in their studio, performing as a Drag artist under the name Artemisia VanHo, and interviews where they describe why they prefer Peoria over a larger city.

“There’s so many people who are trying to better the community and provide resources for those who live and work in the area, and I wasn’t expecting that,” said Martin in the video.

Peoria County, which includes the communities of not only Peoria, but also Dunlap, West Peoria, and Mapleton, has always been a politically liberal county surrounded by far-more conservative central Illinois. Both in the recent presidential election and the 2020 midterm, just over 50% of voters selected the Democratic candidate. However, in the last decade, the area has become known as an affordable haven for LGBTQ+ people, which has increased a perceived difference with the surrounding rural areas. Recent statewide legislation in Illinois, protecting the right to an abortion, barring discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, and securing trans-inclusive healthcare, made the state a highly favorable place to live, according to independent think tank the Movement Advancement Project. The LGBTQ+ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index scored Peoria slightly higher than the average United States city. Progressive policies combined with affordability make the county and city an ideal location for progressive and historically marginalized artists like Martin.

“Peoria is a pretty safe place for LGBTQ folks to live, work and play because there is such a vast network of everything from social activities to awareness events,” said Nicole Morrow, the treasurer for the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Peoria Proud.  For example, Lit. on Fire, a woman, disabled, and LGBTQ+-owned independent new and used bookstore, opened in 2015 and has become a hub for community meetings. Owner Jessica Stephenson regularly hosts or promotes events with Jolt Harm Reduction Center, a nonprofit yoga studio, and Peorians for Reproductive Healthcare. Artemisia VanHo, Martin’s name while performing in drag, often hosts story hours for children, sometimes partnering with Peoria Proud.

Despite being a haven for LGBTQ+ people, Peoria has long suffered an unrelated economic decline. The construction and mining equipment company Caterpillar Inc. moved its headquarters from Peoria to Chicago in 2017, costing the city jobs and residents. However, the decrease in property values created an opportunity for some looking for a more affordable city. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic Tik Tok content creator Angie Ostaszewski, a friend of Martin’s, has influenced an estimated 300 people from around the country to move to Peoria, highlighting the area’s politics and affordability. Since the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020’s George Floyd protests, residents and transplants have invested more in the city, forming more organizations and groups to help new and marginalized residents access resources, Martin said, adding that the “arts communities are trying to cross-pollinate, collaborate more, and support each other’s events.”

Some of the activities which make Martin such an important contribution to the community include their assistance in founding the Peoria Guild of Black Artists (PGOBA), an organization established in 2020 to uplift and support Black artists in the city, and that has partnered with Ameren Illinois Energy Efficiency Program since 2021, hosting a fall block party. In February 2022, the Illinois sustainable energy company partnered again with PGOBA, funding three murals, one of which Martin designed, relating to sustainability and community life. While Martin doesn’t explicitly list any of these initiatives and policies by name in the campaign, they speak exuberantly about Peoria as welcoming and full of opportunity for folks looking to change their community. And it resonated with viewers. The film crew told Martin that the video had high engagement numbers in the first few weeks after its premiere. To date, on Discover Peoria’s Facebook, the ad is the most popular video uploaded.

Therefore, Martin was confused when they heard from the marketing company at the end of 2021 that their video was no longer available on Discover Peoria’s YouTube and website. Thinking the removal was an error, Martin did not follow up on the matter as McDaniels worked to fix the issue. But, in March 2023, they heard again the video still was not on YouTube or the website. This time, a friend working in Discover Peoria informed Martin that the video had made a board member or director uncomfortable and therefore was removed.

“And that was the nail in the coffin,” Martin said. Despite assurances otherwise, they understood the removal to be an act of erasure, not a simple mistake.

Martin did not like the optics. Discover Peoria had only removed the video featuring a Black trans artist. Especially now, as state and local governments pass legislation policing Drag performers, limiting trans-inclusive healthcare, and banning books written by marginalized authors, this mistake should not be dismissed as a technical or administrative error.

“Especially in this current political climate, you censored a Black and trans voice,” Martin said. “I don’t care about the video going back up; I want you all to do better.”

Within two days of Martin posting about the matter on social media to their nearly 2,000 Instagram and over 2,600 Facebook followers, Martin received a call from Discover Peoria executive director JD Dalfonso, who told the artist that the office wanted to resolve the matter. Dalfonso confirmed that Martin received payment, reassured them that the video would be reuploaded soon, and expressed that Discover Peoria did not have ill intent with that previous decision to remove the video. Martin elaborated that the video was not the only issue. They didn’t need the exposure. Martin has received recognition for their work as an artist and advocate in a 2022 PBS Short Film Festival documentary. In 2020 Peoria Magazine named Martin a 40 Leaders Under 40 honoree.

In the conversation and a follow-up email, Martin asked for a public acknowledgment and apology. Whether or not the actions were purposeful or not, Martin maintained that the incident could cause harm. They wanted the tourism board to assure LGBTQ+ and Black residents that regardless of intent, the video’s abrupt removal in the current political climate was irresponsible, and that Discover Peoria supported marginalized communities.

Discover Peoria’s follow-up statement said the organization did not tolerate direct or indirect discrimination and expressed concern about the “speculated homophobic allegations.” The nonprofit blamed the video’s disappearance on a change in marketing strategy and offered links to the Facebook post and their website’s media gallery (the media gallery link is no longer active, and the video is not available to the public on the website.) Martin found the response frustrating. The emailed letter did not address their specific concerns or seek to amend the situation.

From there, Martin worked to draft a petition and letter they presented to the Peoria City Council on April 25, 2023. Discover Peoria’s revenue comes primarily from local tax revenue. Martin thought residents should have a say if the organization misrepresented or censored residents whose tax dollars fund the nonprofit tourism board’s budget. At the meeting, Martin called for a public apology, an official audit of Discover Peoria’s content, and a plan to better represent the city’s diversity or risk losing their tax-generated funding. The petition amassed over 550 signatures, over half of those coming from current and former Peoria residents, business owners, and artists.

“I would like an apology to the community, acknowledging that [Discover Peoria] supports and uplifts all voices in the community, not just a specific demographic, not just a specific area code,” Martin said at the City Council Meeting.

An informal audit Martin performed of Discover Peoria’s social media, blog, and video content found more coverage of St. Patrick’s Day, golf courses, and archival photos than cultural events, Black or Women’s history month posts, and LGBTQ+ related events. And blog and social media posts seemed to feature cities in the metropolitan area, like Dunlap or Morton, which are predominately white, wealthy, and conservative, over Peoria. Martin hopes an official audit will improve transparency about how the city is marketed compared to the surrounding suburbs.

But lack of inclusion for marginalized communities is not a new issue in Peoria. Despite Black people accounting for over 25% of the population, over 40% of Black families live at or below the poverty line, according to 2023 data from the City and Peoria County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity. In 2019, Governing Magazine published a series investigating racial segregation in central Illinois. Reporters found Peoria had the sixth highest level of segregation of any metro area, and the schools were the most segregated in the country, beating out cities like Boston, Detroit, or Little Rock, which have had historic battles over federally-mandated school integration. Before the 1968 Fair Housing Act, zoning regulations allowed developers to keep “undesirable” affordable housing units, which primarily housed Black families, far from residential neighborhoods with better school districts and a higher percentage of white families. Discriminatory lending practices barred many Black families from taking out mortgages and loans to leave or renovate their communities.

Concerns over property values have continued to keep Peoria segregated. When the Peoria Housing Authority released their plans to build a thirty-unit building in a northern, predominately-white part of the city to community feedback in March 2014, most residents rejected the plan. They worried about an increase in traffic, noise, and crime and a decrease in property values. A similar project in another predominately white neighborhood met equally fervent pushback because residents were worried about overcrowding children in the Dunlap school system.

This racial divide among Peorians seems reflected in Discover Peoria’s content choices, according to freelance graphic designer and PGOBA member Morgan Mullen. She agrees with Martin that the image of Peoria that Discover Peoria presents often excludes Black and LGBTQ+ communities in favor of the white, affluent suburbs. It’s why Mullen signed the petition. Discover Peoria’s decision to remove Martin’s video was a “slap in the face” to Mullen. The move sends a message that it’s okay to work in Peoria, but that people should invest in the predominantly white communities outside the city center instead. Even with Discover Peoria publishing pages to promote Black-owned or Hispanic-owned businesses, she adds that there was no substantive community outreach.

Nicole Morrow, who signed Martin’s petition, echoes the belief that partnerships between local organizations, such as Peoria Proud and Discover Peoria, would be a step toward resolution. She suggested that the partnership could resemble Peoria Proud’s relationship with the Peoria Chamber of Commerce. Over time, the two entities have built a relationship with trust and mutual respect to ensure resources reach LGBTQ+ business owners and residents.

Speaking about their relationship with the Chamber of Commerce, Morrow said that “We’re adding LGBTQ businesses to the chamber so that they can benefit from all of those things a chamber membership provides and asking how do you make your boards diverse, make sure your staff are trained to handle issues and support diversity and inclusion efforts.”

She notes that cultivating a diverse staff and board of directors would help combat the conservative mindset, which pressures employees to remove a video when a board member becomes “uncomfortable.”

Jessica Stephenson agrees with this sentiment, saying that letting the issue go is dangerous in the current political climate. “If we let this slide, then we are sending a message that we are okay with Black and trans voices being silenced in a world that is already rife with that behavior,” said Stephenson.

As of this article’s publishing, the video is live on YouTube but unlisted, so not available through search and on Discover Peoria’s channel homepage. The video is also still unavailable on the website. Discover Peoria has not responded to a request for comment. McDaniels Marketing has not responded to a request to comment.

Photo credit to the Peoria Journal Star.

Taylor Michael is an arts and culture writer with publications both forthcoming and in All Arts, Artsy, The New York Times, Belt Magazine, Hyperallergic, and The Observer. She is an adjunct professor of freshman writing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and an associate editor at the literary magazine A Public Spaces.