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As Chicago prepares to host DNC, former delegates reflect on LGBTQ+ inclusion at previous conventions
by Jake Wittich

This article shared 13014 times since Mon Feb 19, 2024
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When Mark Ishaug, now the CEO of the mental health advocacy Thresholds, was a delegate at the 1996 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, representing the larger LGBTQ+ community was "critical," he said.

The convention, where Bill Clinton was nominated for a second term as president, took place three years after the historic March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. LGBTQ+ people were also in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and fighting to prevent Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

"It was a difficult and in some ways excruciating time," Ishaug said. "We needed out, loud and proud representation to combat what we were up against."

Ishaug was among a handful of Chicago-area LGBTQ+ people who attended the DNC that year in a coordinated push for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Democratic party's platform. Other delegates included the late Chicago community leader Marcia Lipetz and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy.

Since 1996, LGBTQ+ representation at Democratic National Conventions has continued to reach new heights. The most recent DNC, when President Joe Biden was nominated in 2020, had more LGBTQ+ delegates than any party convention in history, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

And the 2024 convention, happening Aug. 19-22 at the United Center, could break that record, said Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs at Victory Fund, a political action committee dedicated to electing LGBTQ+ public officials.

"This representation is power," Meloy said. "Having LGBTQ+ people at the convention gives us a say in what the platform says and allows us to make sure people understand our community and its issues."

'A seat at the table at a time we were on the menu'

Ishaug, Cassidy and Lipetz were among at least 100 LGBTQ+ delegates from around the country at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, Ishaug said.

"There was a very concerted effort that year to ensure we were represented in that convention," said Cassidy, who worked for state Sen. John Cullerton at the time. "We were a sort-of counter-programming to the debates around Don't Ask, Don't Tell and same-sex marriage that were all over TV."

Cassidy said their presence at the DNC gave LGBTQ+ people "a seat at the table at a time we were on the menu."

Preparing for the DNC involved months of work, Ishaug said.

"Leading up to the convention, we were organizing, canvassing, phone banking and registering people to vote," Ishaug said. "I remember working with Kelly and Marcia to get signatures of our LGBTQ+ folks for an ad in the newspaper supporting Clinton."

At the convention, Ishaug recalled "long, but spectacular days" that started with a gathering of the entire Illinois delegation. This is where local LGBTQ+ delegates could brush up against other political leaders throughout Illinois, he said.

There were also meetings among LGBTQ+ delegates from across the country, Ishaug said. Their presence helped move the Democratic party to better support their causes.

"Our presence and our actions were critical," Ishaug said. "The president was a, quote unquote, 'friend,' and we needed to push him and the administration to do more and keep the promises they made when we first elected them in 1992."

LGBTQ+ activist Rick Garcia has been to nearly every DNC since 1992, which is when Chicago drag queen and activist Joan Jett Blakk made it to the DNC with her historic bid for president. Jett Blakk wasn't allowed into the convention in drag, so Garcia helped her in and walked her to the bathroom where she could get dressed up, he said.

"Some of us in the Illinois delegation nominated her," Garcia said. "It was a stunt, and one of the many things that put the LGBTQ+ community on the map. It was shocking and entertaining, but she was speaking truth and giving us visibility."

Actions like that, along with other efforts to include LGBTQ+ people at the DNC, have pressured the Democratic Party into adopting more pro-LGBTQ+ stances, Garcia said.

"The only reason that the Democratic Party has had such good positions on LGBTQ+ issues for decades now is because we participated," Garcia said. "We were there, we voiced our concerns and we did what we had to do to change the complexion of the party."

LGBTQ+ inclusion around the convention

Rocco Claps, a gay man who was for several years director of the Illinois Department of Human Rights, was chief of staff to the 1996 convention. He said the event's planning committees were focused on rebranding Chicago since it last hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1968, a year that saw riots and political turbulence.

"The city was very driven by the desire to look completely different," Claps said.

That strategy involved including Chicago's local businesses in the convention process, allowing them to also benefit from having such a large-scale event in their city, Claps said.

"We looked at every aspect to bring economic development beyond the typical places," Claps said. "We worked really hard on getting minority vendors around the United Center, and what I loved about the effort was it always included the LGBTQ+ community."

This year's host committee has also included LGBTQ+ businesses in its vendors.

The event's two planning bodies—the Chicago Host Committee and the Democratic National Convention Committee—unveiled the event's vendor directory and venue map Thursday. The resources include more than 1,700 businesses, people and venues visitors are encouraged to use while in town.

The list includes 98 businesses and 16 venues that are LGBTQ+-owned.

"A great thing about the convention coming to Chicago is we have a vibrant and strong LGBTQ+ community," Garcia said. "They're going to be able to see our businesses and organizations like Brave Space Alliance or ALMA, and understand how we're part of the fabric of society here."

Cassidy, who is also a Democratic committeeperson for the 49th Ward, said she's focused on making sure people in her community have opportunities to volunteer or participate in the convention's offerings.

"My focus is on ways folks can engage with the DNC, whether they're delegates or not," Cassidy said.

For Gail Morse, a Chicago attorney who was a delegate at the 2004 and 2012 conventions, the events are an opportunity to better engage LGBTQ+ people in the Democratic process.

Participating in the two conventions invigorated Morse to take what she had heard from the Democratic Party into the larger community to rally voters, she said. That's why it's important to have LGBTQ+ delegates, she said.

"There are committed LGBTQ+ activists who will go out and rally the troops," Morse said. "They'll leave the convention and carry its message back to their communities."

Like Cassidy, Morse hopes to see more opportunities for people who aren't delegates to participate in DNC-related events, she said.

"I wish there was a way there could be more access to the convention because we need more ways to rally voters and having a big old party is one way to do it," Morse said.

See .

This article shared 13014 times since Mon Feb 19, 2024
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