Actress Laverne Cox, NBA player Jason Collins and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black were among the advocates on hand Oct. 15 as Chicago House and Social Service Agency hosted its 6th annual Speaker Series Luncheon on Gender, Race and Economic Disparity at the Chicago Hilton, 720 S. Michigan Ave.
The discussion with Cox, Collins and Black was moderated by Gautum Raghavan, former LGBTQ advisor to President Obama and currently vice-president of policy at the Gill Foundation.
Among those officials in attendance were U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, state Reps. Kelly Cassidy and Greg Harris and Illinois Dept. of Human Rights Commissioner Rocco Claps.
The discussion focused on the widening gaps in economic equality, especially among LGBTQ Americans. Chicago House CEO Rev. Stan Sloan said, "This is a conversation that is needed." Sloan has long emphasized the role inequality has played in worsening the outcomes of numerous socio-economic challenges facing the LGBT community.
Cox opened by expressing her gratitude for her recent success following her starring role on Orange is the New Black, but reminded the audience that her experience is far from the norm for most transgender Americans.
"I feel so blessed to stand before you, a proud Black transgender woman, living her dreams in America," she said. "It's so important to remember that, just because I was on the cover of Time Magazine does not mean that transgender people have much to overcome."
She further noted that many are living in a "state of emergency," pointing out that they had increased chances of experiencing violence or harassment, as well as abject poverty; many transgender persons subsist on incomes of less than $10,000 a year.
Cox said she was all too familiar with economic uncertainty. Just a year before she began work on Orange is the New Black she was broke and working as a waitress, and just barely escaped getting evicted from her apartment.
"I feel blessed that when the first of the month comes, and I can make my rent," she added.
She called on persons at all levels of the economic spectrum to consider the systems of oppression that can squelch the hopes and potentials of most Americans.
"The work of these systems is to make us feel that we are not worthy," said Cox.
Black echoed Cox's remarks by challenging the largely affluent audience to consider, "If you can afford a ticket to this event, you have it pretty good here."
He further spoke about a Southern states speaking tour he'd been on the previously week, wherein he visited several states that have no equality organizations that fight on behalf of their LGBT citizenry. In those states, gay marriage was not a huge priority; rather, simple safety was instead.
"We're starting to make sure we have these [resources] in place to protect them," said Black. "Even if it's reported, it's not looked into. Ninety percent of folks on the coasts know someone who's LGBT. In the South, it's more like 50 percent. They don't even know if there are people [nearby] who are like them. It's like San Francisco was in the 1940s."
Collins spoke of the importance of solidarity within the LGBT community, and noted his good fortune in receiving support from his teammates after publicly coming out. He also noted that he became part of a gay-friendly church community in Los Angeles.
"We need to support those organizations, and those people, that are bridge builders," said Collins.
All the participants called on audience members to consider how they can be integral parts of taking down barriers between different parts of the community.
"While philanthropy is important, we do have to work to dismantle these systems," Cox said. "… It's important to acknowledge how these things work."
Black added, "I'm telling you Chicago … . You've got the power. You've got the voices. You've got the dream. Don't let the dream of Harvey Milk die here."
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