Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov has seen and experienced a lot over the past few months. In an interview with Windy City Times, he discussed Illinois' civil-unions measure, German Chancellor Angela Merkeland an innovative, very provocatively named voter-registration campaign.
Windy City Times: Let's talk about "Vote Naked," which is very provocative, of course. [ Note: The campaign was launched in conjunction with Roosevelt University and Rock the Vote. ]
Bernard Cherkasov: It does sound provocative and, in a way, that was the intent. Elections are so important, and [ voting ] is the citizens' most tangible democratic right and is the most important opportunity to express their wishes and priorities. Unfortunately, in our society, citizens don't exercise that right in the numbers that they shouldand we thought, "How can we grab their attention? What can we do to make the process easier for them?"
We thought we'd capitalize on the changes in the Illinois law that allow people to vote from home for any reason. And we thought, "It's so easy you can do it from the privacy of your own home. You can do it naked."
WCT: Looking at the timing of this campaign, is it geared toward any election in particular, such as the gubernatorial race?
Bernard Cherkasov: Well, the reason we launched the campaign is because we want it to coincide with the absentee ballot process. Election authorities can start processing applications as of [ Sept. 23 ] . We really wanted to time the campaign with the deadlines in the absentee process. So it had more to do with the electoral regulations than with any one election [ although ] there is a lot at stake for our community in this election cycle. There are clear-cut choices for members of the LGBT community and our allies.
Endorsements have not come out yet, but Equality Illinois PAC has already endorsed Gov. Quinn.
WCT: Why was Quinn endorsed over Bill Brady and Scott Lee Cohen?
Bernard Cherkasov: I think the PAC went with Gov. Quinn is because of his comprehensive approach to the problems facing the state of Illinoisin particular, regarding LGBT rights and key equality issues. He has stated his positions regarding progress in the area of LGBT equality, his plan for helping [ LGBT ] individuals secure equality. He believes in full equality for LGBT individuals in Illinois.
WCT: Let's switch subjects a bit. You met the German chancellor [ recently ] .
Bernard Cherkasov: I did. I was very honored to meet Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel. She was [ honored ] for her humanitarian work, for her commitment to equal rights in Germanyin particular, her work on German-Jewish relations in light of what happened in World War II and the lessons being incorporated into the treatment of minority groups.
In her acceptance remarks, she talked about those lessons and how she takes those lessons to heart. She also talked about her commitment to equal rights for all minority groups in Germany. She didn't single out the LGBT community, but she talked about those lessons and being guided by them.
WCT: I recently read that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and his partner entered into a civil partnership.
Bernard Cherkasov: They do have openly gay members of the cabinet. That's fantastic [ news ] . Merkel is helping lead Europe by saying that you can be openly gay and be qualified to lead the largest economy in Europe in the 21st century.
WCT: You also went over to Germany, in connection with the Anti-Defamation League.
Bernard Cherkasov: That's right. I was very, very honored when the Anti-Defamation League offered me a chance to participate in the Leadership Mission. I met with government officials and community organizers to learn how modern Germany builds on the lessons of its history, and how it's become a leader in respecting all of its citizens. We also met with Secretary Volker Beck, who is openly gay and is one of the most powerful members of Parliament.
WCT: Did you get any sense of what Germans thought of the LGBT-rights movement in this country?
Bernard Cherkasov: In many ways, they were surprised Americathe land of the freeis still lagging on so many critical issues. Many people were simply stunned that the United States, which is in the middle of two wars and for whom the military is such a priority, won't let openly gay, fully qualified people serve. They just couldn't understand whywhen American soldiers and openly gay soldiers [ from other countries ] served side by side in such places as Afghanistan, with no lowering of moralethis was happening.
Also, with employment discrimination, they were surprised we hadn't made more headway. They couldn't believe that people can be fired [ based ] on the perception of being gay, lesbian or bisexual.
WCT: Bringing it back home to Illinois, what is the status of the civil-unions bill?
Bernard Cherkasov: The bill is still before the legislature, but the legislature is not in session. [ In the meantime, ] we have been working to educate the people of Illinois why civil unions are important, why people need full equalitybut, ultimately, it's in the hands of the legislature.
WCT: Do you feel like you've made any progress with the legislature from, say, a year ago?
Bernard Cherkasov: One thing we've done is that when we hear personal stories from people across Illinois about being denied access to a partner in a hospital, for example, we always encourage these folks to reach out to their state senators and representatives about why equal protections are necessary. And every time state senators and representatives hear those stories from constituents, it brings us closer [ to equality ] . I don't have a crystal ball, but I do know that we keep educating and hoping that it will be resolved very soon.
See www.EQIL.org for more information about Equality Illinois. Find out more about "Vote Naked" at www.VoteNakedIllinois.org .