About 1,200 supporters of Equality Illinoisamong them more than 40 elected officials and political candidatescrowded into the International Ballroom of the Chicago Hilton and Towers for the organization's 2015 Gala Feb. 14.
Three of the five candidates vying for the post of Chicago mayorincumbent Rahm Emanuel, Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and 2nd Ward Ald. Robert "Bob" Fiorettiwere among those officials working the room to meet constituents in the moments prior to dinner. Emanuel's voice had given out, and he nursed hot tea as he approached guests throughout the gathering.
Among those other officials and candidates in attendance were Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger; U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky; City Clerk candidate Marc Loveless [Loveless is currently not on the ballot, but said he is mounting a write-in campaign]; Chicago Commission on Human Relations Commissioner Mona Noriega; former state Rep. Ellis Levin; Maya Karmely, Consul for Public Affairs, Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest; 19th District Police Commander Elias Voulgaris; 43rd Ward aldermanic candidate Jen Kramer; Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon; 46th Ward aldermanic candidate Amy Crawford; 5th Ward aldermanic candidate Jocelyn Hare; 15th Ward aldermanic candidate Raymond Lopez; former state Rep. Tom Cross; Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez; Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown; Consul General to Germany Herbert Quelle; Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer; state Sen. Don Harmon; state Rep. Kelly Cassidy; state Rep. Ann Williams; state Rep. Scott Drury; state Rep. Greg Harris; Ald. Leslie Hairston; Ald. Deb Mell; Ald. Michele Smith; Ald. Tom Tunney; Ald. James Cappleman; Ald. Joe Moore; Springfield Alderman and Illinois Tourism Director Cory Jobe; East Aurora School Board candidate Alex Arroyo; U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley; U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly; City Clerk Susana Mendoza; and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn was also in attendance and, along with Emanuel, was greeted with a standing ovation from the audience.
Equality Illinois co-founder Arthur Johnston pointed out that, with the Illinois gay marriage law having taken effect in June 2014, this was "the first Valentine's Day that our love is treated as equal under the law." He further paid tribute to three political allies of the LGBT community who have passed in recent months: former Mayor Jane Byrne, state Rep. Rosemary Mulligan and Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.
He discussed how, under Byrne's watch, police raids on gay bars ceased and official city recognition of the Pride Parade began. He also spoke of how Mulligan, who was seriously ill, drove to Springfield to cast a deciding vote on civil unions in Illinois. Lastly, he shared a story about Topinka's shock when an embarrassed friend didn't want to be seen at a gay event, a moment that fortified Topinka's public advocacy for LGBT issues.
"Please remember these remarkable women, who stood with us, and for us, when it was much, much harder to do so," Johnston said.
Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov noted that "the idea that all love is equal is neither revolutionary nor new, but it sure took us a long time to get to this point. In Illinois, we began this century with no protections for LGBT individuals, not even from hate crimes, so nine years ago it was perfectly legal to fire someone from a job, just because of a perception that a person was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. We began this decade with no anti-bullying laws and no relationship recognition of any kind, not even the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital.
"Now, look what we have accomplished. Today, Illinois is one of the growing number of states that have hate-crimes protections, trans-inclusive non-discrimination laws, anti-bullying protection, and, as of last Junethank you, Gov. Quinnfull marriage equality."
Cherkasov further discussed Equality Illinois' work on youth safety in the months since the community's marriage victories.
"Equal marriage laws are great, but they don't help young people who are struggling with coming out from being bullied and having no one to turn to," he said. "Our coalition worked and passed a stronger anti-bullying law, because no one should be scared to go to school. We built a network of over a thousand clergy members in every part of Illinois, and helping them create safe spaces for struggling young people. This year, we're going to pass Rep. Kelly Cassidy's bill that bans and protects minors from conversion therapies. Young people need to know that they are born perfect and we will love them unconditionally for who they are."
Cherkasov also discussed Equality Illinois phone banks to defend its political allies in the 2014 elections. "We might not win every battleand we didn'tbut in the end, every single state representative, and all but one state senator, who had voted for marriage equality, Republican and Democrat, won re-election." Gov. Quinn, however, lost.
Emanuel, still hoarse, briefly said some remarks to introduce Michael J. Sacks, CEO of the investment firm, GCM Grosvenor, then turned his prepared remarks over to his wife, Amy Rule. Sacks was recipient of the 2015 Business Leadership Award.
"I feel like Maria Von Trapp, stepping in to save the captain," joked Rule, before Sacks took to the stage and described his advocacy history, much of which, he said, came about at Emanuel's behest. Sacks in 2013 organized an effort to convey support from Illinois business leaders for marriage equality to the General Assembly.
Sacks recalled meeting a gay couple hosting a fundraising event for President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and being impressed that one of their fathers was in attendance and showing so much support for their son.
"I thought to myself that night, that was the kind of father I wanted to be," Sacks said. "… I wanted to hang out with people who were willing to be in that room and were proud to be in that room."
TransLife Center of Chicago House was presented with a 2015 Freedom award. Roderick Hawkins of Chicago Urban League, last year's recipients, presented the award to Rev. Stan Sloan, CEO of Chicago House.
TransLife Center, Hawkins noted, came about "in response to the great need for culturally competent, expert social services specifically for transgender individuals. The Center provides comprehensive programming and support with health issues, housing, legal aid and employment assistance for transgender individuals impacted by poverty, homelessness and health issues. The TransLife Center provides critical life-changing services."
Hawkins added, "It is only appropriate that we honor TransLife Center at this gala titled 'Love is Love.' Love is defined in many ways, including service to the community, and embracing the disenfranchised."
Performer Lea DeLaria was 2015's other Freedom Award recipient. She kicked off her remarks in a raspy voice to poke fun at the mayor.
"How fucking great is Rahm?" she then exclaimed. "Amy, it's a really bad idea to promise a room full of gay men The Sound of Music then renege on it."
DeLaria later reflected on her upcoming marriage and the progress of the LGBT community later: "I surprised everyone including myself by asking Chelsea Fairless to marry me. She is the love of my life, and it's an honor for me, and a privilege that we have fought very hard for, to finally be able to stand next to the woman I love, while someone sings 'The Greatest Love of All'. … In my wildest dreams, if someone had told me, when I was 28 years old, that, before I died, I would be able to get legally married in the United States, I would have told them to take another hit of acid."
DeLaria told Windy City Times that the LGBT community needs to expend less energy infighting, so that it can better combat its foes in the religious right and elsewhere.
"Our progress is often us taking five steps forward, then seven steps back," she said. "The more we have coming to us, the harder they push back. We need to work harder at finding our similarities, more than worrying about our differences."