Longtime LGBTQ+ activist Julio Rodriguez was the main honoree at the fifth annual Pride Kickoff Brunch held by Equality Illinois at Venue West, 221 N. Paulina St., June 4.
Among those officials on hand to help honor Rodriguezwho is also the state department of commerce and economic opportunity office of employment and training deputy directorwere Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton and Illinois Speaker of the House Chris Welch.
Equality Illinois CEO Brian Johnson opened the event by describing a personal incident illustrating the stakes of Equality Illinois' work. An anti-LGBTQ+ incident happened involving him and his family a few weeks ago, when his five-year-old daughter came home from school with her nanny, and encountered the words "No Fags" in chalk on the sidewalk outside their home.
"When our nanny called me at work to tell me this, it was the first time in seven years at Equality Illinois that I cried in the office," said Johnson. "I work every day for the liberation of queer people, so that people like my daughter can have the feeling of safety and admiration for themselves and her family, and to know that our homethe place where we want her to feel the safestis the place where she saw for the first time in her life a homophobic slur."
Johnson added that, as a result of this anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry, virtually his entire neighborhood, which is largely made up of straight/cisgender people, responded by putting up rainbow flags and other pro-LGBTQ+ messaging.
"We were the queerest street on the North Side of Chicago, and you know that is saying something," said Johnson. "I tell you this because I think at a time when our community is so much under attack, it can be really tempting to center the voices of our haters in that conversation and I refuse to do that. … We as queer people … are magical, resilient and brave. We have always been here; we are here and we will always be here."
That day's honoree, Rodriguez, was inducted into Chicago's LGBT Hall of Fame in 2004 and was interviewed alongside his now husband David Sinski for the Chicago Gay History website in 2007. Rodriguez also co-founded ALMA and has been the board president for close to 30 years. ALMA originally stood for Association of Latino Men for Action when it was founded in 1989; now it stands for Association of Latinos/as/xs Motivating Action.
Rodriguez has also been active with the Midwest Hispanic AIDS Coalition; AIDS Foundation of Chicago; National Latino/a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organization LLEGÀ“; and Center on Halsted, among other LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS organizations. Among Rodriguez's previous positions were as the first Latinx member of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations' Advisory Council on LGBT+ issues, and as a two-term Illinois Department of Human Services Commissioner.
Equality Illinois Deputy Director Mony Ruiz-Velasco first spoke about Rodriguez's three decades of work on behalf of Latinx LGBTQ+ Chicagoans, at the end of which Rodriguez was greeted with a standing ovation.
"It means a lot to me to get this particular award from a group of peers who work hard to advocate, fight against discrimination and give voices to individuals and communities that oftentimes feel they do not have one," said Rodriguez. He admitted that, when coming out in his early twenties, he did not think doing this work was where his life would end up.
Rodriguez also recognized the co-founders of Equality Illinois, Art Johnston and Rick Garcia, whom he said "taught me early on the importance of showing up and truly engaging in the work." He further recalled the creation of ALMA during the AIDS pandemic as a way to celebrate culture and advocate for the community's needs while developing their own leaders.
Mayor Johnson, who said he was moved by Rodriguez's remarks, also received a standing ovation.
"Our best road to liberation is a road we travel together," said Johnson. "Wherever oppression exists it is our responsibility to ensure that liberation becomes the ultimate goal."
He reminded the audience that members of marginalized groups adopt the mindset of the oppressor, including faith leaders, but said his Black Pentecostal pastor father did the opposite by befriending Julie and Vanessa, a lesbian couple, many decades ago.
"An accountability system we can create is one that makes sure that love exists, and [that] love conquers every single aspect of our existence," said Johnson.
Stratton spoke of existential hazards facing LGBTQ+ community members in less tolerant parts of the nation.
"Pride is a celebration of those living and thriving as their true authentic selves, but let us not forget those siblings who are not safe to be their authentic selves," she said. "…There are legislators across our nation who are working to dim the light and joy of our gay, bi and trans siblings that they bring to our communities in the form of dangerous and harmful legislation."
Stratton added, "In Illinois, we say gay," and noted that the Illinois legislature has been passing several LGBTQ+ protections, among them the mandatory LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum law; the Patient Provider Protection Act, which ensures full access for both gender affirming care and reproductive health needs; and legislation making it easier to change one's gender and name on their birth certificate.
Welch, like Stratton before him, reminded the audience that "we say gay" in Illinois. He added, "We believe in LGBTQ+ rights in Illinois. We believe in trans rights. … When we organize, we win. In Illinois, love will always win."
Equality Illinois Board Chair Justin DeJong and Board Member Butch Trusty introduced Stratton and Welch respectively on June 4. Music was provided by DJ Dapper.
See www.equalityillinois.us/ .