Longtime businessman, activist and philanthropist Fred Eychaner received a standing ovation from the hundreds of people attending the Lambda Legal Bon Foster benefit April 23 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Eychaner was given the Lambda Legal National Liberty Award, the first time the honor has been presented outside of New York or Los Angeles.
Bon Foster's bequest of "everything he had"according to Lambda Midwest Regional Director Jim Bennett helped establish the Midwest Office of Lambda Legal more than 20 years ago.
The event was a celebration of Lambda Legal's work in Illinois and nationally, not just on marriage equality, but on a myriad of LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues. Speakers included Bennett; Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart; Camilla Taylor, Lambda Counsel and Marriage Project National Director; John McGowan, national leader of presenting sponsor Northern Trust's LGBT and non-traditional practice; and event co-chairs Ray Koenig and Johnny Song, who introduced Eychaner.
In his speech, an emotional Eychaner looked back on more than 40 years of LGBT progress, from the drag queens fighting back at Stonewall, to those in ACT UP fighting for their lives against HIV and AIDS, to the lesbians who gave blood when gay men could not, to the hatred spawned by Reagan-era Republicans, to Irwin Keller and Jonathan Katz of Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting fighting for rights in Chicago in the 1980s, and to the present battle for marriage. "Always remember, never forget," he chanted at several points.
The theme of the evening was "happiness." In looking back at the progress made toward the legal recognition of LGBTQ relationships over the past year, McGowan said that the work of Lambda Legal had made him very happy. Throughout its history, the Midwest Regional Office of Lambda Legal has brought landmark cases in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Many of those cases have set new precedents in the struggle for LGBTQ equality.
This past year was no different. A federal lawsuit in Ohio sought and won recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages. Emergency relief was granted to an Indiana same-sex couple who sought recognition of their marriage. A transgender womanwho was fired from her job in South Dakota after announcing her transitionwas granted a settlement that affirmed Title VII protection against discrimination for trans* employees.
"We are on our way," Cathcart said. "I was in Iowa for the five-year anniversary of the Varnum decision. At that time, Iowa was the third state in the country in which same-sex couples could marry. That was only five years ago. We now have 17 states with another half dozen victories in federal district courts in places ranging from Oklahoma to Texas to Virginia to Kentucky, Utah and Michigan."
McGowan noted thatin Illinois this past Fridaythe Cook County clerk issued the one thousandth marriage license to a same-sex couple. "I am blown away," he said. "I don't like to count my chicks before they're hatched, but we can all see where this is going."
"Our work is always done by telling stories," Bennett said. "Amazing, courageous plaintiffs are willing to share their lives and illustrate a problem and an injustice that has to be corrected."
Among the plaintiffs present were Jim Darby and Patrick Bova. According to Lambda Legal, the Darby v. Orr case was instrumental in achieving legislative victory for Illinois marriage equality in November. Patricia Ewertthe wife of celebrated activist Vernita Gray who died in Marchreceived an ovation. Gray and Ewert were granted an emergency marriage license that opened the door for marriages to begin in Cook County prior to June 1, 2014. The case brought by Brenda E. Lee and S. Lee Edwards "helped to keep the door open" according to Bennett, while Taylor noted that the Gray v. Orr case has now been cited as justification for striking down marriage bans in states such as Indiana and Ohio.
"Yesterday we filed a new marriage challenge in Georgia," Cathcart said. "So five years after bringing marriage equality to the Midwest, we are determined to bring marriage equality to the south as well."
Cathcart noted that there are currently 65 marriage challenges proceeding at all court levels across the country. "The number of cases will continue to grow," he said "The number of victories will continue to grow. It is highly likely that the Supreme Court could have a marriage case on its docket in its next term. I find it almost impossible to imagine that there will not be a U.S. Supreme Court decision by June 2016."
However, Cathcart added that the work of Lambda Legal does not begin and end with marriage equality. "We get over 7,000 calls a year at our help desks," he said. "The largest number of calls we get are about employment discrimination. We are soon going to be in the very odd position of having states where same-sex couples can marry and where you can be fired from your job without recourse for being lesbian and gay."
Koenig told Windy City Times that he expects Lambda Legal will face such discrimination head on alongside a myriad of other challenges in the coming years; part of a relentless effort towards total equality. "There's a huge part of our community that we will be addressing," he said. "The issues facing our trans* brothers and sisters are monumental both inside and outside of Chicago. The discrimination they face is just criminal."
For Eychaner, the evening offered a chancenot only to celebrate successesbut to reflect upon how they were reached in a spirit of unity and togetherness. "The grassroots process," he recalled. "Fighting in the trenches, one phone call at a time. There was a time when most Americans did not know that they knew an LGBT person. The process of coming out; coming out to friends, our family, our coworkers has lead us to where we are today."
Video by Tracy Baim and Sam Abeysekera
Windy City Times: John McGowan at Lambda Legal Bon Foster Awards at the link:www.youtube.com/watch .
Windy City Times: Jim Bennett at Lambda legal Bon Foster Awards www.youtube.com/watch .
Windy City Times: Camilla Taylor at Lambda Legal Bon Foster Awards at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .
Windy City Times: Jim Bennett on Bon Foster at Lambda Legal Event at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .
Windy City Times: Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart at Bon Foster Awards at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .
Windy City Times: Fred Eychaner receives Lambda Legal Bon Foster Award at the link: www.youtube.com/watch .