Pictured From left: Robbin Burr, Rev. Gregory Dell and Ald. Tom Tunney. Photos by Marie-Jo Proulx
The newly revived Chicago chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays ( PFLAG ) organized a town hall meeting with representatives of other LGBT groups Feb. 20. Held at Broadway United Methodist Church, the discussion drew a diverse crowd of parents, educators, and activists. In front of the speakers sat posters promoting 'Stay Close', PFLAG's new star-studded educational campaign.
The panel consisted of Brad Fuhr, Chicago chapter coordinator; John Larson of Northern Illinois PFLAG Regional Council; Art Johnston of Equality Illinois; Robbin Burr, executive director of the Center on Halsted; Bill Greaves of the city's Commission on Human Relations; Rev. Greg Dell; and Ald. Tom Tunney.
Fuhr acted as moderator and opened the session by reading a list of major developments of concern to the LGBT community on the local, national, and international scenes. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage; gay weddings in San Francisco; the proposed constitutional amendment to restrict marriage rights; the November election in which it is estimated that 23% of the LGBT vote went to George Bush; and last month's passing of the civil-rights bill by the Illinois legislature were only some of the many milestones mentioned.
Asked what stands out as the most important event of the last year, most panelists pointed to the state's new anti-discrimination law, which comes after 30 years of hard work by Illinois activists, advocacy groups, and legislators. PFLAG's Larson praised the elected officials who were able to cast aside prejudices and listen to the concerns of the LGBT community. He spoke of 'the impact of going to Springfield to tell your story.' Johnston credited PFLAG in particular for their instrumental advocacy work, saying 'their role cannot be overestimated.'
Burr and Greaves both referred to the positive portrayal of gay and lesbian couples and families on television as a result of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex partners. Burr said the images 'provoked conversations around the country' and will help 'change lives one heart at a time.' Greaves added that in Chicago, two neighborhood battles have created a lot of negative vibes in an attempt to undermine the gay community. He cited the attack on Circuit Nightclub and the efforts by adjacent Dakota residents to have the area declared 'dry'. Greaves said a similar situation developed on the South Side, where an elected representative pushed ( unsuccessfully ) for every district that has a gay bar to be voted 'dry' in the hope of solving the complex issue of the down-low.
Rev. Dell confided that for him, it was a non-event that had been the most significant. 'The silence of progressive forces within the religious community made public debate particularly one-sided,' he deplored. Dell warned against taking the religious right's power too lightly.
Looking at the big picture, Tunney cited the re-election of George Bush as his choice for most momentous event of 2004. Invoking 'the dispersement of AIDS funding' and the lack of resources for schools, and other public services, he said, 'this is a dark moment for urban areas.'
Fuhr then turned the discussion to the topic of gay marriage and civil unions. He asked the speakers for their thought on what the immediate and long-term objectives of the LGBT community should be, and whether there was room for different strategies. Johnston was categorical in his answer: 'There is no question that marriage equality is the goal.' Acknowledging that different groups use a variety of persuasion tactics, he added, 'if we're savvy about all of our approaches, we may get there sooner.' In the meantime, Johnston remains convinced that if a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage came to Springfield it would pass easily.
Greaves recommended that the gay community hit the marriage issue from all angles. He alluded to the protections and benefits children of same-sex couples have yet to be granted. Burr, a mother herself, who sometimes introduces her partner as her spouse, suggested that all same-sex couples try to do the same as often as possible, regardless of their legal status. Drawing on her previous career in the airline industry, she spoke of the important gains that can be made in a corporate environment when straight colleagues come on board to support domestic-partnership policies.
Tunney focused on the need to educate legislators and reach out to other segments of the population. 'We're not doing a good enough job coordinating with other minorities,' he insisted, naming seniors and African-Americans as potential allies.
The spiritual and ceremonial components of marriage were addressed by Rev. Dell. He outlined two pressing tasks LGBT individuals should undertake. On a personal level, Dell said it is time for gays and lesbians of faith to speak with their congregation and de-mystify what it means to have a loving relationship with a person of the same sex. On an organizational level, Dell believes that secular groups fighting for civil marriage must garner the support of a well-informed religious community.
Johnston said the conservative right has been courting and fostering the support of fundamentalists and evangelicals for years and it has produced very effective results. He gave examples of how the religious right portrays religious people as victims of the LGBT community.
The question period was dominated by the topic of local marriage legislation. Tunney was criticized by Andy Thayer of the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network for not pressuring Cook County Clerk David Orr into issuing marriage licenses to gay partners. Thayer defended his organization's grassroots approach as an essential part of the fight for equality. 'Civil rights are not always won with elected officials as the main tool,' he submitted.
Joining the debate, Johnston argued that it was not by accident that Massachusetts was the site of the first serious legal challenge in the struggle for equal marriage rights. The state constitution is amenable to change in a way that not many others are. 'The Illinois constitution would not support David Orr,' Johnston concluded. Greaves added that as an agent of the state, Orr is 'the wrong target.' Moreover, the anti-discrimination bill was in committee and Orr knew better than to jeopardize it by provoking opponents.
After beginning the year with a resounding accomplishment, it was clear from the speakers' words and demeanor that LGBT organizations are now looking to cooperate on a number of issues and benefit from the synergy. The meeting's overarching message was that groups at opposite ends of the strategic spectrum will need to unite and complement each other if the LGBT community is to be successful in reaching out to new allies.