Three years after the Illinois Human Rights Act amendment that bans sexual-orientation and gender-identity discrimination went into effect, the Illinois Department of Human Rights ( IDHR ) has seen its fair share of complaints being filed. Windy City Times talked with IDHR Director Rocco Claps about the complaints as well as domestic-partner benefits.
Windy City Times: How are things going with the amendment and filing?
Rocco Claps: What I find really interesting—and you should know that when I talk about numbers, I have three different stacks in front of me and we keep numbers by fiscal year—is that no matter if you look at fiscal year or calendar year, we see a distinct increase. So far, within 2009, 5 percent of all the charges coming in [ involve ] sexual orientation and gender identity, which is a big increase for us; originally, it was about 1 percent in '06.
WCT: And what do you attribute that increase to?
RC: We have an increase in charges coming in, which I [ attribute to ] the economy. Typically, the most vulnerable employees in a workplace setting are the ones who are victimized first, fired first or treated differently when the economy gets bad. We've seen that in repeated patterns over the years, so that's not so surprising to me. What is surprising is that we're at 5.3 percent—and I do believe that's because people know that we exist.
WCT: Well, I want to go back to something you said: You talked about a correlation between filing and economic hardships. So, when people have jobs, do they tend to not file and possibly [ put up with ] possible harassment?
RC: Well, it's very individualized, but we know that people are getting laid off more often now. People have less options; in other words, they can't find jobs [ as easily ] . That may prompt people to file, so that they can possibly get back pay or their jobs back. But we find that individuals in the workplace who are more vulnerable to discrimination tend to be the first ones to be fired first.
WCT: OK. I'm no sociologist, but what does that say about employees and employers?
RC: Frankly, I'm much more prompted to feel discrimination if I don't have options; unfortunately, people tend to fire those who are different from [ themselves ] or who they don't like—and if I'm one who is fired or laid off, and I don't have an immediate ability to find another job, I think that my life is more affected by it so I might try to get some sort of remedy for it.
WCT: The other bases of discrimination [ besides employment ] include real-estate transactions; public accommodations; sexual harassment in higher education; and financial credit. Could you explain that last one?
RC: Basically, it's issuance of a loan, but keep in mind that real-estate transactions covers business transactions as well.
WCT: How long does it take to process a complaint?
RC: We're in pretty good shape right now. Our average number is about 320 days right now; we're required by law to process a claim in 365 days, and that's from walking in the door to a resolution. And about 33 percent of our charges are settled within the agency; we offer mediation throughout so the parties often come to terms within the process of investigation.
WCT: How much evidence does a person need? Obviously, the more evidence you have, the better off you are.
RC: It varies by what they're charging. But in our typical charge—employment—we tell people to bring in comparables. If a gay man is alleging harassment, you should be able to [ show ] that he is being treated differently than a straight man who does the same job he does. In employment cases, showing comparables often means getting records from the employer.
WCT: I don't know if you heard about this case in England, but a straight man was allowed to file a homophobia-based charge against his former company because his co-workers attacked him with gay slurs...
RC: You should know that the bill that the governor signed in 2005 does say "perceived sexual orientation," so that would be valid in Illinois as well. So it can be someone who isn't gay but who is treated like they're gay.
WCT: When you and I talked in '07, something you said regarding outreach was that you felt that you all could do more downstate. How has that progressed?
RC: Well, we need to do better at it. We've done a number of informational workshops around the state, and sexual orientation is always part of those [ events ] because it's part of the law. We've partnered with Equality Illinois in a number of things here in Chicago and a few places downstate, but we need to do a better job of that. It's always a challenge when you have budget restrictions and you're teaching people about what's available to them.
I do think that it's getting through, which is why we have an increase in charges. We've had an increase every year since the bill became law.
WCT: To our knowledge, have you received a substantial number of gender identity-related complaints?
RC: As a snapshot of fiscal year '09 ( from July '08 to today ) , we've had 89 sexual-orientation charges and, of those, 11 are related to gender identity. But we've also had 2 bisexual, 67 homosexual, 2 heterosexual and 3 perceived orientation.
Visit www.state.il.us/dhr or call 312-814-6200.