CARBONDALE — Though only one lawmaker attended, an LGBTQ town hall in Carbondale this week provided some education and frustration to community members in this southern Illinois city. Only State Rep. Terri Bryant, (R-Murphysboro) showed up although others were invited.
The town hall had a good attendance with about 50 people arriving but it was tense. Bryant’s record on LGBTQ issues is not good. According to local TV station WSIL, Bryant had voted against the Inclusive Curriculum Bill and stated her opposition to quite a few issue important to the LGBTQ community during the town hall.
Jonny Gray, a host for the Isn’t It Queer radio show on WDBX, was a co-moderator for the town hall. He said the town hall went as well as it could have.
“It’s not an election year; no one (at the state level, anyway) is seriously campaigning yet,” Gray said. “So this was less about any of that and more about the human side of the political process where representatives meet with their constituents. Everybody was committed, I believe, to making their positions clear while showing we could still talk to each other.”
Jerry South of Chester said the turnout was surprising large, with the parking lot full by the time he got there.
“I think the only reason she came was so she could preach,” South said. “But she said she wouldn’t vote for anything that violated any of her evangelical beliefs.”
There were some surprises during the town hall. Though Bryant’s positions are known to the community, hearing them directly was a different thing.
“One thing she mentioned was that she was in favor of protecting the religious objection of doctors from treating transgender people,” South said. “That if a doctor doesn’t want to treat a member of the community, then they should be able to refuse. That was the most shocking comment. We knew she was conservative, but were surprised she would admit to that.”
That prompted a few people, including Gray’s husband, to leave the town hall.
“When an audience member reminded Bryant that faith-based exemptions were also used in the 50s and 60s to promote segregation and resist civil rights, Bryant couldn’t (and wisely didn’t) deny it, but pivoted to a ‘race is not the same as gender/sexuality’ position,” Gray said. “Implicit in that response, then, was support for the kinds of systemic oppression of LGBTQ people that POC faced (and to be honest, still face) in the 60s and before.”
However, another surprising moment was when an audience member was able to push back on using religion.
“She was getting frustrated with us,” South said. “She thought she’d take an easy question from the last one, but at 17 years old, he held his own, told her scripture.” South said that the teen, Tré Graham, is very religious and planning to attend seminary.
“Here was a local LGBTQ youth, POC, and member of the Unitarian church looking her in the eye and asking her why she did not love her neighbor as herself,” said Gray.
Gray said people came to the town hall prepared for no lawmakers to show up. And they did say it was to her credit that Bryant did come when none of the others did, including U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro).
“We wanted her and our other political representatives to see us,” said Gray. “We wanted them to see our local organizations and the good work they are doing for our community. We wanted them to see our passion and our resolve. At one level, I suppose we wanted them to see that as a warning; make us your adversary at your political peril. But also, with a glimmer of lingering hope, for them to see potential rather than threat—our ‘agenda’ is not so threatening and in many ways we wanted to illustrate our values align with values Bryant shares.”
The Rainbow Cafe, an LGBTQ youth center, was also part of the concerns. Gray said people wanted to show that they weren’t going to concede on their children’s safety or any ground on religious convictions. South, for example, isn’t gay himself, but does have an LGBTQ child.
Even with the tension, both Gray and South think the town hall worked out well.
“I don’t think we changed her mind at all,” South said, “but it was still a good experience for everyone who showed up and to show what we’re up against.”
“ ‘Good,’ especially in politics, is rarely a single act,” said Gray. “It is always the accumulation of efforts. This wasn’t the whole building, but it was one act of building. As references to U.S. Rep. Mike Bost showed, we are tired of politicians that won’t even speak to their constituents or take an hour to hear their concerns. It’s a sad state of affairs, but the LGBTQ community is still, in this new century, thirsty for the opportunity to be heard. Even if the answers are bad, I’d rather have the confrontation than the erasure.”
The Rainbow Cafe livestreamed the town hall on their Facebook page. You can watch the whole event below.