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Carbondale virtual LGBTQ town hall brings local politicians in

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While no area legislators showed up for Equality Illinois’s Virtual LGBTQ Town Hall with the Rainbow Cafe LGBTQ Youth Center, both local and state elected officials did participate to learn about issues facing the LGBTQ community.

Panel members included Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi, Marion Mayor Michael Absher, Jackson County Treasurer Liz Hunter, State Rep. Lamont Robinson (D-Chicago) and Vern Cooper of the Southern Illinois University (SIU) LGBTQ Resource Center. Johnny Gray, a host for Isn’t It Queer on WDBX community radio was the host.

As mayors, Alongi and Absher have the most potential for direct impact on LGBTQ people in their communities. Neither could point to specific instances of things in their communities that had helped queer people directly. However, they also both said they wanted to learn about the issues that face the community and what they could do.

Absher said that his city, Marion, does have a conservative reputation and that there is a perception that conservatives are close-minded. “I would hope that at least when people come to talk to me, I’m open-minded enough to listen to other ideas,” he said.

Absher and Alongi both called on members of the LGBTQ community to step up and get involved in local government more than once. Tara Bell of the Rainbow Cafe pushed back a bit on that, saying that people in the community already don’t feel safe even without getting involved.

“One of the ways to make people feel more safe is for the town make a public statement of being inclusive,” Bell said, pointing out Carbondale had made such a statement. “You need to break the ice.”

Robinson, who became the state’s first out LGBTQ Black legislator in 2019, said there are things that can be done, even when not in an municipal executive position. He still meets with city and local leaders to find out what can be done and working to find out where his support can help.

“Look at state and city laws to make sure they can be strengthened,” Robinson said.

Cooper also added creating systems to let LGBTQ pursue their rights would be great. “A fairness ordinance would help,” he said., “We’re every where and we’re hiding in plain sight.” He has seen a disconnect in the services that SIU gives to students on campus and what’s actually available in the surrounding communities, especially with transgender health care.

“I do understand it’s difficult to know where to start, but there are a lot of things that can be done,” Cooper said. “Just increasing the level of accessibility.”

Hunter, who was appointed country treasurer in 2019 and elected to a full term in 2020, got involved in local politics after the 2016 election through Women’s United Network. She said she was attending because she had heard no local legislators would attend and felt there should be representation from southern Illinois elected officials. She pointed out that Illinois has been passing progressive laws in recent years, giving LGBTQ people decent protection, at least at the statewide level. But that there was still a long ways to go.

“We are making progress on trans issues,” she said, ” but I looked and found today that there are more than 80 anti-trans bills across the country. This is a record year for that.”

Mike Ziri, director of policy for Equality Illinois, said that Illinois is an “anchor of equality” in the Midwest, but there is still more to do. He pointed out two bills currently working through the General Assembly, the REACH Act and HIV Decriminalization Bill, to show that there is still work to be done.

The town hall, which had more than 40 people signing on, went well over the original hour and a half scheduled time, but those on the panel and organizers felt it went well.

“This has been a listening and learning experience for me as mayor,” Alongi said. “My eyes have been opened.”

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