Advocates keep pushing equality forward in Illinois

As Illinois’ neighbors pass extreme anti-LGBTQ laws and policies, people work to keep the state a sanctuary.

More than 100 people gathered at the Illinois State Capitol on Wednesday, April 26, to advocate for pro-LGBTQ legislation. 

Illinois is one of only a few states to pass laws specifically protecting gender-affirming care and reproductive services and has passed a shield law for healthcare professionals who provide the care. Among the focuses of the day’s advocacy were in favor of the Equitable Restrooms Act (HB 1286), and Healthcare Cultural Competency (HB 2280 and SB 2427), among other legislation.

HB 1286 would allow businesses to have multi-user gender-neutral restrooms and gives guidance for them. It’s currently in the State Senate.

HB 2280/SB 2427 would require cultural competency training to be part of existing continuing medical education for healthcare professionals in Illinois. Both versions of the bill are currently in committee.

(From left) State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), Equality Illinois CEO Brian Johnson, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) and EI Deputy Director Mony Ruiz-Velasco during the press conference. Photo by Ali Hart

The morning started off with a press conference with legislators and representatives from organizations that had helped organize the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Day, particularly Equality Illinois.

Liz Stovall of Equality Illinois said, “In the spirit of diversity, today we have more than 100 LGBTQ+ people and our allies in Springfield to demonstrate our collective power, increase our visibility, and make our voices heard.”

“We are honored to be here and we ask all legislators to hear from the community, to join in our hope and our courage, and to demand that Illinois becomes the greatest state that she can be and affirm all of her people,” said Brian Johnson, Equality Illinois CEO. 

Andrea Smok, director of advocacy at Access Living, stated “Access Living is very proud to be here today to support House Bill 2280, and Senate Bill 2427, there are countless people with disabilities that identify as LGBTQIA who are impacted by incarceration, who are immigrants, and who have collectively failed to secure appropriate healthcare for all of their needs precisely because of doctor bias and that cultural competency. We know as people with disabilities, no matter what other identities we may claim, we know what it is like to be dehumanized by medical professionals, and we know there is proof that medical professionals do not believe we have or deserve quality of life, they do not understand what quality of life means – not only to people with disabilities but to all of the groups that have represented to you here today.” 

In the coming weeks, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) will be the only out gay member of the Illinois House, joined by her seatmate and fellow out gay member State Sen. Mike Simmons. 

“We will be the smallest LGBTQ caucus in decades,” said Cassidy. “So it makes days like today where our LGBTQ siblings and allies show up in force that much more important. So I am so grateful to Equality Illinois for facilitating this access for our members around the state to be here and meet with their legislators and help elevate and amplify the important work that we’ve been doing here in Illinois. I’m so proud that we are a place that people are looking to come to. I’m proud of the work we’ve done to make that happen, and there’s always more we can do and we have to be watching that horizon right? The horizon is that folks are coming here, what do we do to smooth their transition into Illinois? What can we do to ensure that they have a warm hand off and make it at home as easily as possible and I am here for that work.”

Wes Davis, development director of Equality Illinois, talks about his experiences living in Florida. Photo by Ali Hart

At noon, LGBTQ+ individuals and allies from across the state gathered in the capitol rotunda for speeches from legislators and advocates, such as Equality Illinois. 

“I am so proud to be the first openly LGBTQ person elected to the Illinois Senate, representing our communities everyday,” said Simmons (D-Chicago). “We know that the LGBTQ+ community is so diverse in all of its resplendent beauty and richness, people from every ethnic background, people from so many different spectrums of the rainbow community. And so I’m honored to be here with you and I’m honored to speak truth to power with you because there is no power that is more robust than the power of the community and our community has always been in the forefront of this fight.”

Wes Davis, development director of Equality Illinois, discussed his move to Illinois from Florida. ”I’m not from Illinois, I’m from Florida – everything that you’ve heard about us is true, everything you’ve read about us is true, and I do apologize for the state, but needless to say as a recovering Floridian I know what it is like to have the far right anti-equality, anti-family folks at the table and at the head of the table, and I’m just gonna say it last year was incredibly tough before I transitioned to Equality Illinois. I served as a statewide field director at Equality Florida. 

“The Don’t Say LGBTQ Bill was like a never ending nightmare, not only for the state of Florida but for so many states across the south and across the Midwest.” he added. 

After hearing from speakers, advocates and volunteers gathered on the steps in the Capitol Rotunda for a group photo before dispersing into the halls of the Capitol to speak with their legislators and representatives. 

“We’re here because we want people to be safe in Illinois,” said Jo Greep from Homewood. 

Greep said she took the day off of work and brought her daughter Penelope to the Capitol for such an important advocacy day. “We know there are people moving to our community. They’re bringing their queer families because we have a good culture here, and we want to keep it that way.” 

Penelope Greep, also discussed her building the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) at her school, “It was pretty difficult, but the teachers around us are really supportive, and I’m really glad we started it.” 

Participants in LGBTQ Advocacy Day at the Illinois Statehouse pause for a group photo. Photo by Ali Hart

Rana Hodge from Chester had chaperoned her GSA students to the Capitol for the day. When asked if she or her students were able to reach their legislators, Hodge said, “We didn’t really get to talk to anybody very much. We talked to some assistants, and we dropped off some papers, but we didn’t actually get any face-to-face time with anyone today.”

“It definitely is stressful. I went to go meet a representative and I was sweating bullets, and I only got to speak with the Secretary. But I feel like I am doing a really good thing today, and I’m very happy to be here,” said TJ Lyons, also of Chester. 

Julia Venus said “I feel like we’re stronger in number. And just us being here representing the more southern part of a liberal state does wonders for all members of the LGBTQ+ community,” 

Venus added, “You know, it also helps that we have a lot of people from Chicago here that are already accustomed to that all the time. But here, it feels like wow, there’s other people like us! It’s not just cornfields!” 

“This is just a phenomenal turnout,” said Equality Illinois Policy Director Mike Ziri. “It shows that LGBTQ+ community across Illinois sees what’s happening and has turned out here to keep Illinois moving forward.”

The anti-LGBTQ laws being passed in neighboring states were in the minds of those at the Illinois capitol. 

“There’s a real risk of returning, colloquially, to the stone ages,” Malina Arnold of Chicago said. “It is really important for Illinois to remain a bastion of safety for those states that are in peril now.”

Missouri, Iowa, Indiana and Kentucky have all passed laws that ban gender-affirming care for youth. Missouri even took it a step further with the state’s Attorney General Andrew Bailey issuing a rule that would ban most care for trans people, youth and adults. Only a court order has kept it from being enforced so far. They’ve also passed laws that restrict including LGBTQ in schools

Illinois, on the other hand, has passed laws that protect access and healthcare professionals in gender-affirming care and requires LGBTQ inclusion in both sex education and history. 

“Illinois has to be the backbone of the country right now and make sure those safe spaces we have to offer stay.” Arnold, a board member for Howard Brown Health, said.

“Even beyond being a sanctuary, we want to model policies that other states can follow,” said  LaTonya Mailey of Chicago. “So that we can spread out the safety net for LGBTQ folks across the country.” 

Mailey also serves as executive director of Affinity Community Services, an LGBTQ seniors service organization. The healhcare competency bill is important for them because many LGBTQ seniors have had to go back into the closet as they’ve aged and need senior services. 

“That’s why we’re here to make sure our legislators and House people are going to follow and make sure these laws we’re trying to help lobby for today get passed so other places can do the same thing, added Julo Flores of Chicago. Flores is a member of the Equality Illinois community advisory group.

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