For the last decade, two missions have been at the center of my life: my family, where Danny, my husband of 10 years, and I are raising our daughter. And, as the chief executive of Equality Illinois for the last seven of those years, I’ve worked to build a better life in our state and nation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and our families. This latter role, however, is coming to an end.
As might be expected over the years, those two worlds have frequently merged, as occurred several months ago when our daughter excitedly marched to a new school to start kindergarten. Danny and I held her hands, trying to cover up our own nervousness about how she would fit into a new environment with new classmates. Once inside, unlike her fathers, she displayed no worries as she ran off to make friends; meanwhile, we shuffled into an auditorium for our first parents assembly.
Much of that morning for me was a blur, but one thing stood out: The principal shared that before the year began, teachers participated in a training on how to help students understand and process gender identity concepts.
Wow, how far we’ve come, I thought. Me, the refugee from Azerbaijan, and Danny, an immigrant from England, married for 10 years, adopting a daughter in 2011, and now listening to a modern, forward-thinking school embracing life’s diversity.
This is a world I dreamed of when I first took the helm of Equality Illinois, then in a small storefront in Chicago’s Boystown. Now in 2016, Equality Illinois is celebrating our 25th anniversary from our Loop headquarters with a branch office in Central Illinois and membership rolls exceeding 75,000.
During its quarter-century Equality Illinois has helped to add protections under the state’s non-discrimination laws for LGBT individuals; we’ve strengthened the state’s hate crimes law and anti-bullying law; and we led the fight to legalize civil unions and then marriage for same-sex couples.
Just last year Illinois banned so-called conversion therapy, a discredited practice that purports to “cure” gay minors from their sexual orientation and which medical professionals consider harmful and ineffective. We also ensured that transgender individuals can leave binding instructions for how they wish to be recognized in funerals and burial. We extended protections from institutional vandalism, for the first time, to LGBT community institutions.
Sadly, but with no regrets, my years at the helm of Equality Illinois come to an end this week. At these junctures in the movement, Equality Illinois, and my life, this is a natural transition for both me and the organization.
Still, as I look around at what is happening, LGBT individuals are under attack in state legislatures across the country including here in Illinois. Just a few days ago, North Carolina enacted a heinous law that would force transgender men to use women’s bathrooms and transgender women to use men’s bathrooms. Pushing against the bill were not just LGBT activists and our progressive allies, but also businesses who argued that the law would create a hostile climate in the state, pushing away talent and opportunity.
And right here in Illinois, a nearly identical bill awaits a decision by the state General Assembly. It is accompanied by another misguided piece of legislation that would allow businesses to use religious pretext to deny service to single parents, same-sex couples, and unmarried partners. We’ve rejected these laws as a society before, but there are politicians who just won’t give up.
Many thought that after we won the battle for equal marriage, we won the war, and in fact some LGBT advocacy organizations in other states have closed down. Equality Illinois will continue its strong advocacy on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Illinoisans and our families for which it has become known.
There are children still bullied at school, transgender individuals who face a higher risk of violence, and in the majority of states there are no basic LGBT protections, not even from workplace discrimination. Indeed, the road ahead may be as challenging as the one that got us here.
So, where does Equality Illinois go from here? The answer is what it has always been: we must fight until we’re all equal. The LGBT community is as diverse as the rest of our society: we are Latino and black and white, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim, service members and veterans, in every generation, in every corner of our state. That diversity is our strength and our call to action.
We will not be able to root out homophobia and transphobia on our own. And in the same spirit in which we fight for LGBT rights, we have to defend the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our society.
This may be my last week at Equality Illinois, but I am committed to pursuing social justice. This organization, stronger than ever, goes on, as do I, to a new challenge helping children get a sound start in life.
I hope our daughter will grow up in a world where justice and fairness prevail.
Bernard Cherkasov, who lives in Chicago, leaves his post this week after seven years as CEO of the LGBT-advocacy organization Equality Illinois.
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