‘Family is the bedrock of our lives’ — Equality Illinois CEO

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Bernard_and_Danny_wedding.jpg

Bernard Cherkasov (left) and Danny M. Cohen celebrated their wedding in 2006 at Chicago’s Temple Sholom. But they had to get married in Toronto, Canada, because they couldn’t do it in Illinois.

Over 12 years ago, as a law school student couch-surfing at friends’ flats in London, I met Danny. He was a youth worker, helping children of inner-city immigrants engage meaningfully in society.

Our first conversation was over our obsessive love for food and how we navigate Jewish dietary laws. Our courtship involved monthly trips back and forth across the “pond,” but to build our lives together, we knew we’d have some difficult choices to make.

OPINION

The United States was my adoptive home — 14 years earlier, my family had fled here to escape anti-Semitic persecution in Azerbaijan. While we journeyed for months covering thousands of miles across countries, my parents dreamed of making it to America for its promise of fairness and equal opportunity. I love this land and could never imagine moving away.

But America’s laws felt differently about me and my partner: no state allowed gays to marry and the Defense of Marriage Act explicitly prohibited the federal recognition of same-sex relationships. Unlike heterosexual couples in a similar position, I would not be allowed to sponsor Danny to move here to be with me.

Danny enrolled in graduate school and moved here on a student visa. In 2006, we were married by our rabbi in our synagogue on the North Side of Chicago, with hundreds of our family and friends witnessing our love and commitment. We signed the ketubah, the traditional Jewish wedding document, and together stepped to break a glass. But we had to travel to Canada in order to tie the legal knot, coming back to our state and country, where we were still strangers in the eyes of the law.

Even after our wedding trip to Canada — just as after every trip to visit our family in London — we returned to stand in separate immigration lines at the airport, as though we were perfect strangers. In fact, our marriage could have been used as a reason to revoke Danny’s student visa.

Family is the bedrock of our lives. And as our family grew — we adopted our daughter in 2011 — so did our worries. Whenever we went on family trips to Indiana, Michigan or Florida, we faced a patchwork of laws that refused to recognize our family’s existence and dangerously put us at risk, especially if one of us needed medical care and the other would have to make medical decisions.

Year by year, our little family inched toward greater recognition. A few states started performing same-sex marriages. Some states, including Illinois, recognized our marriage as a civil union. These were all important milestones as the national consensus for the freedom to marry steadily grew, a movement I am a part of as CEO of Equality Illinois.

Then, the Supreme Court upended the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited the federal government from recognizing our marriage, followed a few months later by the Illinois General Assembly enacting marriage equality here at home.

Still, we could not travel east to west across the U.S. without crossing in to states that would not recognize our family. Our rights came in and out like bad cellphone service.

Our reach for a national recognition of our marriage and all same-sex marriages never abated, coming to a stunning and happy end on Friday.

We pause to celebrate this weekend — what better way to observe this moment than with a million of our closest friends at the Chicago Pride Parade.

But this victory is only one milestone. Marriage is a significant but only one part of peoples’ lives. And when it comes to equal treatment and fundamental protections, LGBT individuals still face an uphill battle.

From protecting LGBT youth from conversion therapies and school bullying to ensuring workplace equality, we have a lot of work ahead. In most of our neighboring states — in fact, in 29 states around the country — a gay person can now bring the photo of her or his newly recognized spouse to work and then be fired for being gay the next day. Ending that discrimination is the next step in our fight for full equality.

Bernard Cherkasov is CEO of Equality Illinois, the state’s oldest and largest LGBT advocacy organization.

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