After 15 months of a pandemic, civil unrest and racial awakening, are we in a new normal?

Theses treacherous times have opened minds.

SHARE After 15 months of a pandemic, civil unrest and racial awakening, are we in a new normal?
Buckingham Fountain at Grant Park

Trajai Bradshaw and her son Taamir Smith take a selfie on May 22, 2021, in front of the Buckingham Fountain at Grant Park, which was turned on for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pride 2021 is done. The LGBTQ community has wrapped up its annual June celebration of gay liberation.

This was a Pride month like no other, as we struggle to emerge from a global pandemic.

Last week I moderated a virtual program, “Pride in the Time of COVID-19,” hosted by the Illinois Holocaust Museum. It featured prominent leaders in Chicago’s LGBTQ community.

After 15 months of a pandemic, civil unrest and racial awakening, are we in a new normal?

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“I think it’s a return to our old normal,” replied Brian C. Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois, the statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization. “So much of the fight for LGBTQ civil rights has been led by the most marginalized members of our community, women, people of color, trans and gender nonconforming folks.”

In 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Its patrons and neighbors resisted and led days of protests. The Stonewall Rebellion spawned the gay rights movement, which “was largely led by trans women of color,” Johnson said.

For state Sen. Mike Simmons, the pandemic has “really ignited that a lot of people across the board who are really pushing for a new, just a new status quo, a new set of ways that we all can survive and thrive.”

In February, Simmons was appointed to Illinois Senate 7th District, becoming the first openly gay senator in the Illinois General Assembly and the first Black senator from Chicago’s North Side.

He pointed to “long overdue” change, like the Jett Hawkins Act, legislation he sponsored that would prohibit schools from issuing rules that discriminate against hairstyles historically associated with race, ethnicity or hair texture.

Simmons, who sports gorgeously elaborate dreadlocks, says the laws would prevent school officials from suspending and expelling kids for how they wear their hair. “I don’t know that 10 years ago, that bill would have made it through the General Assembly.”

It was approved by both houses in May and awaits the governor’s signature.

Johnson noted a recent campaign for House Bill 246, which mandates the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in state and national history be taught in Illinois public schools, starting this fall.

Theses treacherous times have opened minds. “What I’ve observed is that people, the pandemic has done something where people want to be on the right side of history,” Simmons said.

But he worries most about complacency.

“Even with people that are progressives and moderates, this sense that, ‘Oh, the pandemic is over.’ That’s the first thing I hear that makes me literally shake with nervousness. ‘Pandemic is over. We’re back to normal.’”

What is normal? Certainly not the time before COVID-19 descended on us. In March 2020, we were a city and nation burdened by inequities in housing, employment, resources, economic development, poverty, public safety and health care, and the systemic racism that led to the police murder of George Floyd. That’s far from normal, then and now.

Today, it seems, everyone and anyone is calling for equity.

I worry about what I call “change fatigue.” I fear the powerful will soon decide, enough. It’s time to get back to “normal.” 

“I don’t have a lot of evidence that that is actually what is happening among communities and among people and among voters,” Johnson said. “But I hear a lot of leaders talking about that fear, and I worry about the consequences of that.”

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