Gala celebrates LGBT progress

By Kaley Fowler

Dressed to the nines and eager to celebrate their progress, LGBT advocates attended Equality Illinois’ annual “Justice for All” gala Feb. 11 at the Chicago Hilton, 720 S. Michigan Ave., to show their support for the gay rights movement.

This year’s gala emphasized Equality Illinois’ agenda by focusing on the accomplishments in securing gay rights on both state and federal levels.

Equality Illinois, the state’s oldest and largest LGBT advocacy organization, was founded in 1991 and is dedicated to protecting and defending equal rights for all members of its community, according to its mission statement.

“I am so grateful to our supporters who participated in this year’s gala,” said Bernard Chersakov, CEO of Equality Illinois. “The strength of this gala and the great attendance by political leaders underscored the broad support for our LGBT equality work.”

Chersakov said approximately 1,300 people attended the event, a 25 percent increase from last year. The hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds from the gala will go directly toward funding the Equality Illinois Education Project, an initiative to educate the public about the rights of Illinois citizens, couples and families, according to Chersakov.

Gov. Pat Quinn briefly addressed the audience, reporting that more than 3,700 civil unions have been performed in Illinois since February 2011 when the state passed legislation allowing same-sex couples to apply for civil union licenses.

“We have a lot more work to do this year and [in] years to come,” Quinn said. “We’re going to make the will of the people the law of the land.”

Additional measures to secure gay rights in Illinois were taken Feb. 8 when state Rep. Greg Harris (D–13th) introduced the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, which aims to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the state. The bill comes just three days after Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage in California, was overturned.

In light of these events, celebration was in the air at the gala, which featured keynote speaker Valerie Jarrett, President Barack Obama’s senior advisor.

“Ms. Jarrett has been a passionate voice for LGBT equality and a strong advocate in Washington [D.C.],” Chersakov said. “We knew that her presence at our gala would inspire and reinvigorate our supporters.”

Many elected officials were in the audience, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and U.S. Congressman Michael Quigley (Ill.–5th).

In her address, Jarrett touted the Obama administration’s efforts to further LGBT rights and praised the president’s commitment to the cause.

“Our union is more perfect today than it was three years ago,” Jarrett said. “We believe that fighting for equality is actually at the heart of America.”

Jarrett praised several recently implemented measures, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” increased hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples and the 2009 Matthew Shepard Act, which expanded the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by the victim’s gender or sexual orientation.

“We should all be very proud of the laws that have been passed, the policies that have been enacted and the strategies that we put in place,” Jarrett said. “Working together, we can keep going further because we know our work isn’t done.”

She added that the administration plans to continue to strive for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 federal law defining marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman, and will work to pass the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“If we’re honest with ourselves as a country, we must recognize that for far too long being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender was an obstacle to achieving your dreams,” Jarrett said. “We have not reached the day when every LGBT American is treated equally by law and by those around them, but I believe for the first time ever we can see hope on the horizon.”

Jarrett assured the audience that despite opposition from other parties, the current administration will not become “complacent” or “rest a minute.”

“We cannot forget, even as we celebrate, that there are people back in Washington [D.C.] just waiting for a chance to turn back the clock,” she said. “We cannot slow down now.”

Jarrett steered clear of the recent marriage equality legislation in California and Washington state, focusing more on the president’s strategy for advancement.

“It’s not just that [Obama] believes that it gets better, it’s that he’s working to make it better,” she said. “He’s taken steps to make our schools and communities safe, and he will do even more as we move forward.”