In his first weeks in office, President Joe Biden rolled back multiple federal policies that negatively affected LGBTQ+ people under former president Donald Trump. But in Illinois, policy advocates say there are still more battles to be fought.
Mike Ziri is the director of public policy with Equality Illinois. He has been with the group since 2015, just after same sex marriage became legal nationwide.
He said some legislators and advocates at the time asked him what was left to fight for. Some of them said the fight was over, he said.
“No way were we done in 2015, and in no way are we done in 2021,” said Ziri.
Illinois has continued to pass LGBTQ+ affirming legislation since. In 2019, for example, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill requiring public schools to teach LGBTQ+ history.
Two LGBTQ+ bills have already been introduced in this year's General Assembly session.
One bill would make it easier for transgender and intersex people to change the gender on their birth certificate. The current law requires a statement from a health care professional. The version proposed in the Illinois House right now would remove that requirement altogether.
Lars Avis, a trans man who’s the secretary for Peoria Proud, said the bill would have made his transition easier. He said the bill is a matter of safety, especially for people who haven’t been able to get their gender marker changed.
“That can be concerning,” said Avis. “If you're applying to jobs, you don't necessarily want to out yourself just by applying to a job.”
Ghirlandi Guidetti, an attorney with ACLU Illinois, said the bill is a high priority for the group.
“A lot of what we want to do in this space is eliminate those barriers, make it easier for people to obtain the documents that they need to live their lives authentically,” said Guidetti.
Avis said the bill makes the process more inclusive and accessible.
“I don't think there needs to be any prerequisites like that, just you saying, ‘Yes, this is me and this is what I want it,’” said Avis. “‘This is what I want my birth certificate to be changed to.’”
Inclusive sex education
Democratic lawmakers in the state House and Senate also reintroduced the REACH Act, which would require age-appropriate sex education in Illinois public schools. The bill calls for instruction that’s inclusive of “people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.”
Mike Ziri said the bill’s been a top priority since last year’s session.
“In Illinois, only 10% of LGBTQ students receive any kind of LGBTQ inclusive sex ed,” said Ziri. “We want to change that.”
Avis said he thinks everyone should be able to have a chance to learn about those topics in a classroom setting.
“We were never really taught about what it means to be LGBTQ,” said Avis. “I mainly learned that from my friends and people I knew in the community itself.”
Representation in the General Assembly
Meanwhile, the General Assembly’s horizons continue to expand. The State Senate welcomed its first openly gay member when Michael Simmons was sworn in this year to replace Heather Steans.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, was also in the running for that State Senate seat, and she is also a part of the General Assembly’s LGBTQ+ caucus. She said while that group has become fairly representative, outreach is still a vital part of their work.
“We have to always be reaching out and making sure that beyond our district to our larger queer community statewide, that we are not just representing our districts, but all of the folks who look to us statewide to make sure that we're hearing their voices,” said Cassidy.
She said there’s plenty more legislation to come, even with the progress that’s been made.
“That leaves a lot of space for folks who don't have the organized institutional voices of our … larger queer groups in need still,” said Cassidy.
The work ahead, she said, includes removing the state’s barrier to name changes for those convicted of a felony and creating a review process for deaths involving women, particularly trans women of color. According to the Human Rights Campaign, last year, at least 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people were shot or killed.
“I don't think we're ever going to get to take our cake and go home,” said Cassidy. “I would love to work ourselves out of a job, but violence remains an issue, discrimination remains an issue, systemic racism, the racism of our community, the shutting off of services to segments of our community. We’ve always got to be attacking those pieces.”
Progress across the state
The work continues even beyond the General Assembly. Groups across the state, such as Peoria Proud and Prairie Pride Coalition in Bloomington-Normal, have had to adjust their community events and outreach as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Nicole Morrow is the former president of Peoria Proud. She said the pandemic has hit the LGBTQ+ community particularly hard.
“We're seeing a lot of impact with COVID on mental health, and feelings of isolation, and lack of connectivity,” said Morrow. “We're really seeing a lot of gaps where we should be doing some things better.”
Dave Bentlin, the president of the Prairie Pride Coalition, said the group is involved in legislative activities in addition to its community work.
“We try to make the community a more welcoming place, to listen to them, to see what they want us to work on, and then frame our work around that,” said Bentlin. “There are sectors within our community that we think need special attention, and there's still a lot of work needs to be done to help them feel like they're living in an equitable environment.”
As for Equality Illinois’ Mike Ziri, he said overall, it’s important that Illinois keeps moving forward.
“We’re a state that, you know, has a strong tradition of equality and justice and equity,” said Ziri. “We don't always get it right as a state, but we keep working towards those goals.”