Illinois, a Beacon for LGBT Rights?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Marriage may be the law of the land, but many other rights still are not.
The neighborhood of Lakeview sports a Chicago legend: Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs and a century-old ode to America’s favorite pastime. Take one more turn, though, and another must-see icon of Americanism emerges — albeit one with a slightly more flamboyant nightlife.
Here along Halsted Street is Boystown, a rainbow-flagged thoroughfare filled with dozens of queer bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Before the Castro in San Francisco or Greenwich Village in New York, this strip was widely acknowledged as the first gay village in the United States. The area often has been ahead of the curve. When a million Chicagoans and allies filled the streets for the 2015 gay pride parade following the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide — in cowboy hats, rodeo belts and, yes, wedding dresses — they did so having secured their own marriage equality through a state law passed two years earlier.
The fact that some judges would even allow [the gay or trans “panic” defense] to go forward is problematic.
Anthony Michael Kreis, law professor, Illinois Institute of Technology
Yet for many that ruling was far from the end of the fight. Take Jenne Vailoces, who in January opened Jennivee’s Bakery, reputedly the first Chicago bakery owned by a transgender Filipina. “We don’t feel like having to constantly explain ourselves,” the 34-year-old says of the trans community. And yet fulfilling her lifelong dream is an unavoidable political statement, considering that just three hours down Interstate 85 is Indianapolis, where a Christian-owned bakery refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, spurring in Indiana and nationwide a host of “religious liberty” laws aimed at protecting business owners who decline to serve customers based on their beliefs. “Everybody deserves a cake,” Vailoces says.
It’s just one example of how the Land of Lincoln has become “an anchor in the Midwest,” says Mike Ziri, public policy director for Equality Illinois. This spring, the state legislature in Springfield took up a bill banning “gay panic defense” in criminal trials. (Only California has outlawed the legal maneuver, in which defendants accused of murder plead temporary insanity caused by the victim’s sexual orientation.) Also being considered: a law that would make it easier for transgender folks to change their birth certificates. The two issues show how Illinois has become “a good barometer for the future of LGBT rights in a post-marriage world — kind of those clean-up issues,” says Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Such extra protections may be increasingly necessary, as states stake out positions contrary to a federal government led by a new Republican Congress and president — a combination that makes many in the queer community queasy despite Trump’s promise at last summer’s GOP convention to “do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens.” Advocates worry about Vice President Mike Pence, who signed the aforementioned religious freedom bill as governor of Indiana in 2015; a week later he also approved an amendment that supporters claimed protected LGBT people.
After Trump’s inauguration in January, the LGBT rights page on WhiteHouse.gov disappeared. The deletion itself wasn’t inherently controversial, since new administrations typically scrub the site temporarily — except the page still hasn’t been restored. And in late February, the Justice and Education departments rescinded protections that let transgender students use the bathroom of their choosing, with civil rights officials writing in a letter that the Obama-era directive was improper and arbitrary, “without due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing education policy.”
As the Trump administration preaches local control, interested parties need look no further than Illinois to see what happens when a Midwestern state wholeheartedly embraces reform. While Chicago can be “this little bubble where we’re not touched by the discrimination,” says Dalila Fridi – an IT specialist, longtime resident and LGBT rights activist – it’s visible elsewhere in the state. The panic defense issue is especially troublesome, says Kreis. The Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank at the UCLA School of Law, released a 22-page legal brief in September reporting that roughly half of all states have seen some measure of gay or trans “panic” used to justify violent behavior against queer victims. In some cases, defendants have avoided murder charges by deploying the defense, ending up instead with lesser convictions of manslaughter, according to the brief. “It hasn’t really worked” in most cases, says Kreis, but “the fact that some judges would even allow it to go forward is problematic.”
Having an eye for the future seems typical here: Two years ago, Illinois became just the fourth state to ban gay-conversion therapy for minors. It became one of the first to pass nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity (2005), to create civil unions (2010) and to enshrine marriage equality (2013). Illinois previously required that trans residents undergo surgery before being allowed to legally change the gender on their birth certificates. If lawmakers proceed with HB 1785, which passed the House Human Services Committee in late February, then Illinoisans simply would need documentation from a physician confirming they are undergoing appropriate medical treatment. More than a dozen states have similar statutes.
Of course, the law acts retroactively, many times playing a role only after the harm is done. A New York Times analysis of 2014 FBI data noted that LGBT people are twice as likely to be the victims of hate crimes as African-Americans and are targeted at a higher rate than Jews. “It’s scary and dangerous to be a trans woman,” says Vailoces — in Chicago included. And real equality might come only once her gender identity becomes so commonplace that it’s no longer a talking point. “I wish people would focus more on the bakery,” she admits to a reporter, professing her love for tradition in the form of hummingbird cakes, the Lady Baltimore cake and Boston cream pies — “the layer cakes that grandmothers made in the 1950s in the South,” as she fondly describes them.