Chicago activist Rick Garcia has worked tirelessly for social justice for longer than many ChicagoPride.com readers have been alive, this writer included. Dating back to his teen years growing up in St. Louis in the 1970s, Garcia has fought for LGBT equality, working toward Chicago's 1988 non-discrimination ordinance, a countywide version of that bill and numerous other campaigns to protect the LGBT community. His advocacy was recognized in 1999 by his induction into the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame and by a 2009 Vanguard Award from the Chicago Bar Association.
Garcia also served as the founding executive director of Equality Illinois, an organization for which he now serves as the public policy director, in addition to advising a variety of politicians on LGBT issues. All the while, he's remained expressly outspoken on matters of equity and fairness.
With the fall elections quickly approaching, Garcia took time out on a Saturday afternoon to speak with ChicagoPride.com. In our exclusive interview, he addresses matters of concern for the state's LGBT community, outlining issues like civil union legislation, the gubernatorial race and why we should be pointing our fingers at ourselves, rather than Obama, when it comes to the broader question of what's holding up full federal equality for LGBT Americans.
JE: (Joe Erbentraut) It's been a busy few weeks in the LGBT political realm, with Judge Walker's decision on Proposition 8's unconstitutionality and former RNC head Ken Mehlman coming out as just a couple of examples. What do you make of all of it, particularly in terms of the effect it could have here in Illinois? Are we in the LGBT community reaching a tipping point of acceptance?
RG: (Rick Garcia) Regarding Prop 8, as this ruling moves its way up to the Supreme Court, I think it has ramifications for Illinois because the wind is beneath our wings, if you will. We're seeing Prop 8 move up the judicial food chain and I think that may be good for us, though you never exactly know. But we may have a favorable ruling and then that affects all of our lives.
But also, I think increasingly we are winning in these issues. Our polling is trending in our favor in the area of marriage rights. Right-wing conservatives have used gay and lesbian people and our families as a whipping post for too long and now that they are realizing things are moving in the favor of our community, they're dropping our issue like a hot potato, going back to abortion and way far back to racism in this country. "Let's restore America," Glenn Beck is saying today in DC, but what are we going back to? Back to 1950? I certainly don't want to do that and I don't think most decent, fair-minded Americans want to do that either.
JE: Here in Illinois, we have seen civil unions legislation fail to gain much traction, and yet you were quoted in a recent article (by Mary Massingale in the Illinois Statehouse News) sounding pretty optimistic about the opportunity for that bill to pass yet this year. In fact, you sounded more optimistic than that bill's main sponsor Greg Harris. Do you really think the bill has the support it needs to pass this year?
RG: I am loathe to say that I was misquoted, but Greg and I were saying exactly the same in that interview. Mary left out a very important word in my quote in that article, which is "technically." Technically anytime the legislature is in session, we can bring up this bill. This bill is not dead. But that doesn't mean we're going to call it unless we have the votes, and right before an election the only thing people are thinking and talking about are job and not having a tax raise. It's all about the economy.
But am I hopeful for the fall? I'm going to tell you something. I wouldn't be sitting at my desk right now, on a Saturday afternoon, if I wasn't hopeful. There is the veto session in November and just before the new session for a couple of days in January and if this bill can be passed then - if we have the votes - we will call it. But we still have a lot of work to do. I don't think I'm the first to admit we don't have the 60 votes we need in the House today because there are too many things going on right before an election, but that's the time to pounce. You don't wait until everyone feels nice and comfy. The election season is the time to do this because if you wait too long, they will say, "Let's wait a little bit. We have to deal with these other issues." I love all our legislators to death, but they are all controversy-averse. They want it all to be nice, easy and clean.
The bottom line is we will call the bill when we have the votes. Our bill is one of a handful that's been able to survive this long, which is very good, but we're not going to call it unless we know we're going to win.
JE: I know another important race to Equality Illinois is the governor's race. Incumbent Pat Quinn is consistently polling lower than Republican nominee Bill Brady, who is very anti-LGBT. What would it mean to the community if Brady is elected this November?
RG: This is a "make it or break it" issue for us in the gay community. The day Bill Brady announced he was running for governor, he announces he wants to mass-euthanize dogs and cats and ban same-sex marriage in the great state of Illinois. I think for most middle-of-the-road people, these two issues are not high on their list of priorities. Brady has supported every, every, every anti-gay piece of legislation that has been forth in the state and, frankly, sponsored many of them. He really is bad news and most people don't know what lurks beneath his nice, little middle America persona. Those of us who have worked in the legislature know the guy is hard right-wing and will attempt to undo all the gains the LGBT community has made here. If he wins, our game plan will change dramatically because this is no way he would sign any piece of pro-gay legislation.
As for Pat Quinn, he has always underpolled, coming in short compared to his opponent in early polling. But he has a long and rich history of being supportive of the LGBT community. Every time I see him, he asks if there's anything he can do to move the civil union bill and I believe if an equal marriage bill got to his desk, he would certainly sign it. With all the other issues out there, these two are night and day. Brady is hard right, Tea Party - I would even call him conservative at this point. Governor Quinn is very independent and plays to the middle. Politically, this is one of the biggest races for this community. Brady is too extreme for Illinois and Quinn is reasonable and believes everyone should be treated fairly and equitably - that is his record, not any kind of spin from me.
JE: The race for Barack Obama's former Senate seat is also pretty heated between Alexi Giannoulias, a strong LGBT ally, and Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican who recently opposed Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal. What is your take on that race?
RG: That's another extremely important race for us to look at. Here you have Alexi, who has always voted for us and, during the Democratic primary, came out with a position in support of same-sex marriage. He was one of the only candidates to do that. I think that for those who believe everyone should be treated fairly and equally, the choice is clear. We all know we've had lesbian and gay people who have served this country with distinction and continue to do so, and they've been thrown out of the military. Congressman Kirk supports that and that's just wrong.
JE: Getting to some national issues, Congressman Mike Quigley recently said he's confident for Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal yet this year, during the lame duck session. Do you share his optimism? Will the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) follow?
RG: The White House has told us that they believe Don't Ask Don't Tell will be the first piece of legislation to move. Congress works in its own quirky way but that's what we've been told. I've seen no significant movement on ENDA coming down since the Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan testified in its favor last fall. My own analysis is that we will see Don't Ask Don't Tell move first, then ENDA will come down and probably next year we'll see some comprehensive immigration reform that will be beneficial to LGBT people. It's so desperately needed. We get more calls about immigration problems into our office than we do housing or public accommodation problems.
JE: I was planning to also ask you about that. I know there has been a lot of opposition to LGBT-inclusive immigration reform, but it seems that Congressman Luis Gutierrez is pretty dedicated to keeping those provisions - outlined in the United American Families Act - included with reform. Do you think that could hinder its chances at passage, though?
RG: I have to say that when you look at Congress, really good legislation can take years and years to pass. I'm confident that we will have immigration reform that's inclusive of lesbian and gay couples and I think we have a leaders on this issue in the house through Gutierrez, Quigley and others who have been able to pull together diverse communities behind this one issue. I think there has been hesitancy to include gay people in reform in the past, since our biggest advocates for reform are Catholic bishops, so it becomes an issue of how to balance that. But I do think the trend is heading toward full inclusion that doesn't leave anybody out. It's not consistent to say you stand for immigration reform except for "those people." I don't think we'll see it by the end of this year, but maybe toward the middle of next year.
JE: Finally, I also need to touch on a name that causes a lot of rifts in our community: Obama. He once said he supported same-sex marriage, but now he does not, standing to the right of names like Laura Bush, Dick Cheney and Ted Olson on this issue. What do you think it would take for him to move on this issue?
RG: I remember Barack Obama supporting same-sex marriage as far back as 1996 and here's this crazy, schizophrenic position of wanting to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act while still believing marriage is between a man and a woman. The answer to that question is, in all upper-case letters, POLITICS. Many of Obama's advisors and chief staff are many of the same people who gave us the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask Don't Tell, so this administration is Clinton 2.0 in a lot of ways. While his advisors still believe supporting fairness and equality for gay people is politically detrimental, on one hand, on the other hand they know a lot of their money and support comes from the gay community.
But I think our saving grace is that we have an administration that's not only engaging with the national so-called leaders of gay organizations, but also with groups like the statewide organizations. The White House is saying, "Help us, tell us what you need and where we're going wrong" and we never had that under the two Bushes or the Reagan administration. The only way one of us would have gotten in there would be if we were doing the flowers or catering. With the Bushes, we weren't even doing their hair. Would I like to see Obama move farther and faster on a whole slew of issues that affect us? Yes! But he has a Congress to deal with. He's not the king, he is the President.
It's really easy for us to criticize President Obama, but what I want to know is why is it not so easy to pick up a telephone and call your Congressman in your district in southern or central Illinois and tell them to get with the program. It's really easy to point fingers, but those same fingers should be pointed back at us. I loved all of those rallies against Prop 8 with people out in the streets in the middle of winter, but where in the fuck were all of those people before Prop 8? Why weren't they phone banking or registering voters? If they could, why didn't they travel to California to work ZAthere? I think Obama is doing the best he can do, but he can't do anything unless we stay on Congress, too. I'm one of the first people to criticize his position on marriage, but I also understand the politics of it, how the system works and how long it can take to get things done.
JE: Wrapping all of this up, what is the one thing you hope the LGBT community will keep in mind as we head toward the fall elections?
RG: This goes back to your first question: Is there something different happening today than before? There are positives for us, as hard right wing people have recognized that being anti-gay doesn't get them votes. We're seeing that over and over again and that's a positive for us. But a negative for us is that when we see these things moving in our direction, our community becomes complacent. We're quick to criticize the President and march into the street with a bullhorn and rainbow flag, but we're not quick to do the real political work it takes to get things done. Until someone is poking or prodding us, we won't respond. But we have to go ahead and be active, poke and respond before we're forced to do so.
Later this month, Equality Illinois is hosting a community forum on federal LGBT equality issues at the Center on Halsted's Hooper-Leven Theatre, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Congressman Quigley is expected to be featured as a speaker.