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Chicago Defender-Beyond marriage: Uniting for change

By Andrea L. Zopp

Last month Illinois became the 16th state to grant same-sex couples the right to marry when Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Religious Freedom and Marriage Act. This law not only gives same gender, loving couples a basic human right, but protects the freedoms of clergy and churches that do not condone same-sex marriage.

We applaud the Illinois General Assembly for taking this great step toward equality. We also acknowledge the bold leadership exhibited by members of the Legislative Black Caucus who, despite fierce opposition and threats of “political payback” from those opposed to this bill, stood on the right side of history and voted yes.

The Chicago Urban League was supported this legislation and served on the steering committee for the Illinois Unites for Marriage campaign along with the ACLU of Illinois, Citizen Action Illinois, Equality Illinois, the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and The Civil Rights Agenda. This coalition also brought in diverse community-based advocacy groups.

At the Chicago Urban League, we believe that supporting marriage equality was the right thing to do. In our 97 years, the Chicago Urban League has been fearless in the pursuit of educational, economic and social justice. We believe that all people deserve equal rights, including the right to marry the person they love.

Now that we’ve seen what a united coalition can do, there is an opportunity to work with our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) allies on other issues that impact communities of color. In a city where more than half of the population is comprised of non-white citizens, there has to be organized community action and engagement that leads to the creation of more opportunities for everyone, regardless of age, race, ability, educational background and sexual orientation. The question is: How do we get there?

According to Kim Hunt, executive director of Affinity Community Services, a group that has served Chicago’s LGBT community for nearly 20 years, the answer is literally right in front of us. “Things that affect the broader Black community affect the LGBT community because we live next door to each other,” Hunt recently shared. “We have never approached our work as a one issue agenda. It’s always been intersectional.”

Hunt says, and I agree, that the time is now for leaders in the Black community and those in the LGBT community to collaborate around intersectional issues.  We all want better schools, more jobs, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, business growth opportunities and access to affordable healthcare.
Working as partners, we can increase our advocacy to policymakers and key stakeholders to move the community forward. In order to do this, we must move past our misconceptions, biases, and even our fears, to find common ground among groups.

We can use our combined strength to reach out to leaders—both civic and elected—to advance a collective agenda for the underserved and disenfranchised.
One area we could coalesce around quickly is school funding. In 2008 the Chicago Urban League sued the State of Illinois and the Illinois Board of Education to have the flawed public school funding model declared unconstitutional and in violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003. The lawsuit is still in play, and I hope that we can build a broader coalition that will advocate for educational funding change.

A unified coalition can also work to eradicate bullying in our schools and in our communities. Children who are bullied are deprived of the opportunity to learn and, in the most extreme cases, have been deprived of their very lives. We cannot afford to have another child hurt or lost because of mistreatment by their peers. Health and wellness is another area we can unite on. African Africans continue to be disproportionately impacted by heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. And we are the most impacted by HIV. Intersectional conversations around better access to healthcare and preventative services are essential to our survival. The Chicago Urban League stands ready to be a co-convener of this dialogue with our partners in the LGBT community.

Now that we’ve shown that a diverse, inclusive coalition can be built to deliver marriage equality to Illinois, we have a tremendous opportunity to strengthen that coalition and leverage it to eliminate the challenges and disparities that prevent the African American community and its LGBT members from living empowered and healthy lives. Working together, we can pack a powerful punch for equality and inclusion.

Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.