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VIEWS The Garcia fallout
by Tracy Baim.
2010-12-22

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Rick Garcia is among the most controversial figures in Chicago's gay community. But while he has alienated and angered many people during his decades of activism, he has also been one of the most visible and passionate people working on LGBT rights in Illinois. He is one of the most known "faces" and spokespersons for our movement, and he has been credited with being among the most effective activists in the state.

His work spans from the 1980s when he lobbied for passage of the city's gay-rights law, to Cook County and state of Illinois legislation for LGBT rights. Most recently, he worked on the successful 2010 push for civil-unions legislation in Illinois.

So even if you disagree with his tactics, and have been on the other end of his attacks, Garcia deserves the honors he has received, including induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

Given that I have frequently been on that "other side" of Garcia's attacks, I am probably the last person to write an editorial about his sudden firing from Equality Illinois, as its political director. But maybe that makes this the right thing to do. Garcia is both dogged and tireless in his activism, and he was not afraid to spark anger and outrage, even among other gay activists and leaders.

Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov announced Dec. 17 that Garcia was fired from the agency that Garcia helped found in the 1990s (as the Illinois Federation for Human Rights). The firing was a shock heard around the state, especially coming just days after the passage of civil-unions legislation.

Perhaps Garcia's biggest cross to bear was his temperament and his take-no-prisoners approach to gay politics. Politics really seems to be a sport for Garcia, and winner takes all. That is a style that can be effective in securing gay rights. But it is also a style that creates many enemies who are after your head, and your job. Over the years, Garcia did more than his fair share of attacking of other gay leaders and groups—some of it deserved, some of it not.

But all of this criticism, and difference in styles, does not add up to the way this all was handled last week, just before the holidays, and days after one of the state's biggest victories on gay rights. Even if there are legitimate reasons behind this action (and often when it involves personnel, agencies are not able to fully disclose their reasons for firing), the way this happened was disrespectful and has opened a huge wound for Equality Illinois to heal. Coming just weeks before the agency's annual fundraising gala, it could have a negative impact on the agency's future.

This was the wrong timing and the wrong process, and it creates more questions than answers. The Equality Illinois board and its CEO now must step up and come clean about this process, and what can be done to make this transition more transparent and respectful.

Equality Illinois is an important community agency, but that doesn't mean it is not accountable to that same community when controversy strikes. They need to understand that by firing their most visible face in the community, they have a lot of damage control and bridge building to do.

I don't agree with many things Garcia has done in our community, but I do know that his contributions have been tremendous, and no one deserves to experience the actions that happened last week. We may not be able to fully know everything that built up to this painful decision, but what we do know about the process is that it was badly handled in public in a way that could hurt the agency, and our community.


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