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Black LGBT activists discuss steps after marriage
by Matt Simonette

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A group of about 50 community activists and service providers, many of them affiliated with organizations serving African American LGBT community members, gathered Dec. 21 at the headquarters of the Chicago Urban League, 4510 S. Michigan Ave., for a forum assessing what issues they should address now that marriage equality is on its way to Illinois.

Some activists from the African American LGBT community regard the push for marriage equality as a promising moment when individuals and organizations were able to set aside differences and work for a common goal. Now that the goal has largely been won in Illinois, many people want to see that momentum applied to other initiatives.

"This is the first time in 30 years that we've had the chance to coalesce," said activist Michael O'Connor.

The forum was divided into three policy sessions addressing issues pertinent to the Black LGBT community: School Environment and Health Care Access; Criminal Justice; and Economics and Employment Discrimination.

State Rep. Greg Harris was in attendance, but representatives from some larger LGBT policy organizations were not.

Khadine Bennett of the ACLU of Illinois began the school environment panel by speaking of a need for strong legislation that can help to curb school bullying.

ACLU of Illinois is advocating for a bill that requires school districts to define their bullying policies. The legislation was attempted in 2011 but did not get far thanks to opposition from the Illinois Family Institute, who said that the legislation would tacitly imply it was "okay to be gay."

"That's the climate we were dealing with in Springfield," said Bennett.

Caryn Curry of Mental Health America of Illinois added that the state's schools must ramp up opportunities for "social and emotional learning" ( SEL ), which she said was "acquiring skills to navigate the world."

SEL initiatives could heighten both a student's self-awareness and their abilities to interact productively with others, Curry said, adding that parents quite often can benefit by engaging with the initiatives as well.

"We're talking about some basic civility," Curry said. "The way we talk to each other is the core of everything."

Ramon Gardenhire of AIDS Foundation of Chicago then discussed a number of political barriers impeding the funding that provides medical assistance for underserved populations. He suggested that a progressive state income tax, which is the norm in most states, could improve the revenue stream. Current funding strategies "pit different communities against each other to get a piece of the pie," Gardenhire said. "We should be asking, 'How do we grow the pie?'"

Dr. Travis Gayles of Lurie Children's Hospital discussed health issues that disproportionately affect LGBT African Americans, among them HIV/AIDS and diabetes, while Dr. Phoenix Matthews of the University of Illinois at Chicago addressed the marketing of cigarettes to the African American community, and the problems with the high use of menthol cigarettes among African American smokers.

O'Connor, lobbyist Coy Pugh and Algie Crivens III of ASCME local 1006 discussed issues pertaining to mandatory sentencing and criminal record expungement. They acknowledged that it's difficult to get politicians on board with ideas regarding criminal rehabilitation since many fear the consequences of not looking tough on crime.

"Just because a person is convicted does not mean that we [as a society] should throw them away," said O'Connor, who added that many politicians are scrambling to support and devise laws with tough penalties, even though the crime rate in the state has dropped.

During the Economics and Employment Discrimination panel, Mona Noriega, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Human Relations, described the relative ease with which Chicagoans could file a discrimination complaint, even without an attorney, adding that it is illegal to discriminate under several categories, including sexual orientation, gender identity and credit history. "For example, you will no longer see want ads here that read, 'Only employed applicants need apply,'" said Noriega.

She acknowledged, however, that more people needed to come forward with complaints—just 256 have been filed in the city in 2013.

Panelists Channyn Parker of Chicago House TransLife Center discussed challenges facing transgender individuals, including disparate rules concerning ID's. She said that all too often authorities fail to address the broad range of people on the transgender spectrum while presenting difficulties that could only be resolved if a person had gender confirmation surgery.

"As of today, a trans woman's greatest protection is her invisibility," said Parker.

Amara Enyia of ACE Municipal Partners, also spoke of difficulties facing LGBT immigrants of color, pointing to not only prejudices held against immigrants by the wider community, but prejudices against LGBT people in their own communities.

Introductory and closing remarks at the forum were given by activist Lisa Marie Pickens. co-founder of Affinity Community Services, while Kim Hunt of Affinity and Craig Johnson of Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus were panel moderators.

Videos by Tracy Baim at the links:

Beyond Marriage Forum 12-21-13 Lisa Marie Pickens Part 1 of 2 .

Beyond Marriage Forum 12-21-13 Lisa Marie Pickens Part 2 of 2 .

Beyond Marriage Forum 12-21-13 Khadine Bennett of the ACLU .

Beyond Marriage Forum 12-21-13 - Health Panel Part 1 of 2 .

Beyond Marriage Forum 12-21-13 - Health Panel Part 2 of 2 .

Beyond Marriage Forum - Political 1 of 2: Coy Pugh, Michael O'Connor, Algie Crivens III .

Beyond Marriage Forum - Political 2 of 2: Coy Pugh, Michael O'Connor, Algie Crivens III Beyond Marriage Forum - .

Beyond Marriage Forum - Employment panel, 1 of 2 .

Beyond Marriage Forum - Employment panel, 2 of 2 .

Beyond Marriage Chicago Forum 12-21-2013, Closing remarks: .

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