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ELECTIONS 25th Dist. candidate Curtis Tarver II on civil rights, prison reform
by Liz Baudler

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Lawyer and brewery owner Curtis Tarver II is one of a crowded field of candidates vying to replace retiring State Representative Barbara Flynn Currie in the 25th district. Tarver's challengers are William Calloway, Grace Chan-McKibben, Angelique Collins, Adrienne Irmer, Anne Marie Miles, Flynn Rush: Windy City Times was able to speak with Chan-McKibben, Collins, Irmer, and Miles as well as Tarver. Tarver also received Equality Illinois' endorsement.

Windy City Times: What are the main issues of the 25th District?

Curtis Tarver: They change, to some extent, on a daily basis. I would say the top of the list is still education, not only equitably funding, but fully funding schools. I talked to a lot of people who are very concerned about passing a balanced budget, and the need for additional revenue—a progressive income tax is very important to people. Job creation and economic development are right there as well, and more recently I've been hearing about the potential need for rent control in certain parts of the district.

WCT: Let's talk a little bit about your background.

CT: I came out of law school, and spent a year at a law firm doing defense work, and just realized that it was not what I wanted to do. An opportunity opened up to work in Mayor Daley's office in Intergovernmental Affairs, and it gave me an opportunity to see the city from the top down. This entire district is within the city of Chicago, and I've focused on the 4th, 7th, 10th and 20th ward before. It certainly gave me a unique glimpse into some of the issues, and some of the issues that were there 10-12 years ago are still there as well.

I left there to work at the Independent Police Review Authority as the Director of Public Affairs, and after going out on 52 police-involved shootings over the course of a year, I knew I had to get back into practicing law, specifically the plaintiff's side, for civil rights, human rights violations, things like that. I've been doing that since 2011. That's one of the reasons I was ultimately appointed to the Chicago Commission for Human Relations, my experience on both sides. I've worked for the department that investigates police misconduct, I've worked on the defense side, and I've worked on the plaintiff's side. I was excited about it.

The federal level kind of sets the floor as it relates to civil rights, human rights, things like that. And I think it's great that in Illinois, we've gone above and beyond what the federal law allows—beyond just race, or gender, or religion, or things like that—to cover civil rights. The problem is that we have all of these different places and venues where you have to bring a complaint or file for discrimination. If I get discriminated against because I'm black, I can go to federal court, I can go to state court. If someone discriminates against someone because of their sexual orientation, then they could only go to—as it stands right now—Cook County, City of Chicago, or the human rights commission. They can't go to State court. Even once you're discriminated against, you're discriminated against again based on where you can actually bring your cause of action. As much as I enjoyed being on [the Commission for Human Relations], it made me realize very quickly, hey, wait a minute, we got to do something better than just bring cases before these smaller commissions. We need these cases and complaints in state court. Ideally, it'd be the federal level as well, but it starts at the state court level.

WCT: What is your experience with the LGBTQ community?

CT: I tend to have a lot of friends from all different backgrounds. My personal thing has always been to take a look at myself, check myself and see how progressive I really am; to look at what issues are out there. Years ago at Affinity when Kim Hunt was the executive director I was in the Mayor's office, and so just from being involved with her to some extent, to sitting down with Equality Illinois, to participating in Pride Parades, to just being supportive of friends…

I've had several friends actually come out to me. The first was a kid when I was in undergrad. This kid was already living with his aunt because he'd been abused by his parents and abandoned, and when he came out to his aunt, she left him, she moved. So, as a 19-year-old, my roommate and I took in a 15-year old. We were like, "what the hell are we doing, we have no idea, but we can't let him be homeless". I'd been profiled and things like that, I'm a 6'3 black guy who went to school in Iowa and I didn't play sports, [but] that was really my first experience, like whoa, [LGBTQ] people get treated astonishingly different.

What really started to pique my interest about some of these issues is when I worked at the Independent Police Review Authority. There was one [officer] in particular who was notorious in the Boystown area for stopping and frisking young males without any reason besides that he was being abusive. A lot of those young males were staying at the Night Ministry, ostracized from their families. It became much more of a thing to me at that point, like this genuinely is a civil and human rights issue. 17,18 years ago, I knew [what was happening] wasn't right, but I didn't realize how expansive and far reaching the issues were.

One of the things we really tried to do with the Commission For Human Relations was make sure that we expanded as far as education: hey, you can actually bring a claim here. We will fine a business, we will award you money. I'm a plaintiff's attorney: In an ideal situation, I would just wave a magic wand and the person would not have experienced what they've experienced. But since we can't wave a magic wand, all we're left with is the ability to go after people for money. I learned a lot when I was on the Commission for Human Relations; it truly is not even about money, it's about being respected as a human being.

The last thing I'll say is when we opened our brewery, we hired the manager of a homebrew shop my business partner and I used to go to. We wanted to hire [this person], we thought she was phenomenal, and [this person] is married to her wife. About a year into being our head brewer, [this person] sits me down, and I'm like, "we cannot have [this person] quit, we need her." She's like, "look, I'm going through a transition, I prefer to be referred to as either Aidan or AJ". I think we were probably the second brewery to actually employ a transgender brewer, not just a brewer, a head brewer.

What I'm trying to do is take what I've learned and wherever I am, I'm conscious and that I am affirmatively looking out and making sure that everybody's being respected and at the basic level, making sure that we dignify people as well.

WCT: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the LGBTQ community right now?

I swear, I've talked to people where it's like all of a sudden LGBTQ individuals came about in 1996, like this just happened in the last 20 years. I remember talking to my great-aunt trying to trace back my family history, and she started talking about my great-great grandmother, how she moved from the South to Chicago and how she lived with this woman, even at 86 when she passed. I was like, "uh, was she gay?" And [my aunt's] like, well, she had a woman who lived with her for like all these years…" And I'm like, "mmmmm...ok." They shared, a room, they shared a bed, but [my great-aunt] couldn't bring herself to wrap her mind around this concept, like potentially that her grandmother was gay.

I think that part of the problem is that people don't understand that A, we're all humans, we should start there, and B, to my mind, people think that LGBTQ individuals are looking for something special, something additional, like special treatment, when my understanding is that people want to be treated like people. When I was in law school, when you took estate planning and you learned about things like power of attorney and healthcare, or just visiting your partner in hospice and things like that, that's not some special right that someone's looking for. That's not something different than anybody else would have. That's a basic fundamental human right.

WCT: How would you work to protect trans and gender-nonconforming employees?

CT: Right now, people know, worst-case scenario, they get a slap on the hand if someone is even willing to complain. You may get a fine, but it's nothing like an actual case in State court that you have to litigate, that's going to cost you thousands of dollars and get your insurer involved, and possibly get the attention of the media and things like that. One of the things that we have to do is shine a light on these issues and then lobby and push for this at minimum, [to get into] State courts

One of the things I'm very big on is listening, and I think part of the problem is that we wait, until, there's, for instance, a huge sexual assault case, and then we say, wait a minute, we'll do something about sexual assault. I think there needs to be training for legislators on these issues. You can't really legislate genuinely until you understand; all you can do is throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. We've got to actually hear from individuals who've experienced these wrongs. And, I'm not saying I want to hear from an employer that says, "I should be allowed to discriminate", but I think that we should hear from both sides of the table to understand why we're missing each other on some of these issues.

WCT: LGBTQ individuals suffer disproportionate amounts of violence in prison and also might be more likely to get arrested. What would you do to help remedy that situation?

CT: I'm not saying that education is the end-all be-all, but I'm very big on training. I think the first thing to do is for us to be educated and to recognize that there is no one size fits all. We somehow know enough that if somebody is in a certain gang, not to put them with another gang, but we don't seem to understand that if someone is treated as prey, in regards to being discriminated against, then perhaps the best thing to do is not just to throw them into a bad situation.

When I say separate individuals, I don't mean to segregate or subjugate or to treat people differently in an inhumane way. I think we need to be very very conscious about some of the specific issues that people are more susceptible to. If it means that we need to pay special attention, then that's what we need to do. If we have to have special facilities...and I get it, it's a cost thing, that's an issue. BS! We find money for whatever we want to find money for. The Department of Corrections budget was $52 million in 1970. It's $1.4 billion as of 2015. So we have the money. What we don't have is the focus. We don't have people who care enough to speak to these issues, because people are concerned about what if the religious abse is going to say something. Time is up for that, it's 2018.

WCT: Since the issue has come up a few times in our conversation, what specific plans would you have to combat LGBTQ youth homelessness?

CT: I work with an organization, DePaul USA, the US arm of which focuses on eliminating homelessness. We just opened up our first practice in Chicago, and we actually house homeless college students. Out of the 5 or 6 students we house right now, 4 of them are LGBTQ.

I'll be very candid with you that I'm just learning that this is an issue at the collegiate level. I think there should be more funding for just outreach in general, more funding for programs that are specific to LGBTQ youth. I think some of these issues are a little bit different. I think it's something unique here where people come from fairly decent middle class situations and they're being go to the people that you love and they're the ones that push you away. So I think there needs to be funding to do more outreach, but also to support places like the Night Ministry and other organizations that also target homelessness.

And I think that also we need to treat youth homelessness a little bit different that adult homelessness. Homeless is homeless, and it's very difficult, but a younger person who's having to sell their body or potentially isn't even old enough to get a job, those are unique issues.

WCT: What's your position on laws that criminalize HIV/AIDS transmission?

CT: If there's a law that criminalizes it, it should be focused on "knowingly", "with criminal intent", things like that. Every situation in which you kill someone with a firearm isn't first degree murder. But I think there has to be some "knowingly" standard, and/or something that focuses on the actual intent of the person.

It sounds great that everyone goes and gets tested, but that's not the reality, we know that. I'm not trying to incentivize people to not find out, but I also don't want something that's more onerous than necessary. What are we really trying to prevent from happening? We focus on that, and then tailor a law to that specific issue, so that it's not a catch-all, where someone genuinely doesn't know they transmitted an STD, whether it be HIV/AIDS or something else to someone. That's a far cry for someone who's been diagnosed, they know, and they say, "you know what, I'm just going to go infect as many people as possible." That is a totally different situation than some other situations, and we need to be very very careful in that regard.

WCT: What would be first on your agenda if you get to Springfield?

CT: One of the things I talked to Equality Illinois about was, how do we help individuals who are LGBTQ become part of the process? You got to get in and understand legislation. I'm certainly committed to making sure my office is reflective of the diversity of the state. My plan is to have someone who is LGBTQ on staff, or in the middle of some kind of internship program. You could be a 16-year-old, but you can learn how the sausage is made. Until you really get to understand how things happen from the inside—and I think organizing is important, I'm not suggesting it's not—you got to have representation right there, in the belly of the beast.

But as far as first things, there's no way I'm going to get to Springfield and not look at the budget, and bringing in additional revenue to make sure that we don't cut core services, and that we are on the path to fully funding education, and that while we're spending $1.4 billion on the Department of Corrections, are we at least getting our money's worth? So again, it gets back to some of the issues we talked about for LGBT individuals who are in the Department of Corrections. There's money to make sure that we are taking care of every person in the department of corrections. there's money to make sure that individuals who have gone to jail and/or prison can come back into society and reintegrate and have an opportunity to still provide for themselves.

My understanding based on doing some reading is that Chicago is pretty hot internationally as far as human trafficking. Hiring individuals who are being trafficked is an issue. And people who are just trying to get up and go to work everyday are being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. We can't incentivize businesses, we can't license businesses that do harm to people. I don't care if you're an attorney, accountant, if you have a liquor license, if you're discriminating against people, your license needs to be on the line, not just a fine. If you can't treat people at a minimum, fairly, if you can't do that, you don't need to be licensed to do business.

WCT: Any final thoughts?

CT: I want to get to Springfield and be a legislator that builds coalitions, and coalitions don't really know boundaries of LGBTQ, race, or even what side of the aisle you're on. I mean, really building a coalition that builds the state forward, that's why I want to go to Springfield, and to get people to understand that we're really so much more alike than we are different. I get it, at some point there's a finite amount of resources, but we all live in the same state, we're neighbors. I really want to be known as somebody who goes to Springfield to forge relationships and to build up our communities, and for once and for all, shine a light on discrimination and move towards actual solutions that keep the very individuals discriminated against part of the process. That's key.

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