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Equality Illinois gala attracts pols, celebrates progress
by Matthew C. Clark

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There were more than a thousand people shaking hands, giving hugs and patting backs in the elegant Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Chicago, a crowd of sparkling dresses, heels, cummerbunds and bow ties.

On Saturday, Feb. 9 Equality Illinois held its annual Justice for All gala, which featured a silent auction, dinner, awards ceremony and dance.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Governor Pat Quinn, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle were some of the many elected officials in attendance, among an array of activists, policy makers, nonprofit workers and journalists. Also in attendance were openly gay elected officials including 44 th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney, 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman and openly gay State Representatives Greg Harris, Kelly Cassidy and Deborah Mell. Openly gay Cook County Water Reclamation District Commissioner Debra Shore was also at the gala.

The overwhelming mood at the gala was one of celebration—for Equality Illinois, but also for the successful passing of the gay marriage bill in the Senate Executive Committee, and its upcoming vote in the state Senate Feb. 14.

Former state Sen. Carol Ronen was confident that the bill would go before, and pass, in both houses of the legislature.

"It looks very good for passing. I think everything you hear is very optimistic," she told the Windy City Times.

Ronen said that organizations likes Equality Illinois were essential in the process.

"Everybody has been at the table. Everything has been a great group effort," she said.

The Windy City Times spoke with Rep. Deborah Mell about the upcoming bill, which will go up for a vote in the Senate before going before the house. In 2004, Mell was arrested at a marriage equality protest.

"I didn't even think I was going to be in politics then. To be voting on the bill is really exciting," she said.

During the introduction of elected officials, Gov. Quinn also gave his assurances of the bill's success.

"This week will be a historic week in Illinois," he said. "This year we're going to make and pass a law called Marriage Equality."

See the video at .

Accordingly, Equality Illinois presented its 2013 Freedom Award to Sen. Heather Steans, the chief Senate sponsor of the gay marriage bill and advocate for marriage reform.

"Heather is the one who stood up in commission and refused all the things they were trying to scratch out of the bill," said Dee Beaubien, the wife of the late Rep. Mark Beaubien, who was posthumously honored with the Freedom Award last year.

Dalila Fridi, chair of the Equality Illinois Education Project, spoke of the work ahead for Equality Illinois, and possible backlash.

According to Fridi, in every state in which marriage equality legislation was passed, efforts were made to repeal or diminish its effects. Fridi also stressed that advocates will need to be able to assist public offices in the implementation of the law.

The gala was co-chaired by chef Art Smith and his husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro. United Airlines was recognized with the 2013 Business Leadership Award. Sidetrack co-owner and Equality Illinois Board Member Art Johnston gave remarks and a call for support. Johnston also spoke briefly of the history of gay rights in the state, and sent a message of support from Dawn Clark Netsch, one of the state's earliest supporters of gay rights. Netsch is in the late stages of Lou Gehrig's Disease, and was unable to attend the event.

Among the other politicians attending were statewide elected officials Lisa Madigan (attorney general), Sheila Simon (lieutenant governor) and Judy Baar Topinka (comptroller); U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley and Brad Schneider; state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz; Cook County Attorney General Anita Alvarez; among dozens of others. Two candidates running in this month's special election to replace Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. in the 2nd Congressional District also attended: Robin Kelly and Toi Hutchinson.

Photos by Kat Fitzgerald, . Follow the link under the image for additional photo spread and follow the link for more photo coverage.

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