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HRC unveils new goals at Chicago gala
by Matt Simonette

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel opened Human Rights Campaign's ( HRC ) 2015 Chicago gala by reminiscing about the progress the LGBT community has made since Nov. 8, 1997, the date that Bill Clinton became the first standing president to address an HRC gathering—marriage equality is the law of the land, gay people can serve openly in the military and anti-discrimination protections are in place in numerous states.

For many politicians now, Emanuel added, "If you didn't show up [for an HRC event], there is a problem."

HRC officials and supporters spent much of the event, named Stronger Together: Moving Equality Forward and held at the Chicago Hilton, discussing the organization's agenda in the months ahead.

President Chad Griffin said HRC would focus on getting the Equality Act passed. That legislation was introduced in the U.S. House in July and would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include protections against discrimination for reasons related to sexual orientation, gender identity and sex. Griffin promised HRC's push would likely set off "the biggest legislative battle in the history of our movement."

He also called attention to Illinois 3rd District Congressman Dan Lipinski's support of the First Amendment Defense Act. Lipinski is the sole Democratic co-sponsor of that legislation, introduced in June, which would indemnify people, organizations or businesses from discrimination claims should their actions be taken in accordance with a belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Griffin said that the law would result in "a complete breakdown of protections" and that Lipinski's sponsorship amounted to "an attack on our families … and his own constituents."

Griffin further called for "activating the LGBT vote," noting that the number of LGBT voters—10 million—is higher than the margin of victory in the past several presidential races. "In other words, we have the power to decide elections," Griffin said.

Hyatt Hotels CEO and President Mark Hoplamazian accepted HRC's Corporate Equality Award on behalf of the corporation, and pledged to support the Equality Act.

Jim Obergefell, the Ohio resident whose struggle to have his late partner recognized as married on his death certificate resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court victory that legalized same-sex marriage across the country, was the keynote speaker. He married his husband, John Arthur, who was chronically ill, in 2013 when gay marriage was not recognized in Ohio. Arthur died just three months later.

"I discovered I was willing to be there for him, even when he was no longer with me," Obergefell said, adding that the LGBT community has now "won the right to marry yet we continue to fight for it and more. … I'm honored to be part of that fight, and I'm humbled to be part of it simply because I loved my husband."

Football player Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player, also spoke. While growing up in Missouri, he was largely disconnected from both his parents, who were religious, and his siblings who were extremely homophobic. "My mom was a Jehovah's Witness and my dad was a baptist," Sam said. "I was just Michael Sam."

He gradually became comfortable with his sexuality in 2013, he added, and, when he came out publicly, he was shielded and supported by his school and team. Sam's professional football career has had ups-and-downs, but he said, "My task is making a difference. I didn't care about the fame. I didn't care about the money. … I'll continue with the good fight, because if I don't, who else will?"

Other politicians attending the gala included state Reps. Greg Harris and Will Guzzardi; state Sens. Jacqueline Collins and Kwame Raoul; and Alds. Leslie Hairston and Michele Smith, among others. Co-chairs were Pete Cassell, Xavier Esters and Anne Klingeberger.

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