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Illinois' LGBTQ cabinet members discuss equality, coronavirus
by Matt Simonette

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Among those conte=nding with coronavirus preparedness, not to mention the effects from the resulting shutdowns, were numerous state government officials. They were tasked with keeping the machinery of government operating, and making sure residents received essential services, even while working from home.

The four openly LGBTQ members of Gov. JB Pritzker's cabinet—Department of Aging Director Paula Basta, Department of Human Rights Director Jim Bennett, Division of Banking Director Chasse Rehwinkel and Division of Real Estate Director Mario Treto Jr.—have been among those officials.

"It's been an incredible lift," said Basta, in a recent conversation the group had with Windy City Times. "What we had to do is whatever it was to keep seniors in their homes."

"In the beginning, we were quick to respond," added Treto. "It was exciting to see these government agencies react so quickly to the pandemic."

He said that he's appreciated seeing LGBT "family" at cabinet meetings: "This is the most representation that we've had. It's a great honor, but we're working hard together."

Rehwinkel noted that banking activity did not diminish during lockdown and that some banks needed to stay open "in a way that was helping people struggling through a fiscally difficult time. Something I really appreciated is figuring out how difficult inequity is in moments of crisis. One thing I wanted to do getting into this position is, when those challenges come up, to take them full bore and to push to relieve them. … If you're marginalized when everything is doing well, you're absolutely under fire when everything isn't."

Bennett added that he appreciates the governor and other officials who have been "leading through a civil-rights lens." His division is in charge of ensuring that Illinoisans are treated equitably in the workplace, in public accommodations, and other realms.

"When things just started exploding, we could help each other out," he said. "Civil rights out can easily go out the door when you are having this kind of crisis. Our first fear was, watching in Italy and New York as equipment was being rationed—who gets a ventilator? Who makes a decision on whose life is more valuable and more worthy? Obviously, that touches the Department of Aging more than anyone."

Bennett emphasized that he wanted to make sure that his department was "at the table when these discussions took place." He added that his department is nevertheless still on the periphery of the crisis, and that he expects an onslaught of COVID-related complaints in about six months, as various employees return to work and members of various marginalized groups are not among them.

But just as difficult for the state as it slowly progresses through various stages of reopening will be ensuring that Illinoisans can count on resources made available during the crisis to last, especially as forces in the dominant culture, be they politicians or media interests, suggest that society needs to move on.

Basta, who listed a number of resources for seniors whose deployment needed rethinking once the pandemic hit, said that such nimbleness will have to continue even as the crisis' sense of urgency wains. She added that many of the issues her department addresses are especially acute for LGBT seniors in the state.

"Social isolation for adults is very critical to be addressed," she noted. "Speaking of equity, making sure that everyone has access to the resources that help you stay healthy and safe, or if you need a meal, or if you need to connect and [want to] get on a virtual workout from a senior center, is important. So that we make it easier to access. … We broke down barriers almost overnight because we had to set aside some of the silly rules that we had in place previously.

Basta estimated that her agency rewrote almost 170 pieces of guidance to allow its constituency easier access.

Bennett said that shoring up rights for transgender Illinoisans is especially vital for his office, especially given "the monstrous things that the federal government does—their goal for the LGBT community is to erase us. Their goal is to remove our community, especially trans people, from every single document."

Treto and Rehwinkel's divisions are more ostensibly concerned with regulatory aspects of state government, so LGBT visibility might not be as obvious a concern in their work. But Rehwinkel said, "There are people not just at the top of agencies but throughout agencies who are part of the LGBT community who are thinking about these things. One of the things that is important for our community, which has been marginalized, is when you have people step into those leadership roles, it's something you have to treasure, and work hard to move fast."

Noting that Treto had similarly rewrote a massive quantity of guidance, Rehwinkle joked that the Pritzker administration was creating a stereotype that "regulation is gay."

Treto said his deputy director is also a member of the LGBT community whose "lens is completely different from mine." With their help, he eliminated various gendered references in real estate guidelines, for example, to make them more send inclusive.

He added, "I also wanted the real estate industry to be reflective of the state—we have a lot of minorities. We had a scholarship that is available, so one of the first things I did was double the financial commitment and the number of scholarships that they have, so the real estate professionals really reflect the diversity of our state."

A final initiative was a task force to address disparities in home ownership, a disparity Treto said was evident in the LGBT community.

"We're less likely to own homes," Treto added. "Part of that [problem] is from lenders and banks, so that's where Chasse and I are talking about that issue."

"It's not always about being visible, but about how we can lead by example of how we get things done quickly," said Rehwinkel.

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