The firing of Rick Garcia as political director for Equality Illinois ( EI ) has sent shock waves around the city, state and national LGBTQ communities. The news of his forced departure has caused members of the community to speak out on his behalf. In the process, speculations and rumor have been swirling around.
Over the holiday weekend, friends and colleagues of Garcia spoke out on his behalf. Garcia also spoke with Windy City Times, and his comments are in a separate interview in this issue.
Catherine Sikora, a member of the EI board of directors, was one of those who did not sign on to a brief board announcement about the firing. She told Windy City Times ( WCT ) this was because she "didn't think [ the firing ] was a good idea. The whole situation wasn't a good idea." She would not elaborate on details, citing confidentiality reasons, and said she hoped things would be resolved amicably, adding, "To see this happening is just not pretty and it's saddening."
Art Johnston, a close friend and longtime associate of Garcia, also did not sign on; he has so far not responded to WCT's calls.
On Dec. 23, a group of four demonstrators showed up outside the EI office to protest his ouster. Garcia, who was in Miami at the time, said that he was heartened by the support but had nothing to do with the protest.
One of those at the protest was Robert Czar, who volunteered and then worked at EI for a total of four years until last spring. He said that, "The leadership of Equality Illinois created undue bad press for themselves. I think they handled the situation quite poorly. … Letting him go two weeks after the civil unions bill was passed, a week before Christmas, a month before the gala was horrible. … . I think it's disgusting. … I think it created more bad feelings in the community and it was something that wasn't very well thought out. "
Asked what the reasons for the firing might have been, he speculated that "Equality Illinois is trying to go in a different way. I think the organization is kind of becoming obsolete and I think they're trying to rethink their purpose. Rick is vocal; his communications about the openness of non-profit organizations made them nervous."
Elaborating on that point, Czar said, "He's made comments about Howard Brown [ Health Center ] because of their financial issues and the need to have complete disclosure of their finances. I think that made a lot of people in the community very nervous, especially people who deal with non-profits." Czar was also critical of EI, saying, "I think the organization is becoming way too elitist and I think that Rick was the person that stood for the people they were representing. When you're representing a community, you need to be a little bit more open to an approach from the community and I think they're just saying now, 'Well, we're going to do this our way, shut up.'"
Asked to elaborate on the organization's elitism, Czar said, "They're not very open to input from anybody in the community who doesn't give a lot of money, who isn't influential. It's become less of a grassroots organization and more of a social elite." He also said that he had often heard the comment, "I don't have time to meet with somebody who's going to give me a $35 check." He would not name the people concerned. According to him, "Rick was always the person who was willing to show up at every event regardless of how much money it raised."
The speculation that Garcia's ouster is directly related to EI moving in new directions has arisen among community members. June LaTrobe, a transgender activist, spoke of her displeasure with what she saw as Executive Director Bernard Cherkasov wanting closer ties with the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) . HRC's relationship with the transgender community has been rocky ever since the organization agreed to take gender identity out of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2008 [ they have since reversed course ] . Since then, many transgender activists still speak and write of what they often refer to as HRC's betrayal. LaTrobe also complained that Cherkasov was spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C.
It should be emphasized that there are no proven direct links between HRC and what happened to Garcia. As the accompanying interview with Garcia makes clear, the issue may be a larger one of the relationship between state organizations and larger national organizations, of which HRC is representative because of its size and political clout in Washington, D.C. In that context, for some, Garcia's ouster may in part be a symptom of larger questions haunting the gay non-profit world as it struggles to survive in a bad economy.
In the case of EI, details are still emerging and the principals involved have somewhat different versions of what happened and why. Nonetheless, what is clear is that Garcia enjoys the support of many in the community, even those who may not support his style of leadership. Many have expressed a sense that Garcia's firing happened in the wrong way and at the wrong time. Last week, Cherkasov stated that there is never a right time for such a decision. Yet, that may not appease those who see an ominous significance in the fact that Garcia was let go shortly after the passage of a historic civil-unions bill ( an effort that was coordinated by a confluence of organizations and legislators including Rep. Greg Harris, not just EI ) and the week before Christmas.
Garcia was at the organization for its entire existence, as a co-founder. He was its face and voice. That speaks to his longevity as an organizer and the unique stamp he provided EI, but it may also indicate that, perhaps, his departure was inevitable as part of the natural course of a long-standing non-profit poised at a transition point. Nevertheless, the firing has undoubtedly left a sore spot in the community and if responses so far are an indication, EI has some explaining to do.
According to Czar, "the organization was severely hurt by the way they handled this. Throwing out our elders, one of the founders, out, without a word to the community is disgusting. I think that Equality Illinois has to remember that not only does it represent the community, but it's also supported by the community [ in its ] finances and volunteers, and I think they're going to be a little more hard-pressed right now to get that support."