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Blagojevich and gay politics [17 December, 2008]

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Illinois voters were stunned this past week by the news of Governor Rod Blagojevich being arrested on corruption charges.  Along with his chief of staff John Harris, who has since resigned, Blagojevich was charged with, among other allegations, holding out President-elect Barack Obama’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat for a “pay-for-play” deal.  The two men were both out on bail December 9, the day of their arrest.

At press time, Blagojevich had not resigned, despite calls from Obama, Senator Dick Durbin and others to do so.  The situation puts the state in political flux, especially with regard to the Senate seat, which the governor can still fill by appointment.  On December 12, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a complaint with the Illinois Supreme Court, asking it to oust Blagojevich from office by considering him unfit for the position.  On December 15, Speaker of the Illinois House Mike Madigan announced that the legislature will form a committee to investigate the possible impeachment of the governor.

This recent scandal has drawn scrutiny to elected officials around Blagojevich.  The gay community is significantly represented in Illinois and Chicago government.  Blagojevich has enjoyed the support of the gay community, having signed a gay-rights measure that adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the state statute that protects against discrimination on grounds of race, gender or religion.

Among elected gay public figures are Blagojevich’s sister-in-law, State Representative-elect Deb Mell, alderman Tom Tunney, and State Representative Greg Harris.  Gays and lesbians are also among appointed officials and trusted advisors to elected officials.

How did Illinois, and Chicago in particular, come to be such a “gay-friendly” place? Does the significant presence of gays and lesbians in political organizing mean that the interests of the LGBTQ community are fully served? To answer such questions, Windy City Timesspoke to a cross-section of people who have either worked in political and grassroots organizing and/or observed the making of the lesbian and gay political machine.

Rick Garcia, political director of Equality Illinois, was instrumental in the passage of Chicago’s Human Rights Ordinance in 1988.  He has acknowledged that the ordinance’s passage was enabled by the prior work of activists like Bill Kelley.  However, one significant difference in 1988 was that gay and lesbian activists combined a get-out-the-vote campaign with a systematic effort to rally the City’s crucial aldermanic votes.  This let aldermen know that gays and lesbians had access to both money and votes.

In 1988, ACT UP Chicago was demanding that lawmakers pay attention to the AIDS crisis.  Its tactics of public demonstrations were significantly different from those carried out by Garcia and his compadres.

Eventually, ACT UP dissipated, and gays and lesbians began to accrue mainstream political power.  One symptom of this newfound legitimacy was that gay bars were no longer regularly raided.  John D’Emilio, professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago answered the question, “How does police harassment of bars go from being pervasive to being occasional and sporadic?” He acknowledged the persistence of activists who protested the raids.  But he also emphasized that shifts in the political machinery had a tremendous influence on gay and lesbian politics.

The old Daley machine was notorious for its overt racism and discrimination against sexual minorities.  But, according to D’Emilio, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s brief tenure eventually opened up the possibilities for new ways of operating: “When the new Mayor Daley became mayor, it saw a new kind of machine, a machine that recognizes the need for representatives from all kinds of constituents.” With a laugh, D’Emilio added, “Under the best conditions [for them] , these would be their chosen representatives.  But it’s more inclusive than exclusive.”

Eventually, said D’Emilio, gays and lesbians were represented by an increasingly large number of professionalized activists, “and such organized constituents are the one in the best position to take advantage of the structure.”

Not everyone who’s queer-identified has chosen to enter that professional class of gay organizers and activists.  Many of those who participated in organizing in the 1980s continue their political works in venues and ways that aren’t strictly gay.  Michael Thompson began his activist career in the Vietnam era as a war protestor.  He went on to work in the prison-reform movement, to which he’s still connected.  Today, he’s the director of the Chicago Honey Co-Op, which provides employment to the underemployed, especially ex-prisoners, and practices sustainable urban farming.

Thompson joined ACT UP Chicago because he found like-minded people interested in the intersection of prison reform and health care.  While he doesn’t disparage the work of today’s gay activists, he doesn’t think of himself as one.  He echoed the thoughts of Jean Genet who would fight for liberation struggles, but up to a point: “When they gained power, he was no longer interested in them.”

Jeanne Kracher, like Thompson, was also a member of ACT UP.  As executive director of Crossroads Fund, which is not gay-specific but supports LGBTQ causes, Kracher today oversees the funding of groups “who don’t get a slice of the pie.” [This reporter has been involved with groups that received funding or support from Crossroads Fund.] She was realistic about gay and lesbian organizing energy today: “With any group of people who’ve been marginalized, and who [attain] a certain amount of power and traction, there’s bound to be an assimilationist segment.  [Some] people can’t believe the amount of progress, but I think progress is a relative term.  Today’s [gay] movers and shakers are effective at creating institutions that serve some and not others.”  Kracher pointed to mainstream gay and lesbian organizers’ focus on marriage, saying that “Gay marriage has become the de facto position.  Nobody would have talked that way 20 years ago.”

Both Kracher and Garcia were concerned with the issue of gay leadership, but with different communities and goals in mind.  Kracher saw gay leadership “not dealing with the intersectionality of issues.” For her, that meant the ability to see how identities, like race and gender, intersect with issues like AIDS.  She pointed out that Chicago currently does not have a single Black-led AIDS network, despite the fact that the great majority of people affected by the epidemic in the country are Black and female.

Garcia was optimistic about the growth of political organizing in Illinois, and said he was unfazed by the Blagojevich scandal: “Getting support of our issues is not contingent upon [the governor] ” As this goes to press, the Illinois Civil Rights Act, introduced last year by Greg Harris, is doomed to die as the state tries to deal with the combined effects of a nationwide economic crisis and a home-grown political scandal.  Harris is committed to refiling the bill should it die this session.

In the meantime, segments of the LGBTQ community continue to escape the notice of most gay organizers.  D’Emilio pointed out that trans youth are among those most vulnerable to police harassment.  Thompson’s work puts him in contact with communities of color, where AIDS is a reigning issue.

The mainstream gay power machine is here to stay.  The political clout of gays and lesbians in Illinois has as much to do with their economic and political presence as society’s acceptance of them.  Today, there’s not much chance that a gay bar will be raided as in the days of old.  It’s more likely to be simply gentrified out of existence.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 17 December, 2008

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