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2013 proved to be watershed year for LGBT community in Illinois

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2013 proved to be a watershed year for the Illinois LGBT community when a major victory was scored with the passage of SB10, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act which granted marriage benefits to same-sex couples across the state.

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This came on the heels of an earlier loss when many advocates and supporters were disappointed after the vote was not called by the bill’s chief sponsor in May of last year.

We spoke with a few of the Chicago community leaders on what they felt was their proudest moments, both personally, and legislatively, in 2013, and all agreed that marriage equality topped the list.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) told me in an email, with a note of reserve, that while “It would be easy to pick the passage of the marriage equality bill as my proudest accomplishment of 2013. The truth though is that the victory, while significant, was bittersweet.”

Expanding on her comment, she said that, “Our failure to pass the bill in the spring was heartbreaking. Because of the delay, my constituents Robb and Steve were unable to marry before Steve died, my dear friends Vernita and Pat had to seek the intervention of a federal judge in order to marry here in Illinois given the risk of Vernita’s cancer preventing her from surviving until the June 1 effective date and many other couples had to leave the state to get the federal benefits afforded couples in other states once the Supreme Court decision made it possible for couples to enjoy those protections.”

But, she also stressed that, “It was a great victory, just tempered with the disappointment of the spring. Other highlights include passage of the medical marijuana bill, passage of a budget that avoided major cuts to services and continued progress on restorative justice practices in the state.”

Of course, what would a new year be without resolutions? Cassidy’s list for 2014 would “include building connections between agencies in the district to improve efficiency and opportunities for cooperation, continued work to improve the criminal justice system to make our system more efficient, humane and improve public safety and to finally pass comprehensive bullying legislation to provide tools for teachers, parents and students to ensure that our schools are places of learning, not of fear.”

Andy Thayer, founder of Chicago’s Gay Liberation Network told me that his number one highlight was, “The time in late September when a number of my "non-political" friends and co-workers started talking about the October 22nd March on Springfield for Marriage Equality. The Gay Liberation Network and a few other organizations had been working on it since early July, but up until late September, it seemed like we were rolling a boulder up a hill. Having witnessed our defeat in late May and the profound cynicism which prevails in Springfield and other political capitals, I knew that we would lose again if the only buzz about the march was among political junkies like myself.”

And, he also stressed that “getting thousands of cold, sodden LGBTs and allies outside of the Capitol Building was just prerequisite number one for victory of SB10. Nonetheless, it was an exciting one for those of us in GLN, as we'd been working this issue since 1999, and had taken a lot of shit-- over the years for doing so.”

Thayer also focused on the process, and the people, that it took to pass SB10, and that political leader, and heavyweight, Michael Madigan, Speaker of the House, also had a role, one that he had neglected to play earlier during the previous session.

“Madigan easily had the power to pass SB10 after it became overwhelming popular in our state -- he has used his super majority and purse strings to ram through a host of widely unpopular perks for his wealthy buddies, so passing SB10 should have been a no-brainer. But he didn't want to ruffle the feathers of religious bigots like Cardinal George, nor spend any political capital on it,” said Thayer.

And, he stressed, “By pasting Madigan and his party for any defeat, we upped the ante and helped push it over the top.”

For Thayer, like Cassidy, there were also personal moments that loomed just as large, as when he announced “my engagement to my husband, Aldo Hernandez, from a stage on Halsted Street. I cleared it with him first, but he didn't know that a few months later I would put him on the spot again at his large office Xmas party. He had just started a new job one month before, they had karaoke, which I'd never done before, but anyone who knows me, knows that putting a live mic in my hands can be a dangerous endeavor.”

Another highlight for 2013, for Thayer was “Edward Snowden's NSA revelations. Over and over again,” he emphasized, “an Obama administration flack would go before a Congressional committee and/or the press, perjure or lie all over the place, and then get caught out by yet another Snowden revelation a few days later, over and over again. It tanked their credibility.”

Fully admitting his left-leaning bias, Thayer added, “We've long felt that Presidents of both parties are profoundly contemptuous of the rights of the 99%, whether in this country or abroad. Like the Nixon Whitehouse tapes and Chelsea Manning's wiki-leaking, Snowden's revelations showed this in such convincing detail that only die-hard national security state apparatchiks and hangers-on to the Obama administration were left defending the law-breaking by the NSA.”

For 2014, he would like to see “that LGBTs begin demanding that their organizations begin paying attention to, and working seriously on, "non-LGBT" issues, and leaving those organizations if that refuse to shape up. This head-in-the sands gay-issues-only attitude has got to stop. For one thing, it torpedoes us from getting a lot of solidarity we might reasonably hope to get from non-LGBTs if we behaved otherwise, as Harvey Milk; et al. did back in the day when they defeated the Briggs Amendment and Anita Bryant. “

Perhaps one of the biggest economic events for 2013 was the approval by Illinois lawmakers of landmark legislation to reform state pensions, and fill a hole that was over $100 billion dollars, what the Chicago Tribune called “the nation’s most underfunded public employee pension systems,” and one that has been extensively covered in this column.

The plan, controversial, from the start, scales back a cost of living increase – of 3 percent to retirees, plus has many current workers forfeit “as many as five annual cost-of-living pension increases when they retire,” the Tribune reported.

One notable effect of the underfunding was the downgrading of the state’s credit rating, which had, in turn, the effect of an increase in borrowing costs for public work’s projects.

The final version however, while clearly a compromise bill, gave pain to some lawmakers, such as Cassidy, who stressed in her statement, “This was the most difficult decision I have had to make during my time in Springfield. Over the last two sessions, I have worked closely with all involved stakeholders to develop an understanding of the issues involved in the debate. Since the framework of this proposal was released, I have studied it, spoken to colleagues and advocates on both sides of the issue, and carefully considered the impact of these cuts on the individuals involved.”

Fiscal reform is never far from the headlines in today’s economy, and both on the local and state level, reform is needed, and Cassidy underscored that when she also noted, “I genuinely believe this isn't the complete solution to our fiscal crisis and hope that my colleagues who worked so hard to craft this proposal will put just as much effort into reforming our revenue system and bringing a fair tax system to our state that will both generate the revenues we need to function properly and bring tax relief to the majority of working families in our state.”

Late December, however, brought the first of lawsuits, that many predicted would happen due to a provision in the 1970 Illinois State Constitution that says public pensions are “an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

The Illinois Retired Teachers Association was the first to file suit and argues that the cost-of-living increases, age increases for current workers, and salary caps, are in direct violation of that provision.

Now, the Retired State Employees Association, which represents more than 9,000 retired employees, has filed suit based on the reduction of their benefits, and that the COLA was not meant to be an adjustment, but was only considered to be an annual annuity adjustment, according to Bruce Strom, president of the association.

This was followed by another suit filed by the Illinois State Employees Association Retirees in Sangamon County.

Rounding out the third of the top three stories in Illinois for 2013, was the unprecedented closing of over 50 Chicago schools, mostly in African American neighborhoods by Mayor Rahm Emanuel who some characterize as necessary budget cuts, but that he characterized as reform; a move which helped to erode Emanuel’s base of black voters (who overwhelmingly elected him) and will no doubt be an election issue in 2015, a reason that even his most ardent supporters see as evidence of an enlarged "war chest" of campaign money, and donations.

While it is inevitable that there may be some spill over from last year’s legislative and political happenings, Chicago, that near quintessential town, or “toddlin town,” never fails, even when it sleeps, to deliver it share of scandal, intrigue, triumph and victory.

Follow me on Twitter @dgrantchi

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