Jane Byrne is often remembered as Chicago’s first and only woman mayor. It’s less well-known that she was also “the first mayor to recognize the LGBT community,” according to advocacy organization Equality Illinois. Byrne ended police raids on gay bars, was the first mayor to march in the Pride Parade and issued the first executive order to end discrimination against gay people in city jobs and services.
As a young queer and trans voter in Chicago, I’m proud of this history but also disappointed that the current mayoral candidates have failed to address the most pressing issues facing Chicago’s diverse queer and trans communities — except for one candidate who clearly outshines the rest.
In a recent interview with Windy City Times, Chicago’s LGBT weekly, Mayor Rahm Emanuel demonstrated his lack of knowledge about the specific needs of queer and trans Chicagoans, especially those who are most vulnerable in the city.
When asked about urgent issues like queer youth homelessness, poverty in the trans community and police violence against trans women of color, he avoided answering the questions directly, proving that he is largely unaware of the challenges facing queer and trans people in the city, along with how to address them. Towards the end of the interview, Emanuel finally admitted, “I owe you more work.”
Mayoral candidates Bob Fioretti and Jesus “Chuy” García were also interviewed by Windy City Times and provided more thoughtful and compassionate responses. Both expressed an interest in creating safe housing for homeless queer youth, advocated for greater public education around HIV/AIDS and discussed their political histories in support of gay rights — Fioretti as an early supporter of marriage equality and García’s vote in favor of Chicago’s Human Rights Ordinance in 1988. Fioretti commented, “You don’t have to be active in a community to support it.”
While Fioretti’s comments felt a bit vague, García voiced his support for undocumented LGBTQ immigrants, praised the work of Project VIDA, a community organization focused on sexual health education, and discussed his relationships with trans people in Little Village:
“I live half a block from a club in Little Village. It used to be La Cueva. … I’ve encountered many members of the transgender community over the decades, so I’ve had the opportunity to chat with them … I’ve been able to get a better understanding of their reality, their challenges, their bullying, the ridicule that they’re subjected to.”
William “Dock” Walls and Willie Wilson were not interviewed by the paper. They did not fill out a survey sent by Windy City Times, or attend the Equality Illinois Gala, which was attended by Emanuel, Fioretti and García. Their thoughts on Chicago’s queer and trans populations were difficult to find.
While Emanuel, Fioretti and García’s comments to Windy City Times gave some insight into the candidates’ stances on these issues, the city’s LGBT newspaper should not be the only one asking questions about how to improve the lives of queer and trans Chicagoans.
These questions have been absent for the majority of the race — from the mayoral debates, the candidates’ platforms, and their public comments. In addition, LGBT organizations seem to have taken little interest in this year’s campaign, despite the fact that they organized a debate during the last mayoral race.
This silence is unacceptable, especially in a city that is home to so many queer and trans individuals and organizations. Queer and trans communities will continue to support and celebrate each other, regardless of who is mayor — but people in our own city need to stop ignoring us too.
While Jane Byrne was only mayor for one term, her successor was another politician who welcomed the concerns of queer Chicagoans — Harold Washington. Like Byrne, Washington was a champion of gay and lesbian rights. In 2007, he was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame as a “Friend of the Community” because of his groundbreaking work as mayor. His legacy includes the creation of the first Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues.
In an interview with — you guessed it—Windy City Times in 1986, Washington said, “It’s pretty clear that the gay and lesbian community is becoming a potent — of course it’s not there yet — political force in this country, and anyone who doesn’t recognize it is not going to be in office, it’s just that simple.”
Chicago must elect a mayor who actively supports the needs of queer and trans people. Queer and trans people need access to basic services like employment, education, healthcare, and housing that are accommodating to our specific needs.
In Illinois, 74% of respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported job harassment or mistreatment, 80% experienced harassment in school (grades K‑12), 22% postponed medical care due to discrimination and 13% became homeless due to their gender identity or expression. In the United States, these issues need to be addressed on a city, state and federal level
Like Chicago’s first woman mayor and the first black mayor before him, the candidate who is most likely to address these concerns would be another first — the first Latino mayor in Chicago’s history, Chuy García.
García broke the silence around LGBTQ issues in the mayoral race by releasing a detailed plan of action on February 12, just under two weeks before election day and after early voting already began. García identified six issues related to the LGBTQ community that he plans to address as mayor: participation in city administration, violence against transgender people, LGBTQ youth safety, services for seniors, HIV/AIDS and resources for LGBTQ veterans. In his plan for LGBTQ Chicagoans, he wrote,
I understand that LGBTQ people of color face special challenges in being heard and in securing their rights. I will work to make sure there is racial and ethnic diversity in my proposed revival of the Human Rights Advisory Councils and in all groups addressing issues facing LGBTQ people in the city. I also believe that the current administration has neglected people in the neighborhoods throughout Chicago, and I will work closely with LGBTQ advocates to make sure the needs of all members of this diverse community are met in all neighborhoods on all sides of the city.
Shortly after the announcement, a coalition of over 30 LGBTQ activists announced their support for García. The coalition represents an incredibly broad spectrum of people working to better the lives of queer and trans Chicagoans, including historian John D’Emilio, trans activist Alexis Martinez, and co-founder of Affinity Community Services, Lisa Marie Pickens. Windy City Times also gave him an “A+” rating.
It seems clear that unlike the rest of Chicago’s mayoral candidates, García will fight not only for queer and trans people in the city, but for all communities in Chicago who have been ignored far too long under the current administration.