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A New Path to LGBT Power

Equality Illinois

Equality Illinois helped usher in new legislation that will make it easier for LGBT people to affect policy in schools, hospitals, and prisons.

At a time when the Trump administration is turning its back on transgender students and betraying the patriotism of transgender members of the U.S. military, representation and visibility on the local and state levels are more important than ever. Yet it's not too hard to imagine a state education board debating policies that impact LGBTQ students without LGBTQ people actually serving on the board and being able to weigh in. Or for a state health commission to consider programming that impacts LGBTQ people without an LGBTQ appointee on the commission.

That's why we at Equality Illinois advocated for and secured bipartisan passage of the LGBTQ Public Service Law during the Illinois legislature's 2017 spring session. Signed into law by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on August 18, the LGBTQ Public Service Law helps the state gather necessary information to know whether Illinoisans of all backgrounds are inspired to lend their strengths and talents to public service on state boards and commissions.

We know courts matter when it comes to advancing justice and making the lives of LGBTQ people better. Lawrence v. Texas and the Obergefell decisions are evidence of that. The same goes for state legislatures and city councils. In Illinois, our civil rights laws have been adopted and defended by pro-equality majorities in the General Assembly, which includes several LGBTQ-identified legislators. And those laws were first adopted and implemented at the local level, by city councils in places like Urbana, Springfield, and Chicago.

Yet there is another, often overlooked facet of state and local government that has the capacity to advance justice -- or turn it backward -- for LGBTQ people: public boards and commissions. And that's an area that deserves more of our focus and scrutiny in order to develop LGBTQ leaders and build our political power.

We cannot be confident that the LGBTQ community will be fully equal and included until we are affirmed, represented, and visible in public leadership throughout the states and country. We should live in a world where LGBTQ leaders serve and we are represented at every level of government, especially public boards and commissions.

Equality Illinois is embarking on a project of public leadership to increase the number of LGBTQ Illinoisans who sit on public boards and commissions throughout the state. When LGBTQ people are visible, we are powerful.

In Illinois, there are over 350 boards and commissions at the state level. These bodies can make regulatory policy and implement statutes, including pro-equality laws like Illinois's conversion therapy ban and nondiscrimination protections.

There are entities where LGBTQ people should obviously be represented, such as the Illinois Human Rights Commission, which considers and adjudicates claims of discrimination brought under the Illinois Human Rights Act. Yet there are other important entities that make and interpret policies that affect our lives. For instance, the State Board of Education and the boards of trustees of our public universities set guidelines and policies for our educational institutions. The Illinois Human Services Commission, State Board of Health, and Children and Family Services Advisory Council play important roles advising state agencies about programs that impact the lives of LGBTQ people. And at a time when one out of five young people in U.S. juvenile justice facilities identify as LGBTQ, boards like the Juvenile Advisory Board and Department of Corrections Advisory Board can be key to ensuring the fair treatment of LGBTQ people involved in the criminal legal system.

Having LGBTQ people sit at all levels of public office is important for two reasons. First, such representation ensures that the unique needs and challenges our communities face will be brought into consideration when decisions about us are made. Second, it lifts up the leadership of LGBTQ people. When we are visible leaders in our communities, our experiences and stories can be shared and anti-LGBTQ stigma can be confronted more forcefully.

Our new LGBTQ Public Service Law allows individuals who apply to serve on boards and commissions under the authority of the Illinois Governor's Office to voluntarily self-identify as LGBTQ. Existing law already allows applicants to self-identify their gender, disability status, and ethnicity. The new law also adds the new data about sexual orientation and gender identity to an existing annual report to the General Assembly of the demographic data of individuals who apply for boards and commissions and for those who are appointed. The state website contains information about the boards and commissions, including the annual report of demographic data of the appointees.

The LGBTQ Public Service Law will contribute to a leadership path for LGBTQ individuals who want to engage in public service. In turn, those officials can share our experiences and stories as LGBTQ people. That helps when we work to advance policies that are inclusive, affirming, and fair.

In states where LGBTQ individuals face hostile legislatures, working to build representation on state and local boards and commissions is an engaging and possible way to cultivate power and affect policies that impact our lives. We can't let the opponents of LGBTQ equality and inclusion secure these important policymaking seats.

By building our capacity at all levels of government, we can be visible and powerful.

BRIAN C. JOHNSON is the chief executive officer of Equality Illinois, the civil rights organization for LGBTQ Illinoisans.

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Brian C. Johnson