On December 3, 2018, I thanked the LGBTQ community for its patience in my first speech as an elected official.
“You finally have a voice on this board,” I said.
It was a momentous day. For the first time in 187 years, an openly LGBTQ person was on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, the legislative body of the nation’s second largest county.
Since then, the number of LGTBQ elected officials in the U.S. has grown. Between June 2019 and June 2020, the number swelled by 21 percent. While only 0.19 percent of elected officials nationwide identify as openly LGBTQ, an estimated 5.6 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ – and this is likely an underestimation.
Today, as we mark the beginning of Pride month, we must acknowledge this gap in representation and the hard work that lies ahead. Anti-transgender violence is on the rise, the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues for many LGBTQ people, and state legislatures across the country are actively attacking the transgender community. Last year, 44 transgender people were killed in the U.S. — with almost 80 percent of them being people of color. Also, too many transgender people still face barriers to accessing critical care, finding work and stable housing, and getting an education.
Now more than ever, we desperately need LGBTQ people in elected office, fighting against bills that target the trans community, undoing policies that have harmed the LGBTQ community, and taking steps toward making governments more equitable and more inclusive.
For years, LGBTQ allies have held elected office in Cook County and fought for LGBTQ equality. But real, fundamental change happens when LGBTQ people have a seat at the table, bringing unique perspectives to every conversation, board meeting, and public hearing. We draw from our own lived experiences. We see the world differently. As former Houston mayor and current president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund Annise Parker puts it, “Allies are essential and appreciated, but it is LGBTQ elected officials who prioritize our issues.”
I know this firsthand. After I joined the Cook County Board, I helped form a committee to address bias, equity, and cultural competency in the county. The committee was composed of diverse elected officials, county staff, and community partners. We held public hearings, conducted research and interviews, and pored over policies and ordinances to find where there were inequities. Eventually, after we completed our report, the county hired its first equity and inclusion director.
We have also changed an ordinance to make it easier for transgender people to use restrooms and other facilities based on their gender identities. And later this month, the county board will vote to approve my ordinance to make the county’s documents and forms gender inclusive.
All of these changes happened in part because there was an LGBTQ person in the room, writing ordinances and helping make decisions. At 27 years old, when I announced my run for commissioner, many thought the odds were stacked against me. My opponent was the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, a 12-year incumbent, and few believed I could flip the district in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago blue for the first time. But after a year of knocking on doors and building relationships with people in my district, I was able to make history on November 6, 2018, winning by a 10-point margin.
Across the country, other LGBTQ people are making change happen in city, county, and state governments. Virginia state Delegate Danica Roem, who made history in 2018 as the first openly transgender state legislator in the country, led the charge to make Virginia the first state in the South to ban the “gay/trans panic defense.” From Sarah McBride in Delaware, to Rosemary Ketchum in West Virginia, to Stephanie Byers in Kansas, trans people across the country are breaking barriers and changing the narrative – but we need more LGBTQ people at the table.
To be sure, campaigns are challenging. They involve tireless, exhausting work and require a tough skin and clear-eyed determination. If elected office isn’t for you, you can still influence meaningful change: You can volunteer for local park and library boards, talk with city council members, and meet with county representatives. Call your local state legislators and email your U.S. congressmembers. Ask them how they plan to make your community safer for LGBTQ people. If you don’t like their answers, take action. Attend local board meetings and raise concerns during public comment.
Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines. Too many people in our community are under attack.
Make no mistake: Our community will always have your back. After I won my election, I quickly built friendships with advocates and mentors at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, where I am now currently a board member. I’ve developed close relationships with trailblazers like Parker and Roem, both of whom have helped guide me and shared resources, support, and encouragement.
All of us will fight alongside you. We’ll help you when the challenges seem insurmountable. We’ll celebrate your victories.
It won't be easy – hard fought battles for what’s right rarely are – but our community, especially our youth, needs you. And we need you now.
Cook County Commissioner Kevin B. Morrison represents the 15th District on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. His district is made of the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. His core issues include improving access to mental health services and providing development opportunities and support for small businesses. Kevin also is a member of the Victory Fund Board of Directors. Find him on Twitter at @KBMorrison15, Instagram at @commissionerkmorrison and Facebook at Commissioner Kevin B. Morrison.