Community, politicians celebrate marriage equality progress at Equality Illinois gala

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Photo: Jack Reese.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Photo: Jack Reese.

In the midst of the fight for marriage equality in Illinois, more than 1,000 people gathered at the Chicago Hilton Hotel in the South Loop Saturday to celebrate the recent progress of a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage, and to honor Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, for her efforts to achieve LGBT equality.

In attendance were Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and several other elected officials from throughout the state.

The Justice for All Gala, a fundraiser for Chicago-based LGBT rights group Equality Illinois, came just days after a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in the the state sailed out of a Senate committee — the first of many hurdles for the bill before it can become law.

Steans, who was presented with the Equality Illinois Freedom Award at the gala for her sponsorship of the marriage bill, told the Chicago Phoenix that she is grateful for it but wishes it had come after the bill’s passage.

“This obviously means an enormous amount to me, but it feels a little premature because I’d rather be getting it after the bill is passed, but it will be soon,” Steans said. “I don’t think I’ve slept since working on this bill. I know that I’m just a small cog in this fight for marriage equality that so many people have been working on for so long.”

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), plans to bring the legislation, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, up for a full Senate vote on Valentine’s Day.

[L-R] Cook Co. President Toni Preckwinkle, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Pat Quinn.

[L-R] Cook Co. President Toni Preckwinkle, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Pat Quinn.

The gala, which was both a celebration and call to action, featured co-chair and renowned Chicago chef Art Smith and his husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro, who spoke together at the event. Smith has authored cookbooks and cooked for Oprah Winfrey, President Obama and many other celebrity eaters.

“For Jesus and I, we were married two years ago in Washington, D.C., when the marriage bill was passed,” he said. “We were unable to get married in Illinois. We had an incredible wedding in Washington but it wasn’t recognized in Illinois.”

Another special guest, English rugby star Ben Cohen, said that the murder of his father inspired him to get involved in LGBT rights. Cohen has shed light on his unhappy upbringing many times in the media and it is the driving force behind founding The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation to combat homophobia and bullying.

“[Stand Up is] about bullying and we keep away from politics and religion, and our message is very broad, so we normally keep away from that,” Cohen said. “But I have a lot of friends in the LGBT community that have supported us and made the foundation happen, and so I’m sharing my support and respect for equal marriage.”

He added, “I was in a privileged position to make a difference. A lot of the stories I had on that fan page on Facebook are very similar to my own. They’ve suffered at the hands of other people. My mom tried to commit suicide twice after my dad got murdered for trying to protect someone who was being bullied. So, I use my anger in a positive way, to be the best husband in the world and to win a world cup and stand up for these people, which I did.”

Jaime Laurita, a donor to Equality Illinois who attended the gala, married his partner Rich Lane in July 2011 on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” For the wedding episode, the couple teamed up with Equality Illinois for a fundraiser and raised $9,000 that night during the show’s taping.

“When we had the opportunity to be on Bravo, we needed to find a foundation, and we wanted to find somebody that was really making a difference in the gay community,” he said. “It was an amazing opportunity to show the world that not only civil unions, but gay marriage, all just boils down to love.”

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said speaking at the annual event feels natural to him because he of his love for the cause, even if the preparation for it makes him nervous. Before becoming CEO, Cherkasov was a lawyer in private practice with a specialty in international transactions.

“When I was an attorney I would speak in court before a judge or a jury, but the audience there is smaller, either one judge or a jury of 12,” he said. “Here, I’m speaking to an audience of 1,200 or 1,400 people. When you look around the room and you see how many of those tables are filled by lawmakers and public officials, it’s a reflection that our time has come and our time is right now. They could be at a million other places tonight, but they chose to be at one event that celebrates and commits to LGBT equality. It’s a reflection of the momentum we’ve gained.”

Steans also reflected on the emotional impact the gala and the fellow attendees have had on her.

“It was five years ago when I was at this event when I first decided to run and I was at a table of folks of transgender individuals and they all shared their personal stories with me,” she said. “When I went home that night and was finally by myself I just sort of broke out into tears and it really made me reflect on what the role of being an elected official really means in terms of people sharing their trust with you and the responsibility that comes with that to really represent other people.”

About the bill, she added, “I think we’ve got the votes in the Senate, and I think we’ll get momentum. I do think we’re going to get it done.”