85% Coalition Fights for 100% Equality Under Law

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“You’re fired because you’re gay.”
This was the message Red Lobster sent Dale Hall, an associate manager at the Lincolnwood restaurant, in 1996. In Illinois, there is currently no state law prohibiting an employer from handing a worker a pink slip bearing the simple explanation, “Reason for dismissal: Employee is homosexual.” The Illinois Human Rights Act protects people, at least in theory, from discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, marital status, and military status. But it does not include sexual orientation.
Cook County’s Human Rights Act does contain a provision which includes sexual orientation, and it is the only reason Dale Hall got his job back. Following the decision of the Cook County Commission on Human Rights to award Hall damages, back pay, and interest, Red Lobster’s owners, the Darden Restaurant chain, tried to appeal by having the civil rights law declared unconstitutional. However, bowing to the threat of a boycott and a spate of negative publicity generated by gay rights advocacy groups, the company dropped its appeal.
In 1991, the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain issued a memo recommending the termination of employees “whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our societies.” Julie Davis, a Cracker Barrel representative, attributed the memo to “an erroneous statement issued by a vice president who was replaced.” But the eleven employees who were fired as a result of this “erroneous statement” were never rehired or offered compensation.
Only nine states and scattered counties in the United States offer legal protection against such discrimination. This means that if a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered individual (LGBT) wants to minimize his or her chances of being denied housing or employment due to sexual orientation, (s)he must live in an area with a strong law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination, or at least with a strong vocal opposition to such practices. Champaign County arguably has the latter, but not the former.
A primary voice for change in Champaign County and east central Illinois is the 85% Coalition. Explains the groupís co-founder Mary Lee Sargent, “The name comes from a 1998 University of Illinois-Springfield poll that asked, ‘Do you think there should or should not be equal rights for LGBT people in terms of job opportunities and housing?’ More than 85 percent responded ‘should be.'”
In February of 2001, members of the 85% Coalition were arrested at the Capitol building in Springfield while trying to convince lawmakers to add the sexual orientation provision to the Illinois Human Rights Act. (The Act, besides protecting against discrimination in employment and housing, also covers public accommodations and credit.) Their strategy was to bring pressure to bear by raising public awareness. “We can’t influence the legislators,” group member Meg Miner said, “but we can influence the people who vote for them by getting our cause media coverage.”
There were certainly cameras clicking during the incident that February, when six of the 85%ers were thrown into a paddy wagon at the Capitol. Their crime? Chanting “No, no, we won’t go / until we have equality! / We’re your daughters, we’re your sons! / Pass House Bill 101!”
“We were arrested for the equivalent of disturbing the peace, which we were prepared to accept, and trespassing, even though we were in a public forum with 75 other members of the public,” Miner said. “It went to trial and we were acquitted.” The demonstration and subsequent arrest did, however, receive the desired media coverage.
Demonstrations by the group have continued at a steady rate, with several occurring this spring in response to the impending June 30 deadline for passing new legislation in this year’s legislative session. 85% Coalition co-founder Kimberlie Kranich explained the need for continued direct action this way: “There is historical proof that social change doesn’t happen by asking.” In her view, the fiery feminists of the early twentieth century women’s suffrage movement, and the defiant blacks of the more recent civil rights movement, demonstrated that turning a conservative tide is not an easy task.
House Bill 101 (chief sponsor Larry McKeon, D-Chicago) faced consistently stiff opposition in its previous incarnation as House Bill 474. Representative Rick Winkel (R-Champaign) and both former and current Republican representatives from Urbana, Tim Johnson and Tom Berns respectively, have voted against adding sexual orientation to the Illinois Human Rights Act. Repeated attempts to contact Winkel (three phone calls during business hours and three e-mails) and Berns (four phone calls during business hours) regarding their current positions on House Bill 101 yielded no response. But in the past both have stood by the claim that they are “against any bill that would give a group special or extraordinary rights.”
On the other hand, a letter from the Office of the Governor, dated March 19, 1999 and signed by Governor George Ryan, Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood, Attorney General Jim Ryan, Secretary of State Jesse White, Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, and Comptroller Daniel W. Hynes, addressed to “Colleagues in State Government” on the subject of House Bill 474, stated, “No group of Illinoisans should receive special privileges, and no groups should suffer from special legal disabilities. This law provides no special rights, affirmative action, or quotas. It simply protects us all from discrimination.”
The argument that this legislation would give homosexuals special rights is one commonly marshaled by right-wing religious groups, who have traditionally been the most vocal segment in opposition to laws which could be construed as condoning homosexuality. When contacted about the group’s political stance on this issue, Executive Director of the Illinois Family Institute Dennis LaComb said, “We believe homosexuals are portrayed in a positive, though unrealistic, light in a media that often has a pro-homosexual agenda.”
The IFI, whose Director of Public Policy Virginia Nurmi is in the Governor’s Children and Family Leadership sub-cabinet, released several handouts in response to requests for further elaboration on its position. Homosexuality, the IFI states, “is just one form in which the brokenness of humanity reveals itself, along with greed, hatred, fear, dishonesty and intemperance.” According to the release, “there are substantial reasons for opposing the current attempts to grant gays, lesbians, and bisexuals the ‘special’ rights they seek.”
One of the reasons given in the group’s literature is that “they are not discriminated against in any of the key areas judged essential by the courts, namely economic status.” This despite the fact that a 1995 study by the University of Maryland found that “lesbians earn up to 14 percent less than their heterosexual female peers with similar jobs, education, age, and residence.” Controlling for the same factors, the study found that gay and bisexual male workers earned from 11 percent to 27 percent less.
Seated in the corner of a bustling vegetarian cafÈ on a drizzly Sunday morning, former history professor and sturdy matriarch of the 85% Coalition Mary Lee Sargent voiced her strong opinions on economic and employment discrimination affecting LGBT individuals, in addition to arguably lower wages. Using herself as an example, she said, “Illinois does not recognize a legal marriage union between homosexuals. If I die, my life partner will get a $1000 survivor benefit from Parkland College, because she is designated as my beneficiary. But if we were married, she would get half my pension for the rest of her life. If she lived ten years, that would be a quarter of a million dollars. If House Bill 101 passed, you could at least make a legal case in a civil suit.”
Irrespective of statistics in favor of either position, many LGBT people, not unlike their religious counterparts, view the fight over House Bill 101 as a question of values. “At least on one level,” Miner said, “the government would be admitting that not all homosexuals are scumbags.” Kranich added, “The religious right knows that if the law passes, it signals a change in values, and that shift would be away from their values, which view homosexuality as a condemnable sin.”
The current General Assembly has a little over two months left to vote on the bill, but members of the 85% Coalition are realistic about their struggle to get prohibitions against sexual orientation discrimination enacted into law. Questioned about the bill’s chances, Meg Miner replied, “I think theyíll use September 11 and the budget to say, ‘We have a lot more important things to deal with.'”
Despite the seemingly bleak immediate outlook, the dissidents are unwavering in their commitment. Regarding the uphill battle ahead, Kim Kranich vowed with her head held high, “It may take years to build the momentum, but my hope is based on a long-term vision.”

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