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GLBT Mon Jan 31 2011

"A Slap in the Face." Equality Illinois, Rick Garcia & LGBTQ Coalitions

This article was written by freelance journalist Samantha Winslow.

Juan Calderon sips coffee at Café Colao on Division Street in the historic center for the Chicago's Puerto Rican community. This part of Humboldt Park is marked by red and blue metal banners on each end in the shape of the Puerto Rican flag. The café, known for Puerto Rican style coffee and pastries, is a block from where he works at the Vida/SIDA center inside the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Calderon begins to talk about why he and fellow Humboldt Park activist Roberto Sanabria published a letter in the Windy City Times, a Chicago publication for the gay and lesbian community, voicing their concern and anger over Equality Illinois firing Rick Garcia, the political director and co-founder of the state's largest advocacy organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality.

"Firing Rick Garcia was a slap in the face to the Latino community," Calderon says.

Calderon says he has no idea why the Equality Illinois would fire such a prominent figure in both the Chicago Latino and LGBTQ community. This is a common sentiment among Garcia's supporters who are flabbergasted that someone who played such a key role in passing Illinois civil unions bill would be fired from the organization he co-founded.

Equality Illinois may have tried to minimize the backlash by timing Garcia's dismissal before the holidays but Garcia supporters and allies around Illinois continue to voice concern about the decision, as has Garcia himself. Calderon and Sanabria say that removing Garcia from Equality Illinois will set back years of political progress, particularly in bridging the Latino and LGBTQ communities of Chicago.

At 24, Calderon is the director of the Vida/SIDA Center; the name translates to Life/AIDS in English. Its bright blue and red painted storefront pops out on Division street; up close, the mural includes symbols of the gay rights movement and of HIV/AIDS crisis and shows the services provided inside, testing, education on prevention. While he says he is happy about civil unions passing, he and other Humboldt Park activists have priorities in the community: health, public safety and economic advancement for LGBTQ residents.

Calderon talks about future plans for the center: they want to expand to the adjacent and now vacant store front to create Chicago's first transitional shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. It will be called "El Rescate," or The Rescue. He is planning a fundraiser for the expansion where they will showcase "I am the Queen," a documentary about Humboldt Park's one and only transgender beauty pageant that Calderon began a few years back to address homophobia and transphobia.

The pageant was organized not only to support the transgender community of Humboldt Park; the winner of the pageant becomes a community liaison, doing outreach and education on behalf of the Vida/SIDA Center. Rick Garcia wasn't just supportive of the Vida/SIDA programs from the start; he is a guest judge at the beauty pageant, and sits on the organization's advisory board.

Juan Calderon is a fixture of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, when he gives a tour of the buildings he points to different stages of his life: as a child he attended their day care program, and after dropping out of high school, he attended their alternative high school. Now that he directs the Vida/SIDA center, he attends college classes at North Eastern Illinois University, planning to get a degree in public health.

Calderon wants more resources available for his community to address the problem he also faced as a teenager: at times he was homeless. He sees the shelter as a groundbreaking program to create a safe place for teens to go if they get kicked out
of their homes for being gay, or are being bullied at school. A University of Illinois study reported almost 2,000 homeless youth in Cook County on a given night, another study identifies up to 42 percent of them to be LGBTQ.

Calderon credits Garcia for fueling the center's expansion plans. More than that, he sees him as a friend and mentor. Garcia led the way in getting elected officials on board including State Representatives Cynthia Soto, and Maria Toni Berrios, and Iris Martinez. Calderon says that having someone with a presence and commitment in Humboldt park who can then lobby in Springfield gave the community a bigger voice in politics at a time when other gay and lesbian organizations and leaders focused services and programs in Boystown, Chicago's North Side hub for gays and lesbians in a white, and affluent part of the city.

Roberto Sanabria, who co-wrote the letter, is also on the advisory board of the Vida/SIDA center, and has been an activist in Humboldt Park, and in the Latino and LGBTQ community for more than 20 years. In the letter he warned Equality Illinois that removing Rick Garcia was a mistake, and would create a divide between Latinos in Chicago and the broader LGTBQ advocacy movement.

Sanabria says his experience living in Humboldt Park is that the community can be leery of outsiders, like some agencies from Boystown, many of which do great and necessary work, but can as he says, "Let you do all the work and take all the glory." Rick Garcia was different he says, "He really appreciated the notion of self-determination." Sanabria and Calderon say that their relationship with Equality Illinois exists because Garcia worked there.

Neither Sanabria nor Calderon know the specific reasons why Rick Garcia was removed from his position of policy director of Equality Illinois in December, and the organization is staying tight-lipped. Perhaps that makes the decision that much harder to come to terms with. Garcia himself spoke to the press about being blind-sided by the move less than two weeks after civil unions passed, granting same sex couples the same legal rights as married couples under state law.

Some speculation about why Garcia was fired involved clashing personalities, that Garcia is an old school Chicago leader, loud, brash and sometimes a loose cannon. His comments often brought controversy to issues both when he was addressing anti-gay opponents, and his allies. His opposition to the proposed charter school for gay and lesbian youth was puzzling to some. He criticized the idea of a "homo-high" in the press at the same time anti-gay groups were mobilizing against the school.

But Sanabria, who disagreed with Garcia on that issue, said he respects Garcia's position, "His reasoning was sound." Sanabria says Garcia wasn't just being negative; instead he was speaking to, "the notion that we shouldn't compartmentalize our youth."

Garcia supporters say that while he didn't shy away from controversy, his aggressiveness was what got results. Jim Bennett, the regional director of Lambda Legal, a legal organization for LGTBQ equality, was in Springfield when the civil unions bill passed and disagreed that Garcia made any missteps. On the contrary, Bennett credits him with being an integral of the coalition in Springfield getting the civil unions bill passed.

Bennett did, however, sign on to an Equality Illinois press release sent out after Garcia's firing showing support for the organization moving forward seeing the firing as a personnel decision. He says he had no knowledge of the reasons for the firing and praises Garcia's accomplishments and his leadership style, "He finds a way to help everyone know what they can do as one person." Bennett says he thinks it's healthy for grassroots groups to be vocal in their frustration and hopefully Equality Illinois can reach out to them and repair the relationship.

Julio Rodriguez, board president of the Association for Latino Men in Action, would not weigh in on the firing either but said he was sad to see it happen. As for Garcia being too big a personality for one organization or coalition, Rodriguez disagrees, "I don't know how you can do advocacy work and not sometimes wind up on the positive and negative, being the person that people identify with those issues."

He insists that Garcia is one of many Latino community activists working in Chicago to bridge the gap between issues facing Latinos, and LGBTQ members. A crucial issue Rodriguez and for ALMA is immigration reform, since it is an organization that works to bridge Latino and gay community. They work to ensure that gays and lesbians are included in any legislation passed for immigrants on the path to citizenship.

ALMA is working with Equality Illinois to create an agenda for a mayoral forum for Chicago's LGBTQ community, and they are committed to involving Chicago's diverse communities. They held meetings meetings in Humboldt Park and Bronzeville to gather information and identify key issues for candidates. He recognizes that issues may be different, and that the agenda shouldn't just be limited to Boystown groups.

"The gay community has branched out all over the city," Rodriguez says. He isn't worried about Equality Illinois reaching out to Latinos, but rather that stresses that neighborhood activists around the city, particularly in communities of color, need to be more visible in their own neighborhoods, and not just flock to Boystown.

He highlighted the work of Juan Calderon and Vida/SIDA, along with other grassroots groups like Boricua Pride, Amigas Latinas, The Rainbow Riders and Homofrecuencia, "I think sometimes because we are smaller organizations and we don't always get the headlines I think people forget that there are groups working to move the agenda forward."

Equality Illinois director Bernard Cherkasov said that he hasn't read the letter Sanabria and Calderon penned in the Windy City Times and isn't aware of the concern or distrust from Latino community now that Rick Garcia is no longer employed at Equality Illinois. He says the organization needs to represent gays and lesbians around the city as part of their mission, "We need to represent more than the North Lakeshore LGTBQ population."

Cherkasov pointed to Equality Illinois' Faith & Freedom Initiative as an example of outreach to different religions and cultures. "There will not be any divide," he says, "Our commitment is unwavering." In terms of filling in the Garcia's spot, Cherkasov said they plan to refill the policy team, and that they currently have a lobbyist on retainer. He stresses that implementation of the civil unions bill is on the agenda after last year's legislative victory, but ultimate goal for the organization is full equality.

Back in Humboldt Park, Juan Calderon is also unwavering. He says he will not work with Equality Illinois unless they rehire Garcia. "He is our Latino leader," Calderon says. Calderon and most of Garcia's friends and allies are assured Garcia will still be a force in the LGBTQ and Latino community in Chicago and continue to fight regardless of what organization he represents. And he will be at the Vida/SIDA fundraiser next month. Calderon and other young minority activists will have to decide how they will make their issues heard in the broader gay rights alliance around the state.


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Tracy Baim / February 1, 2011 3:03 PM

The proper link for the Garcia interview in Windy City Times is:

Andrew Huff / February 2, 2011 1:57 AM

Tracy, your link leads to an opinion piece of your own. Our link appears to be correct -- unless you're referring to something else?

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