LGBTQ+ Chicagoans and their supporters gathered the evening of Feb. 4 for the 2023 edition of the Equality Gala. Speakers included Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Equality Illinois CEO Brian Johnson and Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith, who was bestowed with Equality Illinois' Spirit Award for her work in fighting anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in the Sunshine State.
Smith said that, despite the rampant sentiment against the community that is so prominent in her state's political milieu, LGBTQ+ residents there are "fine" and prepared to battle for their rights. Smith warned, however, that such local discrimination may portend challenges to LGBTQ+ communities nationwide.
"I'm here to remind you that the Florida fight is our fight collectively, [and] I'm here to tell you that we're going to win," she said.
"Buckle up, because we are not going anywhere," said Johnson. "…Playing defense is not enough."
Equality Illinois' CEO began his remarks with nods to historical LGBTQ+ Illinoisans, among them activists Jane Adams and Henry Gerber, and Albert Cashier, who was born a female but served in the Civil War living as man. Contemporary scholars believe that Cashier was indeed a transgender man.
"We are not new," Johnson said. "Our demands for justice are not new."
Lightfoot also called for vigilance against the radical right, warning that, "We are never out of their sights."
Lightfoot acknowledged the dozens of politicians who had just walked through in processiona traditional part of the galaand noted that, "Not that long ago, not that many of them would have been brave enough to come here tonight."
She further encouraged cohesion in the LGBTQ+ community, explaining that, "We fight by being united. We fight by making sure that no one is left behind."
The mayor added: "In Chicago, we say gay."
Lightfoot's comment was in retort to Florida's anti-LGBTQ+ Don't Say Gay legislation, championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Smith remarked that her governor seemed to be running to be "the next Confederate president of the United States."
While Smith warned that political fights lie ahead, she also emphasized throughout her speech that the community would win those fights.
"The attacks on us right now, no matter how painful [they] feel…are paving the way for a victory that will stun us all," she said.
The evening's presentation also included a remembrance for Elise Malary, a prominent transgender-rights and anti-racism activist, who lent her efforts to numerous local causes and organizations, among them Equality Illinois. Malary died in 2022.
Accompanied by Mike Ziri, Equality Illinois' director of public policy, activist Channyn Lynne Parker (an Equality Illinois board member) said, "Day in and day out, [Malary] extended justice, even when she was not the recipient of the grace she extended to others."
Parker's remarks were prepared by Myles Brady Davis, Equality Illinois' director of Communications, who had given birth to a second child the day of the gala.
Politicians and public officials taking part in the evening included U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth; U.S. Rep. Eric Sorensen; Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle; and Cook County Board Commissioners Donna Miller and Kevin Morrison.
Also attending were Illinois Department of Human Rights President Jim Bennett; Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch; former Illinois House Majority Leader Greg Harris; state Reps. Robin Kelly, Lamont Robinson, Jr., Ann Willians and Kelly Cassidy; former state Rep. LaToya Greenwood; and state Sens. Sara Feigenholtz and Mike Simmonds.
Other political figures included Alds. Tom Tunney, Andre Vasquez and Maria Hadden; Judge Jill Rose Quinn; Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering; Illinois Secretary of Financial and Professional Regulation Mario Treto, Jr.; State Comptroller Susana Mendoza; State Treasurer Mike Frerichs; and Lieutenant Gov. Juliana Stratton, among numerous others.
Additional presenters and speakers that evening included Adam Collins, Justin DeJong, Reyna Ortiz, Toi Hutchinson, Luis Roma, Butch Trusty, Mony Ruiz-Velasco and Zahara Bassett.
As is tradition each year, Equality Illinois Co-Founder Art Johnston offered his toast to the crowd: "To full equality and justice for all."