Springfield, IL (December 28,2023) This is a reprint of an State Journal Register feature article that was published this day. For those who were not able to access it, we are posting it on the CORAL website.
"Even in Illinois, being LGBTQ can be perilous; hate crimes based on sexual orientation up"
Zach Roth Springfield State Journal- Register
Published 5:01 a.m. CT Dec. 28, 2023 Updated 5:01 a.m. CT Dec. 28, 2023
For Tom Wray, editor/publisher of the Springfield-based LGBTQ news publication
Illinois Eagle, he'd never really felt unsafe in the Capitol City – until this year.
The "eureka" moment came as he covered the Illinois Freedom Caucus' press conference involving a 16-year-old who said that she had been kicked off the Springfield YMCA's swim team because she saw someone who claimed to be a biological man in the women's restroom, then put up signs that had phrases like "Biological Women Only" in protest.
Wray watched the crowd at Rotary Park being whipped into a frenzy and wondered if he might become a target that day, not just in words, but in actions.
"That was the first time I had felt physically afraid covering a story," Wray said. "The attitudes that I saw there were blatantly transphobic (and) hateful. That was a brand-new experience for me and the fact that it happened in 2023 in Springfield, which is not a super-liberal city, but it still happened here in my home, scared me more than most things have recently."
Wray's experience is an all-too-common reminder of the universality of discrimination, particularly against LGBTQ people like him. Even in Illinois, long-regarded as a "safe haven" for the LGBTQ community, there are times, like the press conference, when people like Wray can feel unsafe.
Those incidents are becoming more common and many can turn into a hate crime. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Justice, 21.7% of all hate crimes reported in Illinois in 2022, the latest available, were based on someone's sexual orientation. The 75incidents were significantly up from the prior two years, where only 11 were reported in 2020 and 2021.
Wray grew up in Indiana, right along the border of Illinois in the small town of Princeton. His career began in the Hoosier state, but he moved to Chicago in 1997 because as a gay man, he considered Illinois safer.
"Being gay in Indiana sucked," Wray said.
Wray's experience is his own, but it repeats a common refrain about the progressive nature of Illinois. Home to a Democratic trifecta, holding the governor's office and majorities in the state House and Senate, Illinois has broad discrimination protections regarding sexual orientation. Indiana, however, banned gender-affirming health care for minors in April and banned transgender youth from participating in sporting events. Both of those bills were blocked by federal courts.
Similar legislation has passed in two other border states – Missouri and Iowa. All three have Republican trifectas in state government.
However, not every place within a supposed safe haven is so safe. Brian Sylvester, director of the Springfield-based Coalition of Rainbow Alliances (CORAL), says that metropolitan areas in places like Indiana and Missouri are most likely safer than rural areas and the same goes for Illinois.
"There's certain areas that are still possibly not going to be safe," Sylvester said. "Even in the states like Indiana and Missouri and Kentucky, when you go to the metropolitan areas, everyone's a lot more open (and) non-judgmental. They're probably safer in the major cities. It's the same here in Illinois. You go to Chicago and you're probably a lot safer being a member of the LGBTQ community.
"You go to some place like Lincoln, you may not be. I'm not picking on Lincoln (but) it seems like the more rural you get, the more likely there's going to be some unease."
Wray said legal protections for LGBTQ people were almost nonexistent in 1997 when he first moved to Illinois. Chicago did have an anti-discrimination ordinance on the books, which was one of the reasons why he moved there.
Eventually, legal cases such as Lawrence v. Summers in 2003 and Obergefell v. Hodges in2015, which allowed gays to have sex in private and marry without state interference, provided basic rights for gay people. Both were relatively recent decisions – within the last 20 years – and are well-protected in Illinois.
Sylvester, a gay man who lives in Springfield, said that when CORAL began its yearly "The Ritz" fundraiser a decade ago, it mainly attracted 60-80 people from the LGBTQ community. Now, things are a bit different. Hundreds show up for this event each year, with a record crowd of 400 people attending this last year's fundraiser at the Crowne Plaza.
No longer is the fundraiser just an event for LGBTQ people. Sylvester said that about half the people who attended the event weren't LGBTQ, but rather, supportive allies. It's a sign that more people are comfortable showing their support for their friends in the LGBTQ community, something much different than how things were a decade before.
"We're obviously seeing that a lot of support is being given to the LGBTQ community through these types of events," Sylvester said. "We're seeing a lot of heterosexual allies coming forward and saying, 'I support your freedom to live how you identify.'"
That support proves vital whenever someone says or does something that could be considered discriminatory towards LGBTQ people. Sylvester said that 20-30 years ago, that may not have been the case.
"Even people who ordinarily wouldn't say something are stepping forward and saying, 'No, you can't do that,'" Sylvester said. "This latest deal with the YMCA, the trans community and the Freedom Caucus, we had several parents who had kids going to the YMCA who reached out to us and said, 'I don't want my kids raised believing that this is okay. What can I do to prove to them that we don't do this, we show support for everyone?'"
Sylvester runs into many people still flabbergasted that discrimination of this kind still exists, and he's seen instances where old prejudices still run deep, even in Springfield.
During a recent rally in support of transgender people at the steps of the Illinois State Capitol, Sylvester said that a woman stuck her head out her car's window and shouted, 'You all can die!' at the demonstrators.
"This was in the middle of a speech being given," Sylvester said. "It still exists – that hatred, misunderstanding, miseducation is still out there. There's going to be individuals that don't want to understand or wish to be educated."
That, he said, is just a fact of life – not everyone is going to open their minds to new ideas or people who are just a little bit different from them. He said that social media does make it worse in a way, with people hiding behind the anonymity of the internet to spout homophobic, transphobic, racist, and discriminatory language.
"It's easy to go on social media and say things without a face," Sylvester said. "You can create a Facebook page, Twitter, or Instagram and never post a picture of your face and be a falsely identified person. It's like bots are out there spewing things as well. That could be nobody, but it's sharing the hatred and misunderstanding, egging people on and believing some of the things that they say."
Wray also pointed out that a lot of this rhetoric is going out into the open now, with the Freedom Caucus rally/press conference being a key example.
In his role with the Eagle, Wray is tracking statewide the open discrimination of LGBTQ people, particularly the "T" portion of that moniker. The rhetoric in the rally at Rotary Park wasn't just limited to that one patch of grass – Wray wrote about parents in Chatham who threatened to pull their children out of the Ball-Chatham district after they saw a meme in a Facebook group about biological boys using the girl's restroom.
Places like LeRoy and Morton in the Bloomington-Normal and Peoria areas, respectively, are also having to deal with transphobic and homophobic behavior, all out in the open. Physical attacks are rare, according to Wray, but the rhetoric isn't something that can just be washed away.
"It's not something that we can completely ignore," Wray said. "Transgender people have been very much targeted, even here in Springfield. Last year, the Phoenix Center
(the LGBTQ community center) was the target of far-right groups for graffiti."
This newly open rhetoric has caused Wray to rethink having a Pride flag on his front door. The distinctive design of rainbow colors has been a hallmark of LGBTQ identity and allyship.
"Almost every other day, I'm now wondering, 'Should I take that down to be a little bit safer?'" Wray said. "I've kept it up so far because there are other people in the neighborhood with Pride flags, including houses with kids, and if I take mine down, they become a target."
Even with the expansion of rights for the LGBTQ community and the growing acceptance of their existence, Wray said that he doesn't just want gay rights to be concentrated in the progressive, big-city islands where they are most popular. He pointed out that none of the legislators who participated in that Freedom Caucus event in July were from Springfield, but he considered it an attempt by ultra-conservative groups to put a foothold in places that are friendlier to the LGBTQ community.
"It is a start to try and fight their way into the larger cities," Wray said. "I don't think we're in danger of losing Chicago, but it does feel like it's trying to turn Chicago into this island."
Not to say that Wray doesn't like living in Springfield. He does, but he says that he feels like he's at the very edge of where it can be safe to be a gay man in Illinois.
"Every once in a while, it feels like I'm at the end of a very long supply line and I'm at the edge of where it's safe," Wray said.
Sylvester also feels safe living in Springfield but pointed out that he was someone who had not personally had the kinds of horror stories that many gay men have with less accepting people.
"I've never personally felt terribly discriminated against because of my orientation," Sylvester said. "I don't know why that is. I know others have terrible stories to tell, I've just never personally experienced them myself.
"I can't imagine what it feels like, but I do feel for the trans community because I've seen it and that's where I think to myself, 'I can't even comprehend what it must feel like to feel so misunderstood and so hated, even though I'm not known by those individuals who are spewing it at me.'"