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Accountability is the hot topic at LGBTQ+ forum attended by Sen. Dave Koehler and B-N mayors

lgbtq+ town hall participants
Philip Walker
From left, Normal Mayor Chris Koos, Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe, state Sen. Dave Koehler, Dave Bentlin from the Prairie Pride Coalition, and Mony Ruiz-Velasco, deputy director of Equality Illinois.

Bloomington and Normal mayors Mboka Mwilambwe and Chris Koos joined state Sen. Dave Koehler to discuss inclusivity and equality during a town hall forum Tuesday night hosted by LGBTQ+ advocacy groups Prairie Pride Coalition and Equality Illinois.

Koehler, a Democrat from Peoria, is running for re-election in Illinois’s 46th District, which will include much of the Bloomington-Normal area beginning next year. Illinois state Reps. Dan Brady and Keith Sommer, as well state Sens. Jason Barickman and Sally Turner, were invited to the forum but did not attend.

The town hall opened by congratulating the Illinois General Assembly for passing two bills designed to enhance healthcare and quality of life for LGBTQ+ Illinoisans.

The first bill, HB4430, will allow pharmacists to prescribe, dispense and administer HIV prevention drugs without a prescription from a doctor.

According to the CDC, 65% of 2019 HIV diagnoses in the U.S. occurred as a result of male-to-male sexual contact, with Black and Latino people being disproportionately affected by the disease at rates of 42% and 29% of diagnoses respectively. In that same year, 1,252 people in Illinois were diagnosed with HIV.

The second bill, SB3490, will give representation to older LGBTQ+ people in the Illinois Council on Aging in order to “investigate, analyze, and study the health, housing, financial, psychosocial, home-and-community-based services, assisted living, and long-term care needs of LGBTQ older adults and their caregivers.”

A 2016 report by the Williams Institute estimated that there are 2.4 million LGBTQ+ Americans over the age of 50, and that number is expected to double by 2030. The report also found that older LGBTQ+ adults are more likely to be socially isolated and less likely to receive informal care because they are less likely to have children. LGBTQ+ elders are also relatively less financially stable than other Americans due to a lifetime of discrimination from employers, limiting opportunities to build savings.

Both of these bills will become law pending the signature of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Focus on accountability

When the forum opened up to public comment, the hot topic was accountability.

The first commenter suggested legislators give the laws “some teeth” after noting that some public schools are flaunting Illinois’s 2019 Inclusive Curriculum Law that mandates them to teach about contributions to state and U.S. history made by LGBTQ+ people.

“It’s pretty tough. You have to probably go through a court proceeding if you’re going to really force the issue,” Koehler said. “But remember that school board members are elected. I think you need to lobby them just like you’d lobby me or the mayor.”

Both mayors encouraged people to take matters into their own hands and run for school board positions if they were dissatisfied with the state of affairs.

The next commenter, McLean County Board member Beverly Bell, suggested there ought to be some sort of recompense for transgender people who experience mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement and other officials.

“It’s not just the public sector, it’s the private sector as well that you’re talking about,” Koehler said. “I don’t know how you enforce sensitivity, but there has to be better training and better guidelines that are put in place on that.”

“Our (police) department strives very hard to be very professional, but I won’t say we get it 100% right 100% of the time. We don’t,” Koos said. “But it’s important that we know what that issue is so we can address it head on.”

“Stop me in the mall, in the grocery store, and tell me what’s going on, because I’ve had a great, great experience in this community,” Mwilambwe said, “and my goal is to make sure that everybody has the same great experience.”

“Really what we need are watchdogs,” said Dave Bentlin, a Prairie Pride Coalition board member from Bloomington-Normal. “If you see things that are happening, let us know, let Equality Illinois know, so that we can follow up and help you find the answers, help you find accountability for people who are mistreating us in the community.”

Sgt. Kiel Nowers of the Bloomington Police Department’s Community Engagement Unit later stood from his seat in the audience to address the people next to him.

“There is a long history of lack of trust between the police and the LGBT community, and it’s well earned, unfortunately,” Nowers said. “We have a long way to go to earn your trust, but that’s kind of what our job is now.”

Bell dismissed these reassurances, revealing that during her tenure at the Normal Police Department that she suspected that she was banished to working the graveyard shift after she came out of the closet, but she said her attempts to escalate the issue “fell on deaf ears.”

The final commenter, a recent California transplant who identified as transgender, suggested that Bloomington and Normal work on projecting their images as inclusive communities, saying that they worried they might have to go back in the closet because they didn’t know what to expect upon arrival.

Members of each municipality’s human relations boards in the audience said that they had previously tried to push to get on the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Index, but their efforts had been forestalled. Mwilambwe and Koos gestured toward reopening those efforts. Of the nine Illinois cities currently indexed, Chicago ranks the highest at 100 of 100 possible points, while Carbondale ranks the lowest at 49.

“I think there’s a lot of value of going through that process, of going through the Equality Index process and finding out where we stand compared to other communities like Peoria and Springfield and Champaign-Urbana,” said Dave Bentlin. “I think it also pushes people to do better. Nobody wants to get a bad report card, you know? They want to work hard to show that this community can live up to the diversity that it promotes itself as embracing.”

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Philip Walker is a correspondent for WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.
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