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Republican Legislators Take Measured Stances In Bloomington-Normal LGBTQ Town Hall

Dave Bentlin speaks
Prairie Pride Coalition President Dave Bentlin facilitates discussion with Bloomington-Normal lawmakers as part of an LGBTQ town hall. Prairie Pride Coalition co-sponsored the event with Equality Illinois.

Bloomington-Normal LGBTQ residents and allies told area legislators about their wants and needs Monday night at a virtual town hall to highlight issues still facing the community. They favor certain pieces of legislation, and say they're hoping for lawmaker support.

The legislators at the event were all Republicans. They had a measured response to most of the proposals brought up during the evening.

One bill that came up, the Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children's Health Act, would mandate sex education for public schools starting in kindergarten.

State Sen. Jason Barickman said he thinks there will be some resistance to the bill because of how early students would start learning sex education, though supporters say it creates age-appropriate standards depending on grade levels.

Barickman said some of the provisions in the bill already exist in state law. He said he is not ruling out supporting the bill.

“It's always good to go and look at whether what is in the law reflects what Illinoisans’ expectations are," said Barickman. "It is possible that some revision needs to be made there.”

He also acknowledged that many high school students have not had adequate experiences with sex education in health classes.

"It's been a long time since I went through sex ed in high school," said Barickman. "There's no doubt that what I learned there probably could be vastly improved from what we might expect today out of that experience."

What the advocates say

Brian Johnson is the CEO of the LGBTQ group Equality Illinois, which helped present the town hall. He said the aim is not to micromanage how certain topics are taught in the classroom.

“We teach math at all grade levels, but it doesn't mean we teach long division in kindergarten," said Johnson. "Nothing in this bill requires educators to remove their expertise when it comes to deciding what is age appropriate.”

Len Meyer, a community member who works on health education with students in multiple area school districts, said legislators need to help foster change for students.

"They're tired of waiting, they're tired of waiting for some change or some new legislation," said Meyer. "They need more from us as adults."

Community member Amanda Breeden said young kids are able to grasp topics such as bullying and gender identity. And she said those children need the support of the entire community.

"We need more than just the people on that base ground foundational level, doing the work in their communities already," said Breeden."We need protections for these kids."

Decriminalizing HIV

Another bill mentioned would decriminalize HIV. Current state law makes it a crime to engage in certain behaviors without disclosing an HIV-positive status. Advocates for decriminalization say keeping HIV criminalized discourages people from getting tested.

Dave Bentlin is president of the Prairie Pride Coalition. The group was one of the event sponsors.

Bentlin said HIV criminalization laws are an outdated product of a time when HIV was just starting to attract attention. He said those measures were drafted and passed in haste.

“We didn't know a lot about HIV and AIDS," said Bentlin. "Legislators, quite honestly, were looking for any way they could act to look like they were taking action on this pandemic."

State Rep. Dan Brady said the current law is just one part of bills legislators in the 1980s saw as necessary. He said he wants to see a bigger picture approach.

“I hope it becomes a part of a comprehensive study instead of piecemealing certain things," said Brady. "Do we need a bigger comprehensive approach of repealing some of the things that were put on the books back in the 80s?”

Birth certificate gender changes

The lawmakers present had many questions about a bill to make it easier for trans people to change the gender on their birth certificates. Bentlin said trans people currently need a letter from a doctor to make that change.

“The people who want to do this are people who have gone through a lot of thought and time, counseling, oftentimes, medical procedures, and they would like the ability to do this in a more efficient way," said Bentlin. "The challenges that people face in changing the marker on their birth certificate are pretty substantial."

Brian Johnson said the proposed bill would reflect changes in the scientific understanding of trans people.

"Our best understanding of how to honor the community is to allow people like they do on other documents to tell us on their own what their gender is," said Johnson.

Dan Brady was an architect of legislation 20 years ago to make the filing of birth and death records an electronic process. He said he’d support the proposal.

“I would think there has to be a pathway to respect the documentation side of it, but yet, make it more of a streamlined process,” said Brady.

Beyond legislation

Community members are also talking about ways to help LGBTQ people in the Twin Cities. Laurie Bell said downtown Bloomington would be a good place for a community center.

“People know that an LGBT community center is good for the local economy, and it's good for the safety of the community," said Bell. "They're positive wherever we build them, you know, people come, and they're positive for everyone, not just for LGBTQ people specifically.”

Budget pressures often place limits on what the state can do. Rep. Dan Brady said local grassroots efforts could help make a community center and other local initiatives a reality.

Community members also told the lawmakers the community has changed a lot over the last four decades.

"We're not always on the forefront of developments, like community centers for LGBTQI+ community," said Bentlin. "I think the momentum is there, and I think in order to make our community a more welcoming place for everyone, that it will take more than legislation."

Bentlin said Bloomington-Normal is not the conservative place it once was, but he said the LGBTQ parts of the community need support from elected officials to keep making progress.

The Bloomington-Normal town hall is part of a statewide series of events. They’re being sponsored by Equality Illinois and local LGBTQ organizations.

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Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.
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