Beyond Marriage Equality

As Illinois inches toward legalizing marriage equality, one activist says there’s more to do.
by Bo Suh
Bernard Cherkasov, 37, knows what it means to be a minority. His experiences growing up in Azerbaijan, an anti-Semitic country, and facing persecution for being Jewish sparked the passion for public policy that embodies his work today. As a gay man, he began his career in his religious community and is now at the forefront of the marriage equality movement. He currently serves as the chief executive officer of Equality Illinois, a Chicago-based organization working for LGBT equality. Cherkasov sat down with the Medill Equal Media Project to talk about the issues that face same-sex couples and the LGBT rights movement. Excerpts:

MEDILL EQUAL MEDIA PROJECT: HOW DID YOU BEGIN WORKING FOR EQUALITY ILLINOIS AND WHAT DREW YOU TO THE FIGHT FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY?

Bernard Cherkasov: I worked for other gay rights organizations philanthropically, and I would always say, “The work is not quick enough, aggressive enough or compelling enough.” Finally, an opportunity opened up at Equality Illinois, and I thought it was my chance to be on the inside and to be part of their work. Luckily, the board of directors of Equality Illinois gave me that chance, and so I got involved.

IN AN INTERVIEW WITH TERRENCE CHAPPELL FOR THE HUFFINGTON POST, YOU SAID THE FIRST WORD THAT COMES TO MIND TO DESCRIBE YOURSELF IS “REFUGEE.” HOW HAVE YOUR CHILDHOOD AND RELIGIOUS IDENTITY INFLUENCED YOUR WORK IN PUBLIC POLICY?

Before I became a refugee, I was living as a minority in a different part of the world. There was always a sense that in order to have equal rights, we had to beg and plead for them. And then we came to the United States, a country that promised equal opportunity to everyone. It has an obligation to live up to those values every single day. That makes my work easier and more inspiring because I am not trying to push our society to do something against its will. As a gay parent, it’s important for me to make sure that the world my three-year-old daughter is growing up in will treat her equally and give her equal footing in society.

THE BIGGEST NEWS STORIES ABOUT LGBT PEOPLE TODAY CENTER ON MARRIAGE EQUALITY, ESPECIALLY THE SUPREME COURT’S HEARING OF PROP 8 AND DOMA. WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO SEE IN THE FUTURE REGARDING MARRIAGE EQUALITY?

Illinois still has to pass marriage, as do all of the other states. It’s important that we do not lose sight of that. We still have to make sure that the freedom to marry is not the final battle in the LGBT equality movement. We have to make sure that students are not victimized or bullied. We have to make sure that laws against workplace discrimination are being implemented. There is a lot more work that we’re going to need to do.

REALISTICALLY, HOW LONG DO YOU THINK THE FIGHT FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY WILL GO ON AND WHAT DO YOU SEE HAPPENING IN THE NEAR FUTURE? 

I’ll give you the parallels in other movements. This country [adapted] laws to protect people against religious discrimination a long time ago. Yet the need for those organizations that fight anti-Semitism, like the Anti-Defamation League, is not going to waver. We’ve remedied a lot of legal racial injustices, but the NAACP still has to exist to create a better, more welcoming society for everyone. That will be the role for the LGBT equality movement as well. We have to be our own champions and make sure that the laws are there to protect us, but we have to continue to fight for a better society for everyone. I think our journey is going to be a long one.

SOME ARGUE THAT MARRIAGE EQUALITY ISN’T THE BE-ALL-END-ALL TO THE LGBT RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND THAT THERE ARE A LOT OF OTHER ISSUES FACING THE LGBT COMMUNITY. WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO SEE CHANGE NEXT?

We’re going to have to continue to educate a lot of people because even if we achieve the freedom to marry, it doesn’t mean that LGBT people are fully equal. This battle for the freedom to marry has taken so many resources and so much attention from our movement that people are going to be exhausted afterwards. But how can we say we’re equal if students are being bullied or if transgender people are losing their jobs? There are all these pieces that we still have to work on and we’re not fully equal until all of them are achieved.

SOME CRITICS OF THE MOVEMENT FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY ARGUE THAT IT’S A VERY MIDDLE-TO-UPPER CLASS, PREDOMINANTLY WHITE MOVEMENT THAT EXCLUDES THE “B” AND THE “T” OF THE LGBT COMMUNITY. HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND?

A study published in The New York Times four years ago showed the financial burden of same-sex couples from lack of recognition from the federal government. It focused on how couples must go around the law to ensure that they still have legal protections as a couple. The people who don’t have the economic ability to do so are the ones the laws discriminate against. This adds urgency to the movement for the freedom to marry because each socioeconomic group is hurt in a unique way from the lack of the freedom to marry.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG ADULT WHO WANTS TO BE ACTIVE IN THE LGBT COMMUNITY IN THE FUTURE?

Think about the world without limits. For those interested in LGBT activism, say, “How do I envision a world that is perfect? What can I do to make that society happen?” We have to do that work ourselves and not feel restrained. One can be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher and still advance LGBT equality. They can do that by coming out in their classes and workplaces and in the pews in their churches. The more people know somebody who is openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, the more likely they are to support their equality. By being honest and being [ourselves], we can move mountains.

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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