Rick Garcia’s abrupt termination still roils LGBT Chicagoans

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Feb 11, 2011

When word hit in late December that Illinois' leading LGBT advocacy organization had fired long-time public policy director, founding executive director and long-time Chicago activist Rick Garcia, everything about the decision struck activists in the city, state and even across the country as strange to say the least.

With Equality Illinois' 20th-annual gala on tap for this weekend, the question of whether or how the fallout from Garcia's firing will affect the organization's future remains open.

Only weeks before, Garcia's relentless lobbying to pass a statewide civil unions bill finally proved successful-and many local activists credit his work on the issue as the major impetus behind its passage. Garcia was on hand at the Chicago Cultural Center on Jan. 31 when Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill into law. And the more than 1,000 people inside the room gave Garcia a standing ovation after lesbian state Rep. Deborah Mell mentioned his name in her speech.

When Garcia reflected back on what could have been a potentially bittersweet moment, he described the ceremony as "thrilling." Even at this important crossroads in both his own career in advocacy and the trajectory toward equality for LGBT Illinoisans, Garcia remains focused on taking the victory one step further-even without the backing of the organization he helped found.

"So many people worked so long and hard on that legislation," he told EDGE. "We just got over this hurdle and the next hurdle for us is getting people married in the state of Illinois. This has brought us one step closer to fairness in Illinois."

The civil union win is only the latest of many achievements Garcia has helped to achieve for LGBT Chicagoans and Illinoisans since he arrived in the Windy City in 1986. Before founding Equality Illinois-then called the Illinois Federation for Human Rights-in 1991, he pushed for a citywide ordinance barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He later led the fight for a similar Cook County-wide human rights ordinance, which passed in 1993. Garcia has been inducted into Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame and has been recognized with numerous legal and social justice awards in recent years.

When Garcia arrived at the Equality Illinois office on Dec. 16, he had planned to go over notes for a civil unions forum to be held two hours later. Instead; Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive director for Equality Illinois, told him he had been terminated. When Garcia arrived back to the office for work the next day, Cherkasov reportedly called the police to have him removed from the premises.

That same night, the Windy City Times published a scathing interview with Garcia, where he vowed to fight the firing.

"We have work to do. You know what, all this ... let's cut through all this, OK? We have serious work to do," said Garcia. "And I'll go up there and do it. You know what? I don't care what this crazy megalomaniac CEO or whatever he's called, I don't care about the idiot president of our board because that chap is such an idiot ... I don't care what they think. Because I know that people need help and people need protection now."

In response to Garcia's comments, Equality Illinois has avoided comment on any details of the firing, even as activists have questioned the timing and circumstances of the decision.

According to Cherkasov, "the page has turned on this personnel story." In the midst of rolling out a new program every 10 days, on average, and preparing for their 20th annual black-tie gala slated for Saturday, Feb. 12, Equality Illinois is looking to move forward beyond the negative publicity with a more aggressive agenda in the new year.

"We've wanted to make sure every person who has had questions or wanted to discuss our personnel changes and new direction for Equality Illinois have been addressed," said Cherkasov. "Ultimately, our supporters realize this is not about individuals but this is about the prize at the end of the road and that prize is full equality."

While Cherkasov might want to simply turn the page on the controversial firing, many of Garcia's supporters have apparently not come to that point. Several Chicago activists and leaders say they have good reason to suspect the organization's haul at Saturday's gala could be a bit lighter this year. And some have gone so far as to question Equality Illinois' relevance in light of what they describe as an "ousting" of one of its most visible leaders.

Bishop James Alan Wilkowski of the Diocese of the Northwest, who is a long-time friend of Garcia's, launched a boycott of the gala last month. Wilkowski remains leery of Equality Illinois' motivations behind Garcia's abrupt dismissal.

"The progress that's been accomplished here in the state of Illinois would not have been done as efficiently and effectively had it not been for Rick," Wilkowski told EDGE. "I think the manner in which Equality Illinois did this towards Rick was inappropriate, unjust and totally denied him the opportunity to address any real or imaginary issues. Given the fact that the organization has consistently talked about rights and the dignity of people, it was very tragic that the same things were never afforded to Rick."

Wilkowski further argued Equality Illinois has "undermined their credibility, their effectiveness and their moral standing."

"The primary question that has to be answered here is who was behind this?" he said. "What was the true motivation and what was the agenda? If we permit this to go unchecked in the civil rights movement, our entire march forward toward progress is going to be truncated."

Activist Lori Cannon, who is also a close friend of Garcia's, said she knew of several individuals who had participated as table captains in previous Equality Illinois benefits who plan to stay home this year.

"They are boycotting out of solidarity to an icon and the organization's founder, not because he was fired, but because of the way he was fired," she said. "They don't want to be part of an organization that treats its hard-working founders like that. The lowdown, weasley way this was carried out is inexcusable and Rick deserved a lot better."

Cannon further described the situation as "a black cloud" hanging over what should be an otherwise euphoric event. Coming less than two weeks before a Chicago election that holds the promise of even more LGBT-friendly leadership, the issue has distracted many activists from the tasks at hand.

"Once the gala is over, everyone will be looking at the organization itself and asking if it's still viable or if this was the beginning of the end," added Cannon. "The civil unions bill passed, but there's still a lot of work to do -- but is this the organization that will do it under its current leadership?"

Robert Czar, who volunteered and worked with Equality Illinois for some four years, attended a small protest outside of the organization's office shortly after the decision was announced. He admitted Garcia-who is known for his fiery outspokenness-had been in conflict with the organization's leadership for some time, but he described the means by which he was fired as "disgusting."

"The organization has gone from a grassroots organization to a tight-lipped, social elitist organization. They don't feel they have to answer to anybody," Czar told EDGE. "No one is going to deny that Rick has been controversial, including himself. Some of the things he said offended some people and I think that was part of how this decision was made but the way they did it is what upset me."

Betty Tsamis of Tsamis Law Firm announced in a Jan. 23 press release that Garcia had hired her firm to represent him "in resolving any claims and/or disputes he has with Equality Illinois."

And while he hopes to achieve "some justice and fairness, because there hasn't been that," Garcia said he is no longer angry about the firing. He added he remains focused on LGBT advocacy work, meeting with other activists throughout the state.

"I'm not going to squander 30 years of activism in Illinois and I'm not going to squander my ability to speak out boldly and forcefully against injustice when I see it, whether it's outside or inside our own community," said Garcia. "I'm still here and I'm not going anywhere. I really want to urge people to not let these kinds of things get in our way. We still have hard work to do."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.


  • , 2011-02-12 15:18:37

    The media coverage on this firing is nothing short of lazy rehashing of what appears to be obvious. Will no journalist look into what a disaster Rick became? There’s a story here about a once well-respected and powerful activist who experienced a self-imposed decline. It’s odd that no "media" looked at Rick showing up to community events drunk, insulting donors, and nearly derailing civil unions due to his lack of self control. People who understand Chicago politics and understand the inside story are not outraged---they’re relieved. If Rick worked for private company he would have been terminated long ago. He put Equality Illinois in a really tough spot and left them with little alternative.

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