Mixed reviews

Robert Fojtik is openly gay and grew up in the southwest suburbs. He spent years in Washington, D.C., before returning to Chicago, where he was working as Aon’s public affairs manager when he had a chance meeting with Lori Lightfoot, then-chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, at a political fundraiser held around the time of the June 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida.

The scandal over the police murder of Laquan McDonald was unfolding at that time, and Fojtik said Lightfoot had “gravitas.”

“It was a meeting of various folks from within the community here in Chicago,” Fojtik said. “When this kind of small-statured person at the end of the table started speaking, all of the chatter stopped, and people listened.“

Two years later, he was working as the chief of staff for Lightfoot’s mayoral campaign. He cited popular discontent with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “disinvestments” in public education and mental health as reasons he joined the campaign.

“Lori Lightfoot not only wanted to address those fundamental inequities, but also she brought the perspective as a prosecutor,” Fojtik said. “In a city where we had multiple council members under indictment at any given moment, it’s refreshing to have somebody who says that they are going to come in and make the city an organization that works for the residents and not just ‘the clouted few’ or the special interests.”

And they got along, as two gay people working together. He recalled a visit to donate socks to homeless LGBTQ+ youth in the winter of 2018 and a moment outside afterwards when they cried and both called their mothers.

“You don’t always get an elected official who shared that experience, that very, very real experience,” Fojtik said. “And that is but one of the very, very complex things that Lori Lightfoot has experienced in her life. So you can disagree with how she does things or think policies could be different, but at the end of the day, I don’t know a lot of people who have empathy as one of their driving forces.”

On National Coming Out Day 2018, during her first campaign for mayor, Lightfoot unveiled the LGBTQ+ policy framework she planned to enact if the voters elected her. She has enacted or made progress on much of it. But LGBTQ+ Chicagoans from across the city related serious misgivings about her job performance that augur difficulties for her reelection campaign.

Rick Garcia, who founded Equality Illinois and has been involved in LGBTQ+ activism since the 1980s, said, “It is very good and great to have an openly lesbian mayor in one of the greatest cities in the world,” because it’s always good to have a seat at the table. It’s less work for activists, he said, because “she naturally will do the right thing for our community.”

He noted that mayors have had openly gay staff since Richard J. Daley’s administration. Harold Washington established advisory councils for the city’s Black and Brown residents, women, and gays and lesbians. Richard M. Daley strengthened the city’s Human Rights Commission. Garcia said “It all went to hell” under Emanuel, but that Lightfoot has rebuilt structures on what was already a strong foundation.

When put on the spot, Garcia had difficulty naming specific policies and LGBTQ+ initiatives Lightfoot has pursued. He noted the city’s strong hate crimes and anti-discrimination ordinances. “This is all part of the city. She inherits this rich tradition of LGBTQ people being part of the fabric of city government,” he said. “The table was set before she got here. So what else?”

Garcia says he’s seriously dissatisfied with so many other aspects of Lightfoot’s administration.

“Symbolically, it’s great to have a mayor who’s openly lesbian. But what we need is a mayor who knows how to mitigate violence, who knows how to respect people, respect unions, to make sure that our city is safe and to bring economic development here,” he said. “It’s great to have a lesbian mayor, but I would much prefer to have an effective mayor.”

“In public safety she gets an ‘F,’” Garcia said. “LGBTQ people, especially people of color, are very open to violence in our city. And the city and this mayor do not have control of the violence.”

Garcia complained about Lightfoot canceling police officers’ time off and vacations because he said putting more police on the streets is not going to solve problems. He said she has alienated alderpersons and constituencies to the degree that it’s hard for her to get momentum behind her to accomplish anything.

“It doesn’t seem like she has any concept or any plan of how to mitigate the violence that the whole city is experiencing now,” he said. “It isn’t just the LGBTQ community, it’s the whole city. In years past, LGBTQ activists could focus on LGBTQ rights and hate crimes, but now all of our communities have to be concerned about public safety.”

“There’s more to leadership than checking boxes of demographic information. Representation is important for sure, but representation itself doesn’t push the needle forward on material issues.”

Brendan Power

North-side lakefront neighborhoods with large LGBTQ+ populations gave Lightfoot some of her strongest support in the first round of the 2019 mayoral campaign. Malek Tayara and Scott West, homeowners in Andersonville for four years, both voted for Lightfoot in 2019. Neither are happy with her job performance as mayor.

“You can’t control the pandemic, of course, or the racial stuff we had two summers ago, but I think her reaction to that put more attention on the city than it helped,” West said.

Tayara said he and West are concerned about safety and think the situation is getting worse. West said Lightfoot doesn’t work well with others and that police superintendent David Brown “sits on the sidelines.”

At a campaign event last month at Sidetrack in Lakeview East, Lightfoot acknowledged that north-siders are concerned about safety.

“I wanted to speak directly to that issue,” she said. “If the answers to public safety were simple, we would have already solved them.”

She urged north-siders to be part of the solution, and to go to the CPD Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy precinct and beat meetings and ask “critical” questions. The mayor—who has sparred repeatedly with the Cook County state’s attorney and courts—added, “We’ve got to challenge each and every part of the criminal justice ecosystem to protect us, to keep our neighborhood safe.”

Lightfoot said her part in that effort is keeping the CPD “fully supported,” present in every neighborhood, that her administration “keeps beating the drum of holding violent, dangerous people accountable, and that we use the tools at our disposal, technology being a part of that, to make sure that we are doing our job.”

Lightfoot’s 2018 campaign LGBTQ+ framework said she would “set high standards for how police officers treat members of the trans community,” improve police training, institute safeguards to ensure proper investigations of hate crime reports and incidents, and create a task force on the murders of two transwomen of color.

Four transgender women were murdered in Chicago last year, and another woman, Tatiana Labelle, was found dead in what the Cook County medical examiner ruled a homicide in March. A spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry about whether the task force the mayor promised has been established.

At a June 1 roundtable with LGBTQ+ reporters, Lightfoot pointed to the city’s 2021 strategic plan for combating gender-based violence, which acknowledges the disproportionate impact violence has on trans people. Its goals are to be rolled out in 2023.

She said one of the biggest challenges she has heard, particularly from trans women, is that when something bad happens, police don’t take it seriously. She wants the police to treat homicide investigations involving trans women the way they would straight people and to not write off the incidents as being due to “dangerous lifestyles” or other excuses. Police should put in the resources and intentionality other cases would get, she said.

In an era when “no cops at Pride” is a yearly rallying cry, Lightfoot acknowledged that the police are not going to make everyone comfortable, but she said there is a need to ensure police “are as diligent in solving crimes against members of our community as they are against members of any other community.”

The Reader reported in February that the CPD’s chief LGBTQ+ liaison officer left his post and that the office was understaffed. Four liaison officers are currently listed on the department’s website, with their services listed as victim advocacy, points of contact on LGBTQ+ issues, court advocacy for those wishing to press charges on an offender or seek a protection order, and partnership with community organizations.

Lightfoot’s 2018 campaign framework said she would launch an LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum for the Chicago Public Schools. This became mandatory across Illinois when Governor J.B. Pritzker signed HB 246 into law in 2019, requiring the state’s public schools teach LGBTQ+ history.

CPS has implemented other pro-LGBTQ+ policies during Lightfoot’s administration. CPS adopted a new anti-bullying policy last June that recognizes LGBTQ+ students’ vulnerability and has safeguards against activities such as the principal of a bullied student outing that student to their parents.

CPS launched anti-cyberbullying training for staff last year. The CPS Office of Student Health and Wellness has professional development programs around curriculum guidance, school safety, LGBTQ+ support, support for trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students, and a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) summit. And the district’s five-year vision has a goal for every school to have a GSA by 2024.

The Chicago Department of Public Health published its last study of LGBTQ+ Chicagoans’ health outcomes in March 2018. Lightfoot promised that year that a new one would come out under her administration. A spokesperson said CDPH does not currently have plans to update its data book, adding that most of the data from the 2018 edition is updated annually on the Chicago Health Atlas, an online database of the city’s health indicators.

Another goal was to eliminate new HIV infections by 2027. Pritzker’s plan, Getting to Zero Illinois, sets that as a statewide goal for 2030. Infection rates in Chicago continue to decline. A spokesperson said STD screening, treatment, and expedited-partner therapy are fully integrated into many CDPH community-based HIV programs to reduce STD rates in the LGBTQ+ community. CDPH also has three brick-and-mortar STD clinics. They are open by appointment only, with two in Lakeview and Austin open every weekday and one in Roseland open on Mondays and Thursdays.

Lightfoot promised new training for city staff and vendors who provide service to LGBTQ+ seniors alongside outreach and training at senior care facilities about anti-discrimination regulations.

She also wanted to create more affordable housing options for LGBTQ+ seniors with citywide community groups. One project, the Town Hall Apartments in Lakeview East, 3600 N. Halsted, opened in 2014 with a $5 million loan from the Department of Planning and Development and $16.3 million tax credit equity.

There were plans in 2010 to build a combined senior living facility and artists’ workspace on Ashland Avenue in Rogers Park, but that project tanked under questions about the developer’s connections to shoddily run nursing homes, its lack of experience working with LGBTQ+ people, and alderperson Maria Hadden’s (49th) argument that family-sized affordable housing was a more pressing need, Block Club reported.

Lightfoot also said she would reestablish the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) and task it to provide “culturally appropriate services and accurate information,” namely about benefits, social support programs, legal resources, and mental health counseling. She also said she would work with Chicago’s legal community to help those who were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) to get their paperwork upgraded. Should the DVA be reestablished, it would aim to work with organizations such as Illinois Joining Forces and the University of Chicago Office for Military-Affiliated Communities on issues like DADT discharges.

The department still does not exist, though Lightfoot’s spokesperson said she still wants to reestablish it. The spokesperson said a proposal is under review to support expanded veterans’ programming with several city departments and partnerships with state and county veterans’ agencies.

The spokesperson did not respond to questions about Lightfoot’s promise to work to establish 24-hour drop-in centers for LGBTQ+ youth to have places to sleep, lockers to store their things, and access to social services, or about a promise to hire LGBTQ+ liaisons to work with the north-, south-, and west-side LGBTQ+ communities and to “hold regular meetings with community members and LGBTQ+ groups in their neighborhoods and coordinate with city departments,” including the CPD and the CDPH.

There is a similar existing program: the series of advisory councils for Black and Brown residents, women, and LGBTQ+ people that began with Mayor Harold Washington. Lightfoot has appointed council members and Butch Trusty, a partner at The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consultancy, to lead it. No records from the council’s meetings are present on its website. Trusty referred questions about the council’s work to the mayor’s office.

Lightfoot opened applications for membership on the advisory councils in February 2020; as of press time, the online application is still open, though it was due to have closed on February 22 of that year. At a June 22 press conference, Lightfoot called the advisory council “active and robust.”

A week after the Supreme Court’s draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade came out, Lightfoot’s administration invested $500,000 into the DPH’s maternal and reproductive health work, which her administration says will support out-of-staters coming to the city for abortions.

At the reporters’ roundtable in June, Lightfoot said the most top-of-mind thing to her with regards to the LGBTQ+ community are the implications of the Supreme Court’s leaked decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which would overturn the national right to have an abortion.

“A lot of the rights that have flowed—not just to marry, but to be able to have children, to be able to pass property down from spouse to spouse—these things that the straight community takes for granted, these are new rights embraced by us,” Lightfoot said. “And anybody who is my age, which is almost 60, grew up at a time when we never thought that we’d be able to have those recognitions.”

She said she wants to ensure that Chicago “remains a city where there truly is justice for all.”

“I think there’s no question whatsoever Roe is gone,” she said. “The implications for the rest of us are so profound, we’ve got to continue making sure that we educate people and that we are prepared as a city to address what are going to be some very significant consequences that flow from it.”

North-side state representative Kelly Cassidy (D-14th), who is openly lesbian, praised Lightfoot for this support specifically at Sidetrack on June 8.

“We don’t just have an openly gay mayor,” she said. “We have an incredibly badass openly gay mayor, setting the tone on so many issues. And I just get sort of silly and proud when I watch you. And the ways that she loves this city, and the ways that she loves this community come out every day.”

Sidetrack owner Art Johnston similarly sang Lightfoot’s praises: “It will never stop amazing me and moving me to see Mayor Lightfoot to stand loud and authentic as our city’s out proud gay mayor.”

He recalled the time decades ago that a policeman arrested him outside his business while calling him “a fucking fag.”

“That’s not the way I am treated today, but sad to say, other members of our community are still not treated as well as we want them to be,” Johnston said. “But we are all working on this.”

Madeline Ziolko, walking up Halsted Street with her girlfriend after the event, recalled the time in August 2020 when the CPD cleared sunbathers off of Montrose Beach. Lightfoot tweeted a picture of the crowd, saying their “reckless behavior . . . is what will cause us to shut down the parks and lakefront.” Ziolko, who had been among the sunbathers, said a policeman threatened them with arrest.

Ziolko is trans. She said there have been positive “waves” in the city recently, noting the CPD policy for officers to address people with their names and pronouns appropriate to their gender identity—including they/ them—though she did not know if she could ascribe that to the mayor. (The department’s draft policy came out in 2021.)

She voted for Lightfoot in 2019; she said she probably will not next year. “I want somebody who’s more progressive than she is, because it seems like she’s trying to toe the line of conveying that she’s progressive, but if you look at her policies and her history, she hasn’t done anything that I’ve seen to push the envelope forward.”

Marcus Allen moved to Chicago from Austin, Texas, in the summer of 2020. With Hollywood Beach closed, his friends asked him to go to Montrose Beach that day in August instead. He said people were spread out in groups of ten to 15.

Hours after the police cleared Montrose Beach, Allen’s friends started texting him Lightfoot’s tweet. In the public sphere, people interpreted the incident as the mayor cracking down on white party gays ignoring social distancing guidelines.

Allen is a Latinx man. He already had COVID-19, and, in a new city, he said he was desperately trying to make friends in a pandemic as safely as possible.

“We decided we were going to go to the Montrose grass,” he said. “And there were people at Belmont grass, there were people at Belmont steps, there were people at all the other grass and steps. Why come to Montrose? And it really did feel like [Lightfoot] was picking on the gays.”

Spencer Doyle, who lives in Lakeview East, was with Allen that day. He had also already had COVID-19. He noted that Lightfoot tweeted that she personally had gone to see that the situation was being “addressed” and that he was wearing a Speedo.

“I didn’t get why people congregating at the beach deserved attention over everything else that was going on,” he said. “It almost felt like she was hunting down easy, low-hanging political fruit.

“Gays have been persecuted a long time for doing something wrong. Especially when it comes to health and disease, I think there’s a lot of stigma associated with the gay community over the years,” he said.

“And I think to know the history of that, especially in her position, and to willingly go out and take a picture of people who you know are gay, they’re in a Speedo—you know gay culture, you can recognize the gays—and to almost put them on blast in the middle of a pandemic, knowing the history and emotions that are associated behind it with people who might not be so familiar with it today, I felt like ‘How could you not know where this backlash was going to wind up?’”

Doyle said he won’t vote for Lightfoot again.

Neither will Brendan Power, treasurer of the Young Democrats of Chicago and an Uptown resident, who was excited to support Lightfoot in 2019 because of her policy proposals, especially her support for an elected Chicago school board.

“I noticed that basically right away after getting elected, she had completely reversed course on that issue,” he said. “That immediately set off some alarm bells.”

He said he was “thrilled” at the time to have a Black lesbian mayor. He wanted to like Lightfoot “so badly, but there’s more to leadership than checking boxes of demographic information,” he said. “Representation is important for sure, but representation itself doesn’t push the needle forward on material issues.”

He’s more skeptical of candidates now, and he wishes he would have listened to activists who warned “she would bring this really punitive, carceral approach to criminal justice.“

Power noted that Lightfoot campaigned as a police reformer, adding that Pride originated out of protests against “police terrorizing and brutalizing the LGBT community,” and said that Lightfoot covered up the improper police raid on Anjanette Young’s home.

“How great is Lori Lightfoot on LGBT issues for the Black trans women who are harassed by the cops and file a lawsuit against the city?” he asked. “I would say there’s a lot wrong there.”

And while no organization speaks for all members of any community, leaders of the Brave Space Alliance, a Black trans-led LGBTQ+ community center, protested Lightfoot in Daley Plaza on Trans Day of Visibility in April.

Activists present report cards for Mayor Lightfoot and Sheriff Tom Dart at a March 31 Trans Day of Visibility rally at Daley Plaza.
CREDIT: Aaron Gettinger for the Hyde Park Herald

Jordan Wimby and Patrice King are engaged and live in Rogers Park; both are from Chicago and moved back after the 2019 election. Wimby, a Beverly native, was “rooting for (Lightfoot), because I’m like ‘This is a great opportunity for us to also be involved in Chicago,’ but she kind of let me down,” specifically around interactions with the Chicago Teachers Union and police policies.

“Especially in a city with a high number of marginalized people, and you also fit into those categories—it doesn’t really feel like she is advocating for people who look like her or have similar experiences because of who they are in the world,” she said.

Nicole Johnson, who ran for alderperson of the Woodlawn-based 20th Ward in 2019 and is now engaged to another woman, noted during her campaign that Lightfoot was coming to small community events and could build support among people “who the traditional machine didn’t pay attention to,” but she said the mayor has left engagement behind.

“When we think about LGBTQ rights, what is prominent is accessibility,” Johnson said. “There are some things that Lori has done in the past two years that have made the city not as accessible to all people. And as a person in the community, you know what it means for things to not be accessible to you.”

Johnson praised Lightfoot’s Invest South/ West program, which is aiming to revive commercial corridors on the south and west sides through public-private investment, though she complained about the unfulfilled campaign promise to reopen the mental health clinics that Emanuel closed. Lightfoot, at the reporters’ roundtable, said those clinics were serving 2,500 people and that through investments in her budget, 50,000 people are getting mental health care now. Her framework promises to fund services at 50 existing providers.

Said Johnson, “I want to see her see Black people and see the humanity in us, especially the children, and for her to participate in the various activities that make the news.”

The Lightfoot administration’s response to the raid on Young’s house—no money offered at first, an attempt to block the airing of the police officers’ body camera footage, a slow-walking of the eventual settlement until last December—showed Johnson “what (Lightfoot) was about, because when she got word of it a year before the video went public, she could have gotten in front of it, and when it went public, she lied. And then she said, ‘OK, I can’t get out of this.’ And then even last June, the former general counsel made a motion to get it kicked out of court.”

Lightfoot did not support the Anjanette Young Ordinance, which was originally proposed by five Black progressive alderwomen and would codify rule changes to CPD’s raid policy. Johnson also noted that the CPD is behind on achieving reforms mandated under a federal consent decree and pointed out that Lightfoot publicly spars with State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

“Lori raises bridges. She doesn’t build them,” Johnson said. “Literally thinking about the riots post-George Floyd’s murder. I want to look to her as being the first Black woman mayor. I want to look to her as someone who makes me proud. She is getting our books in order, and she is making amends to make more investment in areas that need it, but I need to see—and this is from mayor on up to president—I need to see how you are responding to acute Black issues.”

Lightfoot came into office as Chicago’s first openly gay and first Black woman mayor with an overwhelming 73.7 percent of the second-round vote. King, from Rogers Park, is disappointed that Lightfoot isn’t more relatable, and she said the mayor is not a role model. Wimby, her fiancée, noted queer people’s typical open-mindedness, from having to approach life differently than most people and overcome challenges most people do not encounter.

“When you add Blackness to that, you’re adding a whole other level of challenges to that,” she said. “It’s just really strange that she’s so stuck in such a racial-heteronormative way of thinking.”

“I grew up in a household of mostly women, and they’re all Chicago Public Schools teachers, and they were really rooting for Lori in the sense that we have someone who is going to be able to advocate for our needs because she understands our experience. But that is not what the reality is,” Wimby said. “And you would think, when you are a marginalized person who’s in a community of oppressed people that experiences the same type of systemic trauma, you would think, ‘OK, we’re on the same page, and you understand what we need in the Black community.’”

Nevertheless, Lightfoot still maintains reserves of support in the Black and queer communities for many reasons.

Angela Barnes of South Shore, a corporate attorney who co-owns the celebrated Andersonville queer cocktail bar Nobody’s Darling, has known Lightfoot since they worked together at the Mayer Brown law firm more than 20 years ago.

“She’s one of the most intelligent women I’ve ever met, and I have advocated long and hard in this city to have intelligent, business-minded people run for public office,” Barnes said after Lightfoot’s June 7 campaign stop in Lakeview East. “I think it really, really makes a difference.”

She likes that Lightfoot has touted Nobody’s Darling as a Black, gay, women-owned business and in so doing highlighted the difficulties Black Chicago entrepreneurs face. “We have a business on the north side, but I live on the south side. And I definitely have seen how much investment is going into the south and west sides to actually try to bring some equity to the neighborhoods of Chicago,” Barnes said.

Johnnie Gogins grew up in Hyde Park and lives in Lakeview East now. He voted for Lightfoot in 2019 and thinks she’s doing the best she can.

“It’s good to see somebody in our community who’s running the city and doing everything they can to keep the crime down and try to get Chicago back to how it used to be, back in the day,” he said. “A lot of people try to give her a hard time, but she’s only one person. There’s only so much you can do. So it’s like, just give her a chance.”

Gogins said how proud he is to have a Black gay mayor. “It’s like, finally we’re heard and people believe in us and are giving us the chance to do things for our community,” he said. He plans on voting for her next year.

Lightfoot goes where even Rahm and Daley didn’t go with her City Council attack on Alderwoman Taylor.

Activists say the pair’s public conversation about “trust and distrust” shows the problems with assuming marginalized people have progressive values.

Does the reform candidate stand a chance in post-Rahm Chicago?

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