Mayoral candidates discuss issues facing Carbondale LGBTQ community

By Rana Schenke and Jacob Lorenz

Mayoral candidates John “Mike” Henry and Nathan Colombo addressed issues affecting the southern Illinois LGBTQ community at a forum Thursday night.

The forum took place at the Center for Empowerment and Justice in Carbondale and was sponsored by Unconditional, a local support group for parents of LGBTQ individuals.

The forum started with a question from a community member regarding the warming center’s policy on accepting minors, specifically LGBTQ minors.

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“The warming center did not take unaccompanied minors, primarily because we could not segregate them with the facilities of what we had available,” Henry said. “We only had two or three that we were trying to deal with and we found shelter elsewhere for them.”

Henry said the city is working with Good Samaritans to help them acquire a city-owned building to expand their facilities.

“This will allow them to take care of the unaccompanied minors on a daily basis,” Henry said. “You do have to segregate them from your main population because we can’t tell if there are child molestors or not; we have to protect our children.”

Henry said this facility would also have room for lockers so people staying there could store their belongings safely, but the facility may take a year or two to become operational.

Regarding the same issue, Colombo said, “When an unaccompanied minor hits the streets and becomes homeless, there are no boundaries. The issues with a lot of our organizations which operate in town is the boundaries in place which may act a barrier between being able to be housed versus having to sleep on the streets.”

Colombo said he loves the warming center is being expanded and will have more access, but his concern with the existing system and organizations is they don’t necessarily have the time or ability to give the amount of attention a displaced minor needs to stabilize their life.

“Supporting more organizations like the Center for Empowerment that can actually give the time to these individuals is more important or just as important as the shelter they need,” Colombo said.

Carmen Suarez, a Carbondale community member, voiced her concerns with the Human Relations Commission and asked the candidates what their visions were to revitalize the commission.

“The Human Relations Commissions has been woefully dysfunctional for years,” Henry said.

Henry said he has appointed new members to the commission and is going to replace the commission chair, Jerrold Hennrich, after the election.

“[The Commission has] done virtually nothing in the past four to five years other than receive police reports and criticize the police department,” Henry said. “They weren’t there on the warming center, they haven’t had any hearings on race or LGBTQ issues; that’s what they are supposed to be doing.”

Colombo said he is concerned about the Commission as well, and wants it to be an empowered function within city government looks into issues throughout the community dealing with race, sexuality and status, as opposed to a token mechanism.

“I have had folks that have suggested, similar to other Human Relations Commissions throughout the country, that the Human Relations Commission should have a form of subpoena power in order to be able to look into the activity of the city,” Colombo said.

Tara Bell-Janowick, founder of Unconditional and event moderator, asked the candidates if there were policies in Carbondale protect transgender individuals from discrimination in employment, and if not, what they would do to help these individuals.

Colombo said employers all fall under federal equal employment opportunity guidelines, but does not mean they actually follow them.

“I have been in conversations with business owners and listened to them firsthand discriminate on sexuality, discriminate on race, discriminate on social status, and it’s absolutely disgusting,” Colombo said.  

Colombo said it is not just about a policy change and putting local protections in place, but speaking out against discriminatory acts from a position of high authority.

“Ultimately, policy can only go so far,” Colombo said. “It has to be authoritative speech and actions from people that are in power that says ‘This is not okay, we understand that it’s happening, we’re not going to accept it happening any longer, and when we begin to hear these things, we are going to reject them outright, backing that up with the strength of policy.’”

Henry addressed the issue in the context of City Hall.

“We have both gays and lesbians working in the city of Carbondale; we don’t care what their sexual orientation is,” Henry said. “I don’t think we would care if they were transgender or not; it doesn’t make any difference as long as they’re a qualified employee.”

The forum was framed as an open discussion and Bell-Janowick encouraged the candidates to ask questions to the people in the audience.

Henry said he had a question and asked the audience how they thought the issue of transgender minors wanting to transition without parental consent would or should be handled.

Bell-Janowick said there is a bill from a representative in Illinois trying to restrict access to transitional healthcare for minors, but it has not been voted on.

One of the attendees, who is transgender, said individuals do not actually start on hormones until age 16.

“It’s not as scary as people think it is. It’s not like you’re giving 8-year-olds hormones,” he said. “There are practices in place and it’s not just throwing people out there to sink or swim.”

Bell-Janowick asked the candidates how the city could ensure restrooms in public spaces throughout town are accessible regardless of gender identity or expression.

“We just don’t check on it, I mean, we don’t care,” Henry said. “I’ve never known of an issue come up with it. That said, we don’t have any ordinance in place that says a person could pick the bathroom they want based on their gender.”

Colombo said it’s been nice to see newer businesses like Keeper’s Quarters and Underground recognizing the need for gender-neutral restrooms.

“We can look into developing codes around standards for gender neutral bathrooms that says if you are a place that is dictated you have to have two or more single stall restrooms, those have to be gender neutral,” Colombo said.

This would not be something which would cost a business any extra money, according to Colombo.

“It literally requires them to put a different sign on the door that says everybody can use this bathroom,” Colombo said.

Another topic addressed was the new inclusive curriculum bill, which recently passed the Illinois House.

Bell-Janowick gave a brief explanation of the bill and why it is important to the LGBTQ community.

“What this curriculum does is ensure that people that are already in the history books, figures that have already made an impact, that we’re already talking about, who were LGBTQ, are recognized as LGBTQ,” Bell-Janowick said.

Bell-Janowick said recognizing these historical figures can give LGBTQ youth a role model and it help their peers begin to accept their identity as valid.

Henry said he agreed with the bill.

“It’s the same thing as we excluded people of color for years, I mean it’s exactly the same thing, and they contributed an immense amount to our history,” Henry said. “It wasn’t all us white guys that did it, obviously. And to me this is the exact same issue, I think it should be done.”

Colombo said this bill means more to Carbondale than supporting the curriculum aspect of it because Carbondale has notable local LGBTQ individuals who can engage with students in its schools.

“It’s saying, who is this person that has done something in our own backyard that can show up and actually engage our youth directly, either within the school system itself or within city functioning entities like the library,” Colombo said.

Colombo said having these figures be accessible can show LGBTQ youth they are just as able to achieve in their own backyard as become a great, one-off figure which happens to be a part of the LGBTQ community.

News Desk Editor Rana Schenke can be reached at [email protected].

Staff reporter Jacob Lorenz can be reached at [email protected]

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