I have always drawn strength from my late mother’s life. When Eunice Johnson set up the first major fashion show for African-American audiences more than 50 years ago, she did so at a time when black Americans, especially black women, were still fighting for a seat at the table, any table.
At the same time that white-run shows would get the very latest samples from the biggest fashion houses for free, my mother would pay hand over fist to dress her models. She put up with it because she knew it was important for her charity shows.
She always told me, “Linda, a person should be able to wear anything they want to wear. This is your plumage. This is how you feel about yourself.” To my mother, even the worst kinds of unequal and unfair treatment shouldn’t keep people from expressing their true colors.
Her words are still with me today. They were running through my mind when JET, one of Johnson Publishing Company’s, flagship magazines, first featured a same-sex couple in August 2011, then again in March and December of 2012. When the December magazine hit newsstands, I received dozens of calls wondering whether our readers or advertisers protested. You know what? Not one did. They celebrated right along with us because they were celebrating fairness and equality.
Yet if the couples we featured walked into an Illinois courthouse and tried to get a marriage license, they’d be turned away. The same goes for couples in dozens of states. For millions of committed and loving same-sex couples, including African-American couples, fair and equal access to marriage is still a dream. For these couples, they can’t show their true colors in the way my mother believed was absolutely essential.
It’s time to change that. The General Assembly is considering a bill to treat all couples equally. I’ve studied the bill, and know what it says. The law includes strong religious protections, and it would ensure that no church would be required to perform a marriage it is uncomfortable performing. But the law does guarantee that every couple in Illinois has access to the same opportunities and responsibilities that marriage provides.
My family has always made Chicago our home, and I care deeply about the values our company has espoused for decades. Fairness and equality means that what you are never limits who you can be. It means that a young African-American man like my father can start a business with $500 and a dream. It means that a young African-American woman like my mother can walk into European fashion houses with her head held high and be treated with respect. And it means that African-American lesbian and gay couples should have access to the same hopes, dreams and aspirations as the straight couple down the street.
Fairness and equality are Illinois values. We know in our hearts that none of us get ahead when some of us are stuck with second-class status. It’s time for Illinois legislators to reaffirm those values and pass full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. It’s one simple vote, but it says something truly important about who we are. As my mother always said, in the end it comes down to how you feel about yourself. And nothing feels better than doing what’s right.
Linda Johnson Rice is chairman of Johnson Publishing Co., which produces EBONY and JET. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune under the titie “Support Marriage Equality in Illinois.”