Celebrating 10 Years of Supporting One of Our State’s Finest: Equality Illinois

May 21, 2018


One of the core values of Breakthru Beverage Group is to do our best to better the communities we serve, and one of the ways we achieve that goal is to partner with other organizations who share a vision for a stronger, more inclusive society.


Equality Illinois (EI) is a true pioneer in the mission to secure basic civil rights for LGBTQ Illinoisans, and we at Breakthru couldn’t be prouder to call them a trusted partner for the 10th consecutive year.


As we get ready to celebrate another meaningful year with EI at their annual Pride Kickoff Brunch on June 3rdtickets still available—we wanted to share EI’s story with our Breakthru community so more of you could get to know one of Illinois’ most important organizations.


We caught up with EI CEO Brian C. Johnson to learn all about how they have been building a better Illinois for the last 27 years.


Tell us how Equality Illinois got started.

Brian C. Johnson: In 1988, after years of public pressure, the city of Chicago passed an ordinance making it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The activists who had secured the passage of this historic ordinance wanted to make sure LGBTQ people across the state had the same protections. At that point, in almost every part of Illinois, it was legal to be denied housing, fired from your job or even be kicked out of a restaurant for being LGBTQ. So, the activists founded Equality Illinois in 1991 to fight for LGBTQ people throughout the state.


How has Equality Illinois evolved since then?

Since our founding, we have grown to take on bigger and broader fights for LGBTQ equality. It took us 14 years to ensure legal protections for LGBTQ people throughout the state. It wasn’t until 2005, when Illinois updated its Human Rights Ordinance to include LGBTQ people, that LGBTQ Illinoisans were guaranteed that they couldn’t be legally discriminated against. Since then, we have grown from a small storefront office in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood supported by mostly volunteers to a staff of six working statewide to promote LGBTQ full equality.


Tell us about Equality Illinois’ biggest achievements.

Getting the Human Rights Ordinance passed in 2005 was huge because it was the beginning of so many great things to come. Obviously, ensuring Illinois was one of the few states that brought about marriage equality through the legislature—not because the U.S. Supreme Court required it—was a big win. Since then, one of our biggest wins was the gay panic defense ban passed on 2017. Illinois became only the second state in the country that outlaws the defense of “gay panic” in courtrooms. This defense was used by criminals who sought to reduce their charges by claiming that the reason they murdered their victim is because they discovered they were gay or transgender. 


What is one thing you’d want people to know about Equality Illinois?

LGBTQ people live in every county in this state and are in every workplace in Illinois. Therefore, our work ensuring that LGBTQ people are treated fairly reaches every corner of Illinois and impacts people all over the state. We want to ensure that all Illinoisans are fully accepted for who they are.


What are some of the biggest issues Equality Illinois is working on right now that you’d like people to know about?

Now, we are working to help ensure that the identities of LGBTQ people are acknowledged in the study of history. We want our young people to know that the first American woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize (Jane Addams) was a lesbian or that the father of computer science (Alan Turing) was a gay man or that a longstanding veteran of the Civil War (Albert Cashier) was transgender. When we learn the full identities of some of history’s most prominent luminaries, not only do we embolden LGBTQ young people to feel proud of who they are but we teach all students about the power of diversity in our history.


You’ve been with Equality Illinois for a couple of years now. What is your favorite part of leading the organization?

I have the best job in the state. I get to travel the state with free license to meet with anyone. I sit down with LGBTQ people and our allies. I meet with community leaders and business leaders and elected officials. I run across our supporters and our opponents. And through it all, I get to see how amazing the state of Illinois is—and how bright our future can be—through the faces of the many wonderful people who make up our state.


This isn’t really a question, but, we’re thrilled to be long-time supporters of Equality Illinois. Thank you for being such a great partner for us.

It is so common nowadays to see businesses stand up for full equality for the LGBTQ community. But when Breakthru, and previously Wirtz Beverage, first became a public champion of Equality Illinois, it was rare to see a business lead with that courage and conviction. Breakthru has been on the front lines of our work to make the world safer and fairer for the LGBTQ community. We are grateful for all the businesses that stand with us now; but the ones like Breakthru who have been with us the longest mean the most to us.

Hillary Wirtz, Breakthru's Director of Diversity & Inclusion, presents a $55,000 check to Equality Illinois on June 3, 2018.

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