Illinois' 1st openly gay state senator hopes to inspire

CHICAGO (WLS) -- For the first time, there's an openly gay lawmaker serving in the Illinois State Senate. State Senator Mike Simmons was appointed earlier this month to represent the 7th district, which is on Chicago's North Side.

"I was a little disappointed that we haven't broken this milestone before 2021, but I am honored to be the first," said Simmons, who lives in the Uptown neighborhood.

This comes 25 years after that barrier was broken in the Illinois House of Representatives.

The seat was previously held by former State Senator Heather Steans, who resigned earlier this month.

Simmons grew up on the North Side in public housing. He's the son of an Ethiopian father who came to the U.S. as a refugee, and a Black American mother. Simmons is also the first Ethiopian American to serve in the Illinois General Assembly.

Simmons is the founder of Blue Sky Strategies, which specializes in shaping anti-racist public policy and equitable urban planning. He says he brings all of those experiences to the legislature.

"My blackness and my gayness are beautiful ingredients to who I am. I stand proud of my identity," he said.

Across the country, the LGBTQ community is underrepresented in state legislatures but the numbers have been going up. According to the LGBTQ Victory Institute, LGBTQ state legislators increased by 9% from 2019 to 2020.

"In some parts of the country, and this state, it's no small feat to run as an openly LGBTQ person," said Kim L. Hunt, who is a racial and LGBTQ justice advocate.

Simmons plans to address health disparities and economic insecurity in Springfield. As someone who was bullied in his youth for being gay, Simmons hopes he can serve as an inspiration for young people in his community.

"When one person breaks the ceiling, I think a lot of other people will start to step up and run for office," he said.
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