Michael Simmons was recently sworn into office, marking a historic first for LGBTQ+ people of color in the Prairie State’s legislature.
For the first time in Illinois history, the state has an openly LGBTQ+ senator serving in its legislature.
Michael Simmons was sworn in on February 6 after local Democratic party officials appointed him from a crowded field. Simmons, who is Black and gay, will fill the seat vacated by state Senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago), who ran unopposed for reelection last fall. With his appointment, Simmons will represent the Illinois state Senate’s 7th district, which is located in the north side of Chicago. The area is home to neighborhoods like Andersonville, Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park, and Ravenswood, which have a sizable LGBTQ+ population.
Simmons, a Chicago native, currently serves as the deputy director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative launched by former President Barack Obama in 2015 to address opportunity gaps facing boys and young men of color. Simmons has also served as a policy and urban planning consultant through his firm, Blue Sky Strategies. According to his bio, Simmons held senior roles at Chicago’s City Hall, including a stint as policy director during the administration of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and worked as a legislative staffer on Capitol Hill under Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Notably, Simmons is also a former board member for the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Illinois, which hailed his appointment in a statement.
“We are extremely thrilled with State Sen. Mike Simmons’ historic appointment to the Illinois Senate. Sen. Simmons,” said Myles Brady Davis, director of communications for Equality Illinois, who noted that Simmons is also the first Black man to hold the seat on Chicago’s North Side. “He will be a powerful voice for change and his impact will extend well beyond Illinois. His victory will inspire more Black people and LGBTQ people to run for office in their communities.”
State Rep. Greg Harris, the Illinois House Majority Leader and the first openly gay person to hold the position, also applauded Simmons’ appointment in a statement. Harris said he’s known Simmons for years and feels fortunate to call him a friend.
“I’m incredibly excited about the knowledge and enthusiasm he is bringing with him. Plus, his story and lived experience is going to inform and guide us all on so many matters we're confronting in the General Assembly,” said Harris, whose district overlaps with Simmons. “I’m happy for Mike and for my neighborhood.”
The LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, an organization that supports prospective LGBTQ+ political candidates, further lauded the milestone in a tweet, congratulating Simmons for “blazing the trail for LGBTQ leadership in the Illinois Senate.”
Stephanie Skora, a femme lesbian trans and anti-Zionist Jewish activist, has authored the popular “Girl, I Guess” progressive guide for Illinois voters during multiple recent election cycles. Skora issued a special edition of the guide last month after news emerged of the impending state Senate appointment, and local groups organized a community forum — which she moderated — with the candidates and the chairman of the appointment committee.
At the forum, Skora said that Simmons refused to criticize Emanuel’s tenure and opted only to mention his disagreement with the former mayor’s controversial move to close dozens of the city’s public schools, which went on despite outcry from community members and the Chicago Teachers Union. Given his five-year stint with Emanuel — who also covered up the police killing of Laquan McDonald and closed half of the city’s mental health clinics — Skora said that Simmons’ hesitancy raises questions about whether or not constituents can trust that he won’t follow in his former boss’ footsteps.
Because Simmons was appointed, not elected, Skora said his unwillingness to openly criticize controversial politician matters even more. “I hope he gives his constituents the answers that we deserve soon so that I can give him my trust, and hopefully my support,” she said in a statement to them. “Until then, I'll be looking forward to seeing what he does in the state Senate and counting on him to keep doing his district proud.”
Simmons was unavailable for comment on this story prior to publication time. But the day after he was sworn in, Simmons told local news outlet The Daily Line that he plans to “hit the ground running” and will prioritize introducing legislation to address economic and health disparities, especially given the impact of COVID-19. He said that he plans to visit shelters and social service organizations to “get a clear sense of what the struggles are for people navigating the pandemic and economy and the frontline folks trying to take care of them.”
Simmons’ appointment to the Illinois state Senate comes on the heels of a record-setting year for LGBTQ+ representation at all levels of U.S. government. In December, the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund released an updated count of its candidate tracking data, which indicated at least 782 known LGBTQ+ candidates were up for election in 2020. Among those who ran for office, 334 won their races, for a victory rate of nearly 43%.
While Simmons’ own impact as the state’s first LGBTQ+ Senator remains to be seen, Skora will be rooting for him.
“During my conversations with Mike, I got the clear impression that he is much more than the implications of his work history, and he impressed me with his thoughtful words on the appointment process, his clear love for the neighborhoods that he grew up in, and his pride in himself and his identities,” she said.