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A Sit-down With Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois

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Jewish refugee. Homeless. Second-class citizen. All are unexpected, chilling identifiers that Equality Illinois' (EQIL) CEO Bernard Cherkasov has lived, fought and even fled in his life. However, the struggles that came with such labels are in fact what has shaped Cherkasov's ideology, his tenacity and his passion. With an impressive resumé that includes a master's degree from Harvard University, a tenure as the board president at the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago and a host of awards and honors, Cherkasov's credentials undeniably make him an ardent leader in the LGBT political movement. Even more so, it's Cherkasov's background, his humble approach, his relatability and his overall genuine nature that have made him an integral player in the LGBT political agenda.

Cherkasov took me behind his title as CEO of EQIL to a time when he was just a teenage boy growing up in an anti-Semitic country. Born in Azerbaijan, Cherkasov remembers the growing violence against Jewish minorities during the late 1980s. The violence was so intense that Cherkasov and his family had to go into hiding and eventually flee from their country. After traveling from one country to the next, Cherkasov and his family came to the U.S. as Jewish refugees to start a new life.

Like many refugees who travel to America, Cherkasov came here with hopes of opportunity and access -- the American dream. Cherkasov did find and achieve the American dream, but what he also found was discrimination against his fellow LGBT community members. It was then that Cherkasov knew that he had another fight to fight. He dedicated his studies and career to public policy, which led him to the nonprofit sector and eventually to the top office at EQIL.

Terrence Chappell: How did you get your start in public policy?

Bernard Cherkasov: I started my career by working in public policy for the Jewish community. I was working in Washington. I was working on transforming the Jewish community's public policy goals into an activist agenda on college campuses around the United States and Canada. That was an amazing experience.

Chappell: What attracted you to LGBT politics?

Cherkasov: There's something about my experience of being a Jewish refugee and feeling hopeless, powerless and always having to fight to have a foot in society. So when I finally came to America, where there's this promise of equal opportunity for everyone, yet it seemed as though these opportunities were not available to members of my LGBT community, it seemed so un-American. It was not like the America I knew and loved. I just had to get involved in the LGBT movement.

Chappell: How was it growing up Jewish during that time and in your country?

Cherkasov: One of my strongest memories of my childhood was when I was in summer camp, and hanging over my bed there was a sign that read, "Bernard, a Jew." Even my medical records read, "Bernard, a Jew."

Chappell: What was the triggering event that caused you and your family to flee your county?

Cherkasov: I remember for two months in December of '88 and January of '89, we actually hid in my grandmother's village, because it got so violent in the city [where] my family and I lived. It was dangerous to be outside on the streets; violence was prevalent everywhere. After we spent two months in hiding, it became very clear to my parents that if they wanted safety for their family, particularly their kids, then they needed to think about fleeing.

Chappell: Take us back to that time when you and your family fled your country.

Cherkasov: When we fled as a family, we didn't know where we would end up. We traveled to Russia, Austria and Italy. It took us months before we received refugee status in the United States. The reason why my parents wanted to come to America is because this is the land of the American dream; this is the land of equal opportunity for everyone. And that is always my idea of America.

Chappell: How did you go from coming to America, being upset over the discrimination against the LGBT community and then actually funneling all of that into a career?

Cherkasov: I came to understand that public policy is about journey. You don't work for a change and the next day you see that change happen. However, being apart of that journey, seeing it through, making a clear plan, and mobilizing others to join the movement was really important to me. That's LGBT equality.

Chappell: How did your parents respond to you coming out?

Cherkasov: My parents grew up in a very conservative, traditional society. But the very first thing they said to me after I came out is that "we love you." It did take them some time to figure some things out. It wasn't a long process for them. But we never lost our closeness, and now we're closer than ever before.

Chappell: You were a young, newly out gay man in America. Did you do any partying, dating and exploring your new life in America?

Cherkasov: Here's something funny about me. Before I came out, I spent all my time with my close friends, playing board games and eating cheesecakes. There was a point in my life where I did that so often I gained 275 pounds.

Chappell: What was your first job in Chicago?

Cherkasov: My first year I started working with people who became my mentors, like Mike McRaith, who is now the federal insurance commissioner, and Ann Hilton Fisher, who is the executive director of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago. I joined the board of the AIDS Legal Council, and I started getting more involved in the community. I stepped down as the president of the board of directors for ALCC when I joined Equality Illinois.

Chappell: How did you navigate roles from board president of ALCC to leading Equality Illinois as the nonprofit organization's CEO?

Cherkasov: What gave me a really good running start at Equality Illinois was my legal background. It gave me a sense of the legal perspective and insight into the agenda they were trying to accomplish, which is a very policy-focused agenda. On the other hand, being a chair for AIDS Legal Council gave me the perspective of a nonprofit organization and how to manage one. Ann Hilton Fisher, in the decade that she has been with ALCC, has done an amazing job transforming AIDS Legal Council into a stable, growing, professional and incredible organization. Watching her work as chair of the board gave me insight as to how a great nonprofit organization should run. I brought those two things with me when I joined Equality Illinois.

Chappell: What was your vision for Equality Illinois?

Cherkasov: It was for us to really be the voice of the community in Springfield, and a voice that just doesn't focus on one agenda item but focuses on the whole array of issues that are important to LGBT people. It's very easy to only focus on the big headline grabbers, which is marriage equality, but there are so many other issues that are urgent that we must address every single day.

Chappell: So would you say Equality Illinois doesn't just act as a watchdog for only LGBT members?

Cherkasov: We have to fight for a society that is fair and inclusive to everyone, so we also fight racism, we fight religious discrimination, and we fight xenophobia. We have to be a society where everyone is equal.

Chappell: You and your husband adopted a daughter together.

Cherkasov: Yes, we have a daughter. She is 3 years old. Her name is Miriam. We adopted her when she was 1 year old, so her second anniversary of her homecoming is coming up in a few weeks. I have to tell you, it has been the most amazing, grounding and fulfilling experience I can ever imagine.

Chappell: And how serendipitous that Valentine's Day marks the day of the Illinois Senate's vote on the marriage equality bill!

Cherkasov: I think it's going to be a great gift for gay and lesbian couples on Valentine's Day in Illinois. At least the Senate will recognize their freedom to marry.

Chappell: How do you plan to celebrate once the bill is passed?

Cherkasov: I think I'm going to take one day off, just as a break, because this has been a very long campaign. [Laughs.] But the very next day we will have to go in to work and defend the newly passed bill.

Chappell: So the fight doesn't just end with the bill's passage into law?

Cherkasov: No. In every single state where the same-sex marriage bill has been passed, there have been reforms to repeal the marriage bill, to dilute it, to weaken it. Our fight for equality doesn't end with a victory for marriage.

Chappell: Have you thought about how far you've come personally, from being a Jewish refugee to the CEO of a nationally renowned nonprofit organization?

Cherkasov: If you were to ask me to describe myself, the very first word that comes to mind is "refugee," because that's the most definitive, formative experience of my life. To think about this great movement and amazing organization that I get to be a part of is still very striking every day to me. I'm still in awe and very humbled that I have this responsibility.

Chappell: What do you want your legacy to be?

Cherkasov: I don't think I'm quite done yet, so it's too early. [Smiles.]

This post originally appeared on ChicagoPride.com.