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Same-sex marriage warrior seeks to marshal people of color

Marquell Smith speaks about rights gays military during forum Governors State University last year.  |  DonnVickroy~Sun-Times Media

Marquell Smith speaks about the rights of gays in the military during a forum at Governors State University last year. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 5, 2013 6:39AM

An ex-Marine living on Chicago’s South Side once worked to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military.

Now, Marquell Smith is taking on a battle closer to home.

The 32-year-old native of the West Side’s Austin neighborhood launched a new political action committee on Thursday night that aims to mobilize people of color behind the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois.

Smith had spent some time in Springfield talking to lawmakers about the issue. When he did, he noticed something about others who were doing the same.

“There were very few minorities,” Smith said. “I was getting a feeling that there weren’t a lot of people standing up who looked like me. The whole idea behind this is to get citizens to really stand up and get people of color to get behind [same-sex] marriage.”

The onetime U.S. Marine Corps sergeant was kicked out of the military when his superior “made some assumptions” that Smith was gay. The military offered him an honorable discharge, but Smith, who is gay, said he chose to fight it. His lobbying efforts helped repeal the act prohibiting gays from disclosing their sexual orientation in the military.

On Thursday night, he launched the Inclusive Community Project Political Action Committee, holding the first fund-raiser to help lobby representatives through trips to Springfield, phone banks, “and peaceful, orderly protests at district offices.”

Smith said he’s heading into Chicago neighborhoods to recruit other African Americans who will join him in Springfield. Last session, the Rev. James Meeks put out recorded messages to African American homes, urging them to call lawmakers and vote against same-sex marriage legislation.

Smith said he just doesn’t believe that represents the majority of blacks in the city and suburbs, pointing to polls that have said 60 percent of African Americans back same-sex marriage.

“My goal is not to counter Meeks. My goal is to get into the community. My goal is to go out and find those 60 percent of African Americans [and urge them] to go to their lawmakers,” Smith said. “I believe that when you harness the power of the people, you can accomplish so much.”

Still, it’s no easy road in Illinois. Groups continue to fight any repeal of a law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

One of them is the Catholic Conference of Illinois. Executive Director Robert Gilligan said a loose coalition of groups has the same goal in keeping a same-sex marriage ban in Illinois.

“We just don’t have those financial resources that they do,” Gilligan said of the coalition of groups working to pass same-sex marriage laws. “I don’t know if that will translate into a change of vote totals – but that remains to be seen.”

Gilligan described his as part of a grass-roots effort to explain to Illinois residents why he believes it’s important to keep Illinois law as it is.

“Marriage is important because we think a man/woman relationship is necessary for the raising and protecting of children,” Gilligan said. “[People] understand that, they understand a need of keeping that in the law because people understand keeping marriage between one man and one woman in the law.”

Twitter: @natashakorecki

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