Photo Courtesy of Marquell Smith
Chicago native Marquell Smith is a community activist known for overcoming challenges. In 2006, Smith was kicked out of the US Marine Corp after six years of service for being gay under the controversial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. Smith said that he learned many valuable lessons including the importance of sacrifice. He now hopes to apply those experiences to his newly formed organization the Inclusive Community Project (ICP), a Political Action Committee (PAC) working within communities of color to achieve full equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and the transgendered.
Earlier this year, Smith wrote a passionate letter to six African American lawmakers asking them to support SB10, the marriage equality bill. At the time, the bill was pending in the Illinois State House. Smith made a trip to the state capital and met with Governor Pat Quinn and other lawmakers. Unfortunately after much fanfare, SB10 did not pass it would be taken up again in the Veto Session which takes place this fall. On October 22nd, Smith is scheduled to participate in the rally March on Springfield with several other organizations under the Illinois Unites for Marriage umbrella. ICP will be sponsoring bus rides to the Illinois state capital for a lobbing day on November 5th. Surprisingly, Smith is a single man. PrideIndex chatted with this husband material activist about why this issue is so dear to him.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): How are you doing?
MARQUELL SMITH (MS): Good, how are you?
PI: First of all, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’ve read about you somewhere a few years ago and reached out to find you without success. Recently, someone recommended that I should write about you so I asked folks what they knew you. I’ll be damned; you were already a Facebook friend of mine.
MS: Oh wow.
PI: I guess that kind of goes to show you sometimes it’s just about timing.
MS: Yeah, right.
PI: Now that the stars and have aligned I have the opportunity to chat with you about your current projects specifically your organization the Inclusive Community Project (ICP). How did it get started? What is its mission or objectives?
MS: Earlier this year, I’d written a letter to six African American lawmakers asking them to support SB10 the marriage equality bill that was at time was pending in the House (Illinois State House). As a result of that, I ended up going down to Springfield and meeting with Governor Pat Quinn and a ton other legislators. I was attempting to talk with them to convince them to support SB10. Obviously, my history had shown that I had been involved with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, so when I got there, a number of lawmakers told me their constituents don’t care about this issue. Over the years, I had been involved in the community and had known people and knew that it could not be true. I knew there were plenty of black folks that say that cared about this issue. SB10 ended up not passing and I thought about how I could affect change. I thought about what I could actually do to create better outcomes that those African-American law makers who told me that black folks don’t care about marriage equality and how I could go and prove them wrong. And I thought about a number of things and I learned a lot after leaving Springfield that (a) I was in part wrong for blaming African American lawmakers and thinking that it was actually their fault that the bill did not pass. I was ignorant about the state of what was happening as were many others as a result of the media and what I had learned was that not enough people had done enough to engage the community. I found out that there were a number of issues that African American law makers had cared a lot about and people had not listened to them and supported them By being in Springfield and seeing that there were over a 150 people down there for a rally at some point and I was one of three or four African Americans, it’s not difficult for them to say that their constituents just don’t care about the issue(s). From that point, I consulted some friends and really thought about what I could really do to affect change. I thought about starting a non-profit, but a nonprofit does not allow you to lobby and what I specifically wanted to do and had experience with was working on Don’t ask Don’t tell. As a result, I decided to start a Political Action Committee (PAC) and that’s how we ended up founding it. After that, I decided that I was all in and I went around and told people/friends my idea and asked them to support me. They introduced me to others in the community and people were supportive; they thought that what we are working on is long overdue and so that’s how we got there. While we are focused on marriage equality right now, it is something that we plan on leaving in the community, so that we always have a relationship with our law makers to ensure that we are advocating for issues that matter to us.
PI: That is quite impressive. It kind of goes to the point of if you feel strongly about a position or subject, it’s best to take it to the next level and do more than just talk about it; be a person of action.
PI: I commend you for that action.
MS: (Interrupts) Thanks. I would be lying if I were to say that I did not feel that I was in a position to make a difference. If I looked at the landscape and I thought that African American lawmakers were the most swayable vote, I knew that a black person would probably have to stand up. I also knew that I was black, I was gay and that I was a veteran who was discharged under a bad policy who worked to change that and that sort of creates the conversation for people in and of itself. I felt that I had a responsibility to actually use my experience. As a matter of a fact, I have always said that after I’d left the military under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell that I would use my experience to advance the lives of others and this just sort of kind of fits into that. It was the right thing to do.
At times, I sort of questioned if it should be me. I had friends that were in high places in the government, and I said that maybe it should be them, but after doing it I just felt like I could not wait for other people. Sometimes that person is just you and you have got to do it. I can’t pretend that I was overtly running to go do it, but I knew that I had cared enough to make a stand to make a difference. That’s how we ended up here.
PI: What do you plan to do to take part in the March on Springfield?
MS: I am committed to trying to get about 20 people to go down to the March on Springfield. I am a team captain, but mainly my biggest of opportunities is actually returning the second week of the veto session for a lobby day. I’m trying to get over 100 People of color on buses to ask them to ask their law makers to support marriage equality. This sort of counters what happened in the past where law makers said that constituents do not care about this issue. I was one of a few; I’d like to go back there on a train and be one of many. Our work just does not lend itself to African Americans. I believe that many people of color are often underrepresented in these movements particularly the LGBTQ movement. So my goal is to give everybody the opportunity to have their voices to be heard and to stand up and do something about what they care about. I do believe that when we work together we could accomplish so much more. That’s probably more than anything that I hope to do instead of being an individual activist –[to be a] change agent for people to stand up and fight for the things they believe in.
PI: Let’s go back and get some background information about your military career. Which branch of the service did you serve? What year was you discharged?
MS: I was in the Marine Corp. I served about six years. When I was discharged in 2006, I was a sergeant.
PI: At this point, do you have any military affiliations?
MS: I do not. (Laughs) Other than working with veterans organizations I do not have any affiliations.
PI: Are you currently married or do you have plans to get married to your significant other?
MS: I am single and maybe one day I’ll get married. (Laughs) No plans nowhere in the near future.
PI: That’s surprising to hear that we have a single person, not a person in a committed relationship, to be so strongly in support and have a strong passion for marriage equality. Why do you think that you have such a strong passion in support of marriage equality?
MS: I think that it goes back to my service in the military. One of the things that you had about the Marine Corp is that you kind of had the mentality to fight and stand up; I think that at the end of the day it’s about being a voice for those that can’t speak for themselves. I was in a unique position to make a difference, so why not? Who else is going to do it? My service taught me that in order to win you have to make sacrifices, and I think that I was just prepared to do that and that I was willing to ask other people to do the same.
PI: I took a look at your Facebook page, and there’s a particular photo that touched me. The picture is of you and your father taken at ICP’s inaugural event which recently took place at The Sheraton Hotel & Towels. What was it like to have your dad standing right there beside you in support of the cause?
MS: One of the best things about all of that was it was the first time my dad made it out to support my activism. There were plenty of times when I wanted my father to come out, but he could not because he was working or for others reasons. I think more than anything he was probably uncomfortable. So when I started this PAC, he started to get a little excited. He was recently retired, and so he did not have the excuses of work or anything else. I think that at the end of the day he was pretty excited to be there. The day before he was very excited and the day of the event he was even more excited. Many observers said your daddy looks like he’s a dad watching his son play little league. It was a very touching moment because I literally only recall my dad telling me only twice that he was proud of me. The first time was when I graduated boot camp in the Marine Corp. The second time was when DADT was actually repealed. I had done a lot of work with that. My dad, who had not been very active at this point, came out and he supported our event. Before that, I used to say, “God, I would love it if one day I could get my dad to just hold one of those signs that’s say “God Blessed Me with A Gay Son!” Not only did my come to the event, he took pictures and video and all that stuff. At the end of the event, when he’d heard us giving a pitch and saying that we were planning on going back to Springfield in November, he said, “Son, I will be right there with you.” So for me it was a very touching and speaks to the progress that families could make.
When I came out to my dad, I was calling home to tell him I was being discharged from the military. I remember his first response was “Over a man? How did you get involved with a man?” I don’t know if there was an issue per se, but I remember last year telling him when I was in the military, I used to hear family members say that I don’t care that you are gay. I love you any way. I remember telling my dad that I was still a little bit unsure that he supported me because he had never been present to support me at the events that were important to me. So it was really important to have him there.
PI: Tell us about some of the law makers and legislators who have come out in support of your cause?
MS: State Representative Ken Dunkin has agreed to pay for one of the buses for us to go down to Springfield. I’ve had conversations with Representative Greg Harris, the lead sponsor of the SB10. He’s very excited about what we are doing. Some law makers we are just beginning to engage. One of the things that I did intentionally was not to engage many lawmakers because I wanted to have an opportunity to hear about what was going on and not have to deal with some of the fluff that the lawmakers give you and get a pulse of what the community actually felt. The lawmakers will tell you one thing, but when the people in the community talk it is unfiltered. I do know that there are many lawmakers who do support these issues who support the work that we’re doing. Do I have a whole list of them? Not just yet.
PI: How does one support your organization?
MS: You can make a contribution by visiting our website at www.inclusiveproject.org. They can also connect with us on Facebook. It is not just about making a donation, we are looking for people who want to be active, people willing to take a stand and getting people engaged right now. We need folks to engage their lawmakers in order to get to the 60 votes we need to get marriage equality passed in the Illinois State House. It’s no short order; the veto session begins October 22nd, and we will be in the capitol urging lawmakers to support SB 10.
PI: What is the one thing that you want people to take away from what you do? If you could sum it up in one sentence what would you say?
MS: I would tell people that life is more than about ourselves; we have a responsibility to stand up for other people.
PI: Are you going to run for office one day down the road?
MS: (Laughs) That’s the million dollar question! I have considered it at times, but it’s not something that I am considering right now. I think that I could affect more change by being where I am rather than being on the inside. It is similar to how I felt about returning to the military. I felt that I could do more for people on the outside rather the inside. I think that sometimes as a legislator you are limited by what you can do. Right now, I want to focus on issues and things that really matter to me and being an elected official is not one of the things on top of my list of priorities right now.
PI: Is there anything else that you would like to say?
MS: I would ask people to join us in Springfield on November 5th to ask their lawmakers to support us. It does not matter if you are gay or straight, black or white. I really want to get the message out that everybody needs to get involved and that everybody’s voice needs to be heard. This movement affects me so much because it has been divisive in so many ways for a number of years were working to unite the campaign. Illinois Unites for Marriage is looking to unite people, and I am excited to see the unity. I hope that these efforts will continue after marriage equality passes, and I hope we will do what we can to bring a higher quality of life for all people.
To participate in the Illinois state capital for a lobbing day on November 5th visit http://www.inclusiveproject.org/lobby_days