Chicago’s lesbian leader: Deborah Mell is trying to convince Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to support same-sex marriage—after all, he is her brother-in-law

Lisa Neff

In a city where citizens speak often of “clout,” Deborah Mell has commanding connections. The 35-year-old lesbian landscape supervisor from Chicago’s north side is the daughter of Richard Mell, a powerful Democratic alderman from the city’s 33rd Ward. And she’s the sister-in-law of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who opposes equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

In light of the recent push for same-sex marriage, Mell decided to take advantage of her family ties to lobby for gay rights. She has been seen walking the halls of the state capitol in Springfield and visiting the governor’s mansion to persuade her brother-in-law to support marriage equality, all of which has gotten the attention of the Illinois political elite and the national medlar.

At a March 4 marriage rally in Chicago, Mell allegedly bumped into a police Officer, resulting in her arrest for battery, a charge she is fighting. She spoke with. The Advocate in mid April.

Your name first came up in media accounts of the Valentine’s Day vigil at the Chicago home of Cardinal Francis George. Was that your first gay rights action?

Yeah, I guess I hadn’t been in the loop before.

What brought you out that day?

I wanted to lend a voice. I was there because it was a visible protest for gay marriage. I don’t really care what the cardinal thinks.

Many people were surprised to see your father join you at the demonstration.

I wasn’t surprised, because he was concerned about me. To people who don’t really know him, it might have seemed out of the ordinary. But ever since I came out [in college], he’s been totally supportive.

Do you feel a responsibility to be outspoken because of your family connections?

Yes. I wanted to make it an issue that the governor has someone close to him who could speak to him on these issues, and then it kind of blew up big. And it makes me nervous now. I want to say the right things and do the right things. But I definitely feel a responsibility to be active, to keep it going. It’s really important to me. [Mell declined to talk about the battery charge against her, per instructions from her attorney.]

Do you think your father, who some 18 years ago voted against a gay rights ordinance, has changed his political views because of his personal situation?

I think he regrets that vote, and I don’t think he’ll do that again [laughs]. But let’s face it: It helps to have someone in your family.

So, then, how do you move your brother-in-law on the marriage issue? How do you proceed from here?

I keep talking to him. We chat about it, for sure. And my sister [Blagojevich’s wife] is working on him too. He’s my brother-in-law, and I love him. He’s been a big help in my life. He’s very powerful with his words, and so it makes me sad because he is someone who could make some progress on gay marriage, which I think is inevitable. I would like to have the option one day to marry. I want to be treated like everyone else in America.

What do you think about Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s recent public support for gay marriage?

I was surprised about Mayor Daley, about how far he went. The day I read what he said about gay marriage I was a happy person. We need more people to come out like that.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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