Tim Pierce hopes
he never has to depend on a new Illinois
antidiscrimination law protecting gays and lesbians. But if
he does, he's glad the protection is there. The
39-year-old university instructor and his partner live
in Oswego—a town about 40 miles west of Chicago and
one of several in the state that didn't have laws
protecting gays and lesbians. That is, until now.
On Sunday a state law prohibiting discrimination
based on sexual orientation and gender identity became
a reality, nearly a year after Gov. Rod Blagojevich
signed it into law and more than three decades since
state lawmakers first debated it. "I'm hoping people won't
need to rely on the law," said Pierce, who also is the
president of a gay rights organization in Joliet. "But
in instances where someone is denied housing or a job,
they have an avenue to take that they couldn't before."
Illinois joins 15 other states that have laws
banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Of
those 16, Illinois is one of only seven states where
the law protects transgender people, according to the
Washington, D.C.–based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
"Illinois is not a trendsetter, but it's not a
right-winger," said Rick Garcia, political director
for the gay rights group Equality Illinois. "We're not
Massachusetts or California, but we're certainly not
Alabama or Tennessee. Illinoisans are reasonable people. We
are cautious, but we want to do the right thing."
Some opponents worry that the law will put
Illinois on the path to legalizing same-sex marriage,
a concern activists dismiss.
The battle to ban sexual orientation
discrimination in Illinois began in the mid 1970s,
when the first bills were introduced into the legislature.
Though bill after bill went by the wayside, communities
across the state began amending their own
antidiscrimination laws to include sexual orientation.
Champaign was the first in 1977, followed by Urbana,
Chicago, eight other cities, and Cook County.
Chicago-based Equality Illinois joined the fight
in the early 1990s, making the antidiscrimination
amendment its top priority. It took more than a dozen
more years for the legislature to make it happen. In 2005
the Illinois house passed the antidiscrimination bill
65–51 on the last day before it would have
died. The bill barely slid through the senate by a
30-27 vote, the minimum number required. Blagojevich signed
it into law on January 21.
For Garcia, the battle has been a long and
frustrating one, but he doesn't want to
complain—too much. "It took 30 years for it [the
legislature] to pass something as simple as protecting
people on the basis of sexual orientation," Garcia
said. "On one hand, the Illinois general assembly
should be commended for recognizing all Illinoisans
should be treated the same. But on the other hand, what the
hell took so long?"
The law allows people to file complaints with
the Illinois Department of Human Rights if they
believe they were denied a job, housing, public
accommodation, or credit. For many in Illinois, the Human
Rights Act won't change their lives. Supporters have
said about half of the state's population already
lives in areas covered by local ordinances. But in
Oswego or Danville or Belleville, the law marks the first
time gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people
can legally fight back.
"I think it's [the law] not going to have a lot
of effect in places like Chicago and Cook County, but
if you're in Pekin, Prairie du Rocher, Red Bud, or
Zion, you'll be protected," Garcia said.
But not everyone believes adding sexual
orientation to the Human Rights Act will benefit the
state. Republican state senator Peter Roskam said he
worries the law is not clear on its definition of sexual
orientation and doesn't protect religious institutions
from being forced to hire gays and lesbians. "I think
it's going to lead to some unpleasant situations,"
said Roskam, who voted against the bill.
Roskam, who is running for retiring U.S.
representative Henry Hyde's seat in Congress, also
fears the law is "a building block for gay marriage."
State senate minority leader Frank Watson, a
Republican who also voted against the bill, said
the law will cause some politicians to push harder for
laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. "The sexual
orientation legislation has promulgated the push to pass the
ban on same-sex marriage," he said.
Gay rights advocates say their opponents' fears
are unfounded. Democratic state senator Carol Ronen,
the chief sponsor of the antidiscrimination bill that
Blagojevich signed, said she doesn't think the law will lead
the state to legalize same-sex marriage. "That's a whole
other area and another arena of discussion," Ronen
said. "I think Illinois is far away from that."
Buff Carmichael, who publishes Prairie
Flame, a monthly newspaper geared to gay
Illinoisans outside Chicago, said Illinois's law lags
behind public opinion. "The mood of the public has
been more accepting in recent years than in times past,"
said Carmichael, who lives in Springfield. "We don't
get kicked out of as many places as years ago."
Still, Carmichael said, it's about time gays
received equal protection. "I would've hated to be the
only gay person in some town in the Carbondale area
and be looking for a job. But to have this law now, if
you can prove it, they can't refuse to hire you anymore
based on orientation," he said. (AP)