Sadness, Anger, and Hope in Illinois

In the Land of Lincoln (and Obama), marriage equality supporters are upset about today's legislative failure but ready to fight on.

BY Trudy Ring

May 31 2013 10:42 PM ET

After the Illinois marriage equality bill failed to come to a vote today, on the last day of the regular legislative session, reactions were equal parts sadness and anger.

They also showed a divide between professional politicians and certain grassroots activists, with the former saddened but determined to fight on, and the latter equally determined, but angry at the pols.

Rep. Greg Harris, a gay man who is the bill’s chief sponsor, was choked up as he announced on the House floor Friday evening that he would not bring the measure up for a vote, as he was not confident of enough support to pass it. The bill has already cleared the Senate and has the promise of Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature, but needed a House vote by the end of the regular legislative session today to become law. However, Illinois has a “veto session” in November for unfinished business, and Harris pledged that the bill would receive a vote then.

Rep. Deborah Mell followed Harris’s remarks with comments about her life, noting that she and her wife were married in Iowa but they relationship is considered a civil union in Illinois. Mell described how her wife, Christin Baker, has helped her through treatment for breast cancer, and said, “Today we were hoping that our state could give our union the highest recognition that our state gives people who want to spend their life together, and that is marriage.”

Another gay state representative, Kelly Cassidy, issued a statement imploring supporters not to give up. “This fight is far too important for all of us, but particularly for LGBT youth who are struggling to find acceptance and need this affirmation,” she said. “Frankly, it isn’t fair to tell them that they have to wait for equality.” Cassidy, who received a marriage proposal from partner Kelley Quinn in front of the state capitol earlier this year, noted, “This is also personal for me — I want full equality for my family too.” She noted that her allies in the legislature and many activists had worked hard to make that equality a reality.

Some activist groups praised the legislators’ work. Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, put out a statement of appreciation for the leadership of Harris and Sen. Heather Steans, the chief sponsor in the Senate. He also lauded the work of the groups that joined Freedom to Marry in the Illinois Unites for Marriage coalition: Equality Illinois, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Lambda Legal. “Make no mistake, we will fight and make our case until all Illinois families have the freedom to marry the person they love and until the legislative vote reflects the solid majority of Illinoisans and Americans who stand for treating their neighbors the way they want to be treated,” Solomon concluded.

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund posted on Facebook, “Tonight we are disappointed the Illinois House will not vote on a marriage equality bill before the legislative session ends. But we will always stand with the gay and lesbian state lawmakers who have and continue to fight hard to make LGBT families equal to all others. Thank you Reps. Greg Harris, Kelly Cassidy, Deb Mell and Sam Yingling,” listing all four out legislators in Illinois, all Democrats.

But the Civil Rights Agenda, an Illinois LGBT rights group, blasted Harris, saying he did not do sufficient outreach to get black and Latino lawmakers to support the bill. “From the beginning, we have been upset about the lack of diversity and inclusion in this process,” said executive director Anthony Martinez. “Unfortunately the sponsor didn’t include people of color in the sponsorship of the bill, and the rich white guys from the north side of Chicago thought they could get it done with their checkbook. That was the downfall of this bill. We will continue to push and get this done.”

(RELATED: Watch The Tearful Moment as Bill's Sponsor Announces a Lack of Votes)

Andy Thayer, cofounder of the Gay Liberation Network, called the lack of a vote an “abject betrayal” by House speaker Michael Madigan. “Anyone who knows anything about Illinois politics knows that Speaker Mike Madigan owns the House — if he had insisted on a positive vote from his caucus, it would have passed.” He added that Harris is an ally of Madigan and “pledged repeatedly to bring the bill to a vote by today, and then broke that promise.”

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, expressed disappointment not with Harris in particular but with the legislature as a whole. “They should be embarrassed of themselves,” he told Chicago LGBT paper Windy City Times.

In a subsequent email to The Advocate, Cherkasov elaborated, “Today, the Illinois House failed to act on its historic obligation. The lawmakers faced a clear majority of Illinoisans who had demanded the freedom to marry, and they choose to adjourn without acting.  It is beyond outrageous; it is painful to tens of thousands of gay and lesbian couples who go to sleep tonight as second-class citizens. Yet again. But we are not going away. Tomorrow, we go back into the field and continue to fight until we have the freedom to marry in Illinois.”

Harris told journalists on the House floor that he had the votes pledged for the bill, but some backed out, Windy City Times reports. He expressed hope that the bill would pass in November, adding, “Fighting for equality in this country is the long game.”

Rep. Ken Dunkin, chair of the House’s black caucus, told Windy City Times he supported the bill and wanted to see it come to a vote. Madigan avoided reporters’ requests for interviews but reiterated his support for the bill.

Illinois has Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, plus a Democratic governor, and it goes reliably blue in presidential elections. The conventional wisdom is that there’s a sharp divide between the liberal, LGBT-friendly metropolis of Chicago and the more rural and conservative remainder of the state. There is a divide, but not that sharp: A poll earlier this year found support for marriage equality among 56% of Chicago respondents, 52% of suburban ones, and 48% of downstaters.

The state is also known for a contentious political atmosphere — while wheeling and dealing goes on in every state and national legislature, Illinois has historically had more than the norm. And most likely, more of that will go on between now and November.

If the bill had passed today, it would have topped off an already extraordinary month for the marriage equality cause. Rhode Island, Delaware, and Minnesota approved marriage equality bills in May, bringing the number of U.S. states in the equality column to 12 (plus the District of Columbia). Across the Atlantic, France approved equal marriage rights too, and its first legal same-sex wedding was broadcast nationally this week.

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