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Ill. Legalizes Civil Unions

Ill. Legalizes Civil Unions


Gay Illinoisans rejoiced Monday afternoon as Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation establishing civil unions, giving same-sex couples most of the state-level rights and responsibilities of marriage.

Quinn signed the bill before a crowd of hundreds at the Chicago Cultural Center. He invoked the state's most famous politician, Abraham Lincoln, by saying, "We're a government of the people, by the people, for the people, and it shall not perish from the earth."

The numerous other speakers at the signing ceremony included Greg Harris, the gay state representative who sponsored the bill, who like many others implied that civil unions were a step forward but not the final goal, which is marriage equality. "There is more work to be done," he said. "Things can get better."

Rep. Deb Mell, the other openly gay member of the state legislature, discussed her activism and the support of her father, Chicago alderman Richard Mell, and her fiancee, Christin Baker. "I realized the act of being out and telling our story was one of the most powerful things we could do," she told ceremony attendees. Before the signing, she told The Advocate of civil unions, "This is a huge first step forward toward full marriage equality."

At the ceremony, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon added, "I hope that other states will join us and I hope the federal government will join us as well. Full equality is not too much to ask for."

Various speakers thanked all who had worked for the civil unions law and gay equality in general, including the late Larry McKeon, the first openly gay Illinois legislator, who died in 2008. They also cited support of Republicans as well as Democrats.

The law takes effect June 1, at which time both same-sex and opposite-sex couples will be able to obtain civil union licenses at county clerks' offices. Out-of-state civil unions, domestic partnerships, and same-sex marriages will be recognized as civil unions under Illinois law.

Other activists and elected officials also hailed the move. "This is a momentous day for all Illinoisans," Chicago alderman Tom Tunney, the only out gay member of the city council, told The Advocate in a phone interview.

"It's a great day for us," Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of gay rights group Equality Illinois, which lobbied strongly for the measure, told The Advocate today. "This has been a battle that has been long-fought and hard-won."

Proponents of the measure attributed its success to a variety of factors: effective lobbying, gay visibility, and the state's Democratic leadership. "We had built a broad coalition of supporters," Cherkasov said, including more than 300 clergy members from 80 cities in Illinois, who signed a petition to the legislature in support of the civil unions bill. Many corporate leaders also endorsed the legislation.

Mell and fellow out lawmaker Greg Harris spoke out for the bill in the legislature. Mell announced her engagement to Baker on the floor of the house of representatives. "It's just so important to be out and visible," Mell said. "I like to think that played a part in it."

Added Tunney: "I want to hand it to our state representatives," Harris and Mell. He also credited the support of Quinn -- "If we would have had a Republican governor, I'm not sure it would be passing" -- along with senate president John Cullerton and house speaker Michael Madigan, also Democrats.

Tunney and Mell said it was important to continue working toward marriage equality, as did observers such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the national group Freedom to Marry. Harris is already sponsoring a marriage equality bill, Mell said. Cherkasov was more cautious, saying his group would follow the civil unions law's implementation closely before deciding whether to push for marriage rights.

In addition to Illinois, 12 states and the District of Columbia have an expansive form of relationship recognition for gay couples, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and D.C. have marriage equality. California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington State have civil unions or domestic partnerships providing most of the state-level benefits of marriage. New York State and Maryland recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.

Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, and Wisconsin, offer more limited rights to same-sex couples, and Rhode Island provides limited recognition to same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
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