SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - "Exhaustimicated!" that's what Equality Illinois' Rick Garcia told Chicago-based Windy City Times, after this week's historic two-day vote in the Illinois state legislature in favor of same-sex civil unions.
"What two days we've had! I'm very, very proud of the work we've done, and I'm thrilled that, right here in the heart of heartland, a legislature has affirmed same-sex couples and their rights," he said.
Garcia, Equality Illinois' co-founder and political director, has been working for such a day for the last five years.
Illinois is just the second state in the nation to recognize same sex civil unions, after New Jersey. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., are the only places that have legalized same-sex marriage.
The victory comes on the heels of the November elections in which the Democrats managed to hold onto the governorship and keep the majority in the state legislature, while losing the U.S. Senate seat.
Gov. Pat Quinn, who narrowly beat his Republican opponent, said he would sign the measure into law. It's expected to go into effect next year.
The measure passed in the state House by a vote of 61-52 and in the Senate by a 32-24 vote. Because of Illinois rules, the House needed 60 votes to pass the measure. Six Republicans voted for the bill in the House, and one in the Senate. Twelve Democrats voted against the measure.
Garcia credited the bill's two sponsors, Rep. Greg Harris and Sen. David Koehler, for their thoughtful and principled leadership in cobbling together the necessary votes. Harris is one of two openly gay state legislators.
The lawmakers were "straightforward, respectful, took a lot of time" discussing things with "opponents and people who had questions," Garcia said in a phone interview, Dec. 2.
He also gave credit to Equality Illinois field organizer Caroline Staerk for tenaciously working all over the state, reaching out to constituents and faith-based communities. "Her work made all the difference in the world, including in the suburban and downstate districts," he said.
Gay and lesbian couples are denied the same rights as heterosexual married couples, unless same sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are recognized and legal.
According to Lambda Legal, there are hundreds of rights for couples who enter into civil unions. Among them are hospital visitation and medical decision making for a partner; burial and cremation decision; automatic inheritance of property and money; health care and other employment benefits offered to spouses; family and medical leave; equal parental rights for children.
Yet, there are more rights married couples enjoy that aren't available to civil union couples. Just one example is that civil unions are not recognized by the federal government, therefore civil union couples cannot file taxes jointly or take tax breaks extended to married couples.
Garcia said Equality Illinois is firmly committed to winning marriage equality.
"That's one area where I see eye to eye with our opponents. When they say civil unions are a slippery slope to gay marriage, I say you are absolutely correct. There cannot be one set of institutions for one group of people and something different for another."
But Garcia said marriage equality bills did not have the votes at this time. "And real Illinoisans need real protection right now. Civil unions provide that real protection."
According to recent polls, 57 percent of Illinoisans support civil unions, while 41 percent support same-sex marriage.
Getting the votes together in the House was tougher than in the Senate, but the Senate rhetoric was tougher than the House debate, Garcia said.
A number of GOP lawmakers took to the floor to use the economic and budget issues as a smokescreen for their opposition to the bill. In Illinois, over 60 percent of businesses offer domestic partnership benefits.
Garcia said state Sen. Ricky Hendon of Chicago "brilliantly called them out" on that.
Hendon was one of the last speakers. When he took the floor he went after the hypocrisy of the opposition.
"When I sit here and I hear adulterers and womanizers and folks cheating on their wives and down-low brothers saying they're going to vote against this bill, it turns my stomach!" Hendon said.
"We know what you do at night. And you know, too. ... Why make it about pensions? ... It's not about pensions. Just say you don't like certain folk.
"You know, I'm a Christian. You might not believe it. But I'm a Baptist -- saved and sanctified, dipped in the holy water when I was 12 years old. I'm going to go to heaven when I die. But I'm going to vote for this bill. It ain't going to send me to hell. And it won't send you there, either."
Although, Hendon didn't name any of his colleagues, state Senator Rev. James Meeks, also of Chicago, voted against the measure, invoking the "sanctity" of marriage in his speech.
Meeks is running for mayor of Chicago and has Republican support. Both Meeks and Hendon are African American. Meeks was the only Black lawmaker to vote against the measure.
The extreme right has a strategy of splitting the African American and LGBT communities, especially by cultivating relationships with conservative Black leaders, according to activists.
Yet, the main opposition came from extreme right, white Republicans, and religious institutions like the Catholic Church. State Rep. Ron Stephens, from a southern part of Illinois not too far from St. Louis, Mo., said "open homosexuality" contributed to the fall of ancient Rome, and claimed legalized civil unions would harm America.
Garcia expects there will be attempts to overturn the law, and to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.
"Equality Illinois is not going to give up. We will continue to fight for decency and fairness. And with our partner, Lambda Legal, we are ready, willing and prepared to go toe to toe" with any attempts to go backwards.
At the end of the voting, there were ovations in the Capitol, on the floor and in the gallery. Lawmakers, like the bill's co-sponsor Sen. Koehler of Peoria who brought his gay daughter, and observers in the gallery celebrated the victory.
In the end, lawmakers said, Illinoisans want fairness.
Celebrate the victory for equity and fairness with Rick Garcia and the People's World this Sunday in Chicago. Click here for tickets and information.
Photo: Illinois State Sen. Dave Koehler, left, back to camera, and State Rep. Greg Harris, celebrate the passage of landmark legislation in the Illinois State Senate requiring the state to recognize same-sex unions, Dec. 1, 2010, in Springfield, Ill. Koehler is the sponsor of the bill in the senate and Harris, is a co-sponsor in the House. (David Spencer/ AP/The State Journal-Register)