Gay marriage backers put the spotlight on Illinois

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CHICAGO - After more than 20 years living together in an apartment in the South Shore neighborhood Patricia Lucey, 68, and Jane Hopkins, 61 are excited about an upcoming wedding.

The gay couple hopes to be among the first such couples to legally wed in the state of Illinois, which activists expect will soon be the 10th big victory in the national struggle for marriage equality.

"People say 'why bother with marriage when you've been together successfully for so long already,'" said Lucey. "But that's the point. We've been a happy couple for longer than maybe half of all marriages last. We love each other and together with Sasha," she explained, pointing to their Labrador retriever, "We are a stable family. Why shouldn't we have the same respect and the same rights as any other couple, as any other family?"

Although their wedding day won't be coming as quickly as they had hoped, they are confident it will be soon.

Last week, an Illinois state Senate executive committee approved a bill authorizing gay marriage.

Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor's office in this solidly Democratic state. The margin of support Senate Democrats were able to pull together for a vote last week was so narrow, however, that a death in one lawmaker's family and another senator's longer-than-planned trip to Israel caused the leadership to put the matter off into the next legislative session.

"Although this means we have to start all over again, at least technically, I'm not really worried," said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equality Illinois, this morning. "And in the new session there are a lot of newly elected lawmakers who don't have a history of having once been pressured so hard to vote against things like marriage equality. They are coming into office in an atmosphere of new understanding and tolerance."

In addition, Cherkasov noted that the November elections gave Illinois Democrats supermajorities in both state chambers. "Mathematically speaking, it would be possible to pass the bill without Republican support."

In most of the nine states and the District of Columbia that now recognize same-sex marriages, however, the laws were passed with bi-partisan support.

In Illinois, the House has 118 members, 71 of whom are Democrats. In that body 60 votes would pass a gay marriage law. In the Senate there are 59 members, 40 of whom are Democrats. There 30 would be needed to pass the law.

Cherkasov says that despite the lopsided Democratic majorities there will be an effort to win Republicans. He noted that the Republican minority leader said that while she couldn't vote for the gay marriage bill, "she looks forward to backing bipartisan support for the bill."

In the last minutes before the vote was expected last week conservative groups of Catholics, Lutherans, Mormons and Muslims co-signed a letter against marriage equality, calling marriage of a man and a woman "the natural basis of the family" and claiming there is "real peril" that, if the law is passed, religious groups will be forced into supporting it, in violation of their consciences.

Human rights leaders are not worried, however. Cherkasov predicted "it is certain in the period ahead that freedom to marry will be won in Illinois. Hundreds of clergy and lay leaders have come forward in support of equality. They have made their support known and have petitioned the lawmakers."

A victory for gay marriage in Illinois would be a huge one for the national movement. It was always thought that winning on marriage equality would be tough in the Midwest, which is traditionally thought of as a much more conservative area than the East and West Coasts of the U.S., for example.

The Iowa Supreme Court's decision to void the state's gay marriage ban in 2009 came as a shock to opponents of gay rights and strengthened the resolve of human rights supporters across the country.

"I think Illinois is the same way," said Jim Bennet, director of the Midwest office of Lambda legal. "If it happens in the Midwest it's not just a quirk. It's a new understanding of the gay community and where we are."

Meanwhile, people backing marriage equality in Illinois continue to be on the move.

A coalition of LGBTQ activists and organizations organized a rally at noon on Jan. 5. . As the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus sang "Over the Rainbow" the crowds at the Thompson Center held signs reading "Opposition to Legal Equality is Bigotry" and "I am no different than your daughter."

One of the most moving parts of the gathering was described in an article in the Windy City Times.

Beth and Boyd Bellinger stepped up to the podium with their two six-month-old children in their arms.

Beth described how elated they were after their marriage in 2011 in Charleston, S.C. and how, in their joy, they told an airport attendant about the ceremony they had just had and about how awful they felt when the attendant said, "Not here you didn't get married."

"We want our marriage to be legitimate and legal for the sake of our children," said Boyd, who added that she is lucky to be living in a state where she could put her name on the children's birth certificates, and legally adopt them in order to be recognized as their legal guardian. (Illinois already recognizes civil unions.)

"And we are lucky that we could afford to do that," she said. "We shouldn't have to pay thousands of dollars and hire someone to navigate a legal system for us in order to have our family be protected and legitimate in the eyes of the state and the nation."

Cherkasov urges people to call their representatives, senators, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate in Illinois. He said that people should first call a list of their own friends who then each should be asked to call the lawmakers.

"There are 35 new lawmakers in Springfield. They really need to here about this issue and to understand it," he said.

The new session of the Illinois General Assembly begins Jan. 8.

Photo: Janean Watkins, left, and Lakeesha Harris embrace after being the first in line to obtain a civil union license from the Cook County Office of Vital Records in Chicago, June 1, 2011. They are among more than two dozen same-sex couples filing lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Illinois' marriage laws. Their goal is to make same-sex marriage legal. M. Spencer Green/AP

 

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