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Illinois civil-unions bill becomes law
Updated with coverage by Rex Wockner
by Kate Sosin
2011-02-02

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Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn faced a standing ovation so loud he was forced to shush a packed room at the Chicago Cultural Center as he stepped onto the stage to sign the state's civil-unions into law Jan. 31.

"This is the moment that will be remembered," said Gov. Quinn before he sat down to sign. "On this Jan. 31, in the year of 2011 when we came together here in Illinois, in the Land of Lincoln and made this happen."

More than 1,000 people packed the downtown building for the event.

The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act ( SB 1716 ) grants same-sex couples all of the same state rights as married Illinois couples.

"I think the greatest thing about Illinois is that we're a welcoming, hospitable, accepting place," said Quinn. He called Illinois "something special. Because we believe in civil rights and we believe in civil unions."

Present were LGBTQ activists, parents, couples, reporters, politicians and veterans from across the state. The GAR Rotunda, on the fourth floor of the Cultural Center, was so crowded that audience members pressed into the back of the room and lined the side aisles.

Most of the attention was on State Rep. Greg Harris, who sponsored the bill in the Illinois House of Representatives. Harris appeared exuberant. "I couldn't be happier," Harris told Windy City Times. "I am very, very proud. If you look at the crowd, you can see how significant this is. There are people from all over the state who have come here because this is changing their lives."

State Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, was also recognized for his sponsorship of the bill in the senate. Koehler said he was "honored" to have been a part of the legislation and dedicated to the bill to his own daughter, who is gay. "It's through her eyes that I see this," Koehler said. "Justice looks a bit better [ today ] ."

Several LGBTQ groups participated in the program leading up to the signing. Jim Darby and other members of American Veterans for Equal Rights led the room in the pledge of allegiance. The Chicago Gay Men's Chorus preceded the event with a song called "Brand New Day," and attendees clapped and sang along, took pictures together, and congratulated one another.

"I knew that it would happen," said Stacy Fox, 29, who attended the signing with her partner. "But I'm actually surprised it happened so soon. I thought it would be five or 10 years down the road." Fox will unionize with her partner, Rebecca Siegel in July. She hopes her family will see her relationship as legitimate a result. The two were engaged in October, but never imagined their ceremony would be legally recognized.

Still, an overwhelming sentiment among attendees was that civil unions were not the end point, but a stepping stone for many who want same-sex marriage legalized. "There is still work to be done," Harris told the audience. "Things can get better."

Illinois civil unions will entitle same-sex ( and heterosexual ) couples most of the benefits of marriage. However, Illinois civil unions might not be recognized in states that do not offer similar protections for same-sex couples. Same-sex couples with Illinois civil unions may still need to file power of attorneys, single-parent adoptions, and other measures to ensure they are protected if they leave the state.

Quinn did not comment on whether or not he would support same-sex marriage legislation, but several speakers encouraged the crowd to push for "full equality," suggesting that while historic, SB 1716, was not enough.

Rick Garcia, the now-former Equality Illinois public policy director, shared similar sentiments with Windy City Times. Garcia, who was seen by many as instrumental in the passage of SB 1716, was controversially ousted from Equality Illinois in December. He expressed his excitement over the signing and fiercely reaffirmed his commitment to fighting for same-sex marriage without Equality Illinois.

"I am overwhelmed," Garcia said before the signing. "This is the culmination of so many people's hard work and so many things. So we're one step closer to full equality in the great state of Illinois. We still have a way to go. I'm not going anywhere."

Garcia was not included in the program, but a mention of his name by openly lesbian state Rep. Deborah Mell caused a thunderous round of applause and a partial standing ovation, during which Garcia tearfully blew a kiss to the audience.

Throughout the ceremony, the audience members screamed, laughed, jumped up and down, sang, cried and even shouted praises at Harris. Reporters and photographers climbed onto chairs to see the governor introduce Lt. Governor Sheila Simon, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and others. But when Quinn returned to the microphone and announced he was ready to sign the civil-union bill into law, the rowdy room quieted.

Several anticipated minutes passed as the governor signed the bill and passed pens to Harris, Mell and legislators and supporters. U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley and Danny Davis were joined by numerous state elected and appointed officials. When Quinn finished signing, the room erupted in cheers.

After the signing, most of those gathered headed to another part of the building for a celebration catered by the Hearty Boys and underwritten by businessman/philanthropist Fred Eychaner.

Illinois is the sixth state to grant same-sex couples significant partner recognition. Civil unions will go into effect June 1. All couples in Illinois who have married or unionized elsewhere, will automatically be recognized as in a civil union.

To support families protected by the new law, Lambda Legal and Equality Illinois launched the Civil Union Tracker.

"We have had a surge of calls to our Legal Help Desk since November when the law passed the legislature," said Camilla Taylor, Senior Staff Attorney at the Midwest Regional Office of Lambda Legal in Chicago, in a press release. " [ Our ] goal is to provide a much-needed service to same-sex and different-sex couples in civil unions, and to their children."

The Civil Union Tracker can be found at http://www.lambdalegal.org/take-action/il-civil-union-tracker.

Illinois civil union bill signed into law, by Rex Wockner

Gov. Pat Quinn signed Illinois' comprehensive civil-union bill into law Jan. 31. It will take effect June 1.

"This is the moment that I think long after we're gone, people will remember us, on the 31st of January in the year 2011 that we came together here in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, and made history," Quinn said.

The governor used 97 different pens to sign the bill, so that many of the people who worked on it could have a souvenir. It took him 7 minutes and 25 seconds to affix his signature to the document.

When he finished, he stood, thrust the signed bill in the air, and looked extremely satisfied but also humble. For video of the neverending signing, see tinyurl.com/quinnsign.

Under the law, gay and straight couples in a civil union will receive the same state-level benefits, protections and responsibilities provided to married people.

The law also recognizes other states' same-sex marriages -- but only as civil unions.

"This new law reflects the triumph of hope and fairness over distortion and division," said Jill Metz, board president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

In all, 13 states and Washington, D.C., now have expansive civil-union laws, allow same-sex marriage, or recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C. In addition, New York and Maryland recognize same-sex marriages from elsewhere in the nation or world. Civil-union or domestic-partnership laws that grant all state-level rights of marriage are also in place in California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.

In addition there are laws that grant same-sex couples some of the rights of marriage in Colorado, Hawaii, Maine and Wisconsin.

California is a further case unto itself. Same-sex marriage was legal from June to November 2008, when voters amended the state constitution via Proposition 8 to put a stop to it. The couples who married then are still legally married, as are other same-sex couples who live in California and got married anywhere in the world before Prop 8 passed. Gay couples who married somewhere else after Prop 8 passed, or who marry elsewhere in the future, receive every state-level right and obligation of marriage in California except for the legal right to call their marriage a "marriage" when they are in California. They are not recognized under the state's domestic partnership law, but rather are married couples who are denied use of the word "marriage."


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