For those of us of a certain age, the story of our lifetime has been the civil rights movement and the infusion of its fundamental ideal, one drawn from the very words used to call this nation into existence—”that all men are created equal”—beyond racial equality and into every segment of our culture, whether it be the rights of the disabled or the perpetual struggle to turn a patriarchal society into one of equal opportunity regardless of gender. And so, we turn to what may be the final obstacle that keeps us from turning that noble concept voiced 233 years ago from principle into reality.
Those of you who follow Newcity know that we may be liberal in other ways, but not with the practice of endorsement. But just as we believed the election of Barack Obama as president transcended all other issues last November, so too do we believe that this issue, the equal rights of all persons, transcends all other issues.
This is the moment. Nations around the world are moving forward with marriage equality; so too are states around this nation. While Illinois cannot be first, it can still make its influence, and so too Chicago, since neither New York City nor Los Angeles are situated in states where gay couples may marry. This is the moment to enact equal marriage rights in Illinois and we call upon our elected leaders to pass the necessary legislation with appropriate haste so that our state might resume its place as a portent of progess, as manifest by our favorite sons Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, rather than the crest of corruption that the same fingers of progress seem too often predisposed to favor inside the voting booth. We’ll defer to others to lead the way on tactics, but ask all of you to make your voices heard. For as the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox once wrote, “To sin by silence, when they should protest, makes cowards of men.”
The State of Gay Marriage
Where Illinois stands on equality
By Tom Lynch
The wheels of legislation turn slowly, frustratingly slowly. Bills to ban sexual orientation and gender-identity discrimination were first introduced in Illinois in the mid-1970s and it took until 2005 to be signed into law, by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich. Illinois was the sixteenth state to introduce such rights into law-the Illinois Human Rights Act was amended to protect those who believe they’ve been denied a job, housing, public accommodation or credit because of their sexual orientation.
Think about that. Thirty years. As of today, six states-Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire-offer same-sex marriages. Of course California did, until last year’s controversial Proposition 8 state constitutional amendment was approved by the state’s voters, an action upheld by the state supreme court in May.
Most of the states that now offer same-sex marriage began the journey by legalizing some form of civil unions or domestic partnerships, the first being Vermont and California, which passed legislation nearly a decade ago. The strategy being, instead of taking one big bite, take smaller bites to slowly reach the finish line. This seems to be Illinois State Representative Greg Harris’ strategy.
Harris, of the thirteenth district (which encompasses parts of Ravenswood, Uptown, Lincoln Square, North Center and Andersonville), originally introduced gay-marriage legislation in the General Assembly in 2007, with little success. Two years later he tried again, but the bill died in committee. A month later, he presented similar legislation under HB2234, which substituted “civil union” for “marriage fairness,” titled the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. The “religious” aspect of the bill was written language that, under law, would not require any religious organization or church to approve, conduct or recognize a same-sex civil union. The bill passed through committee and, through a quick-thinking parliamentary move by Harris, replaced a current senate bill in an effort to speed up passage. However, the bill was not put to a vote during the last session this spring, and is still up for negotiation. As of today, it’s known as SB1716 (H-AM 1).
Harris, who was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 2006, says that legislators have been sidetracked both by the Blagojevich scandal and the state’s current budget crisis, and those factors dissuaded him from bringing the bill to an official vote. “When we’re talking about cutting half the state government or having to raise income taxes, people are saying, ‘We got so many other difficult votes and choices to make,'” Harris says. “They’re really not focused on this as an issue, so it’s hard to rise above some of the noise that goes on in the General Assembly, especially when people are losing their jobs and homes and healthcare.”
But he’s quick to point out the rapid progress Illinois is making. “For the people who get impatient, also remember, for better or worse, in the state of Illinois, it took thirty years to pass legislation that said you can’t discriminate against someone for sexual orientation in jobs, housing or public accommodation,” he says. “I mean, that took three decades. And here within two years, we got a bill ready to go in the house that would grant marriage rights. So yeah, it’s not perfect, but we’re not doing that badly in the scheme of things.”
The openly gay Harris has fought publicly for gay rights for some time; he was Alderman Mary Ann Smith’s chief of staff for fourteen years, co-chaired the city’s task force on LGBT substance use and abuse and is a founder of both Open Hand Chicago and AIDSWalk Chicago.
“Very clearly,” he says, “for me and for everyone else who supports marriage equality, full marriage equality is where we need to go, civil marriage for everyone who qualifies and wants it. That’s the ultimate goal.”
But “marriage” is a tricky word. Religion, tradition, personal values-these are all roadblocks that might prevent legislators and their constituents from backing a bill that would grant civil-union rights. Don’t forget, this bill will be voted on by representatives of the entire state, most of which is rural. People from the most southern region of Illinois are as likely to identify with people from Louisville as they do with people from Chicago. It’s not just southern Illinois, either-Harris says there’s opposition in the more Republican suburbs of Cook County and the heavily Catholic areas of Chicago.
“But there was a broader group,” Harris says, “and this really surprised me, from all over the state. I would start my little speech, ‘Here’s what the bill would do,’ and it’s, ‘Whoa, whoa, we get it.’ They have a sister, or a niece, someone who volunteered in their campaign, someone who goes to their church who this would help. So they understand the issue. I don’t care where in the state they came from. There were a ton of people who said, ‘We understand the issue, but ‘marriage’ is still hard for us to vote on because of our district and people’s perception of the ‘M’ word. Is there something else we could do to give people the rights and benefits without saying ‘marriage?’ And I say, ‘Well, there’s this other concept called civil union.'”
There is disagreement within the gay community, as some believe that a civil union bill, as progressive as that is, still represents a “separate but not equal” mentality, and that Illinois legislators should in essence go for gay marriage outright, no matter how long it takes. “But there are other people you talk to that say, ‘I’m really worried right now, I have a partner who is sick, and when she goes to the hospital, I want to be able to be in the intensive care unit, I need these rights right now. I would be happy with an incremental approach. I need these protections for my family today while this process goes forward.’ At this point, I think, an incremental approach is appropriate.” He pauses. “Now ask me in six months, I might say something different. I might say, OK, it’s time we do the whole thing.”
It’s important to note that SB1716 would not only grant rights to same-sex couples, but to straight couples as well. Harris offers the example of an elderly couple who meet later in life, whose initial spouses have passed away, and who cannot remarry without risking various pension and social security plans. “But they wouldn’t be able to have hospital visitation, or help in healthcare decisions,” Harris says. “So a civil union would help them get around that.”
Harris says Governor Pat Quinn has voiced his support of the bill, as has Mayor Daley. “If we do use civil unions as the first step towards full marriage equality here, it will pass, and if you look at history and public opinion, time and history is on our side,” Harris says. “In a year or two years, people are gonna look and see that the sky did not fall in, plagues of locusts did not come down and decimate the Earth, that this is fine. Let’s just get this done. Let’s have full marriage equality.”
“This is an issue of basic fairness,” says Jim Madigan, the interim executive director of Equality Illinois, who helped Representative Harris draft the current bill. “We try to emphasize the fact that although we don’t yet have the votes for marriage, votes are very close for civil union. The emphasis of this is that it provides basic fairness for couples and allows them to do things that state law can uniquely provide, [to be able to] visit one another in the hospital, have property left to one another. The basic stuff [that] married couples take for granted… We also try to remind them that our bill expressly provides that no religious organization will be forced to perform civil union ceremonies.”
Equality Illinois was launched in 1992 to, according to its Web site, secure, protect and defend equal rights for the LGBT community in Illinois. Before taking the position as interim director, Madigan worked for three years for Lambda Legal, where his focus was on gay rights.
“I’m frustrated, but I’m also not without hope,” Madigan says of Illinois’ current status. “They are really getting there. If I thought we were hitting a brick wall, then I’d be more frustrated, but slowly but surely we are getting there, and we have this very delicate mix of a sense of urgency to keep ourselves motivated, but also a sense of patience to let them be persuaded in the right way.”
In order for a bill to be passed in Illinois, it requires sixty votes from the House and thirty from the Senate. Harris feels the number of “yes” votes cuts pretty close, and says he wants to know he’s getting more than sixty, in case one or two people change their minds at the last minute during session. He feels it’s of no use to have a “show vote”; he’s not going to bring the bill to a vote until he knows it’s going to pass. As it exists right now, the civil union bill has technically already passed through the Senate, and was amended in the House. So, first, the bill would need to receive at least sixty votes in the House, then go back to the Senate for concurrence with the amendment.
“If we’re talking about marriage, I’m saying we’re about five or seven years out,” says Rick Garcia, Director of Public Policy for Equality Illinois, which he helped found. “If we’re talking about civil unions I think we’re months out.”
Harris, Madigan, Garcia and others who work for the cause set their sights on the undecided votes. Many legislators are hesitant because they fear the wrath of their own constituency-voting yes or no on issues could jeopardize upcoming elections, of course.
“I’ve had conversations where people look me in the face and say, ‘Homosexuality is wrong, I just can’t recognize it in any way or form,'” Garcia says. “That’s a deeply held belief. That’s fine. The thing that kills me is when people look at you and say, ‘I think this is a good idea, but I can’t vote for it, I’m afraid of election day.’ This is a reality: we know of no elected official who has voted for gay marriage who has lost. In Massachusetts, right after the passage of the marriage bill, the only ones who lost were those that opposed equal marriage.”
No wonder the frustration. “That’s why I eat too much Dairy Queen and drink too much bourbon,” Garcia says. “We don’t look at civil unions being instead of marriages, we look at civil unions as being on the road to marriage. Republicans, you know, they say, ‘This is a step to homosexual marriage.’ We look them in the face and we’re like, ‘Hallelujah brother, we agree!'”
Harris, Garcia and Madigan are hesitant to name specific legislators who oppose the bill or are undecided, but encourage those in the community who support equal rights to call their district representatives and get in their ears. As rudimentary as that may sound, all three believe it’s the best method of showing your support and helping the cause. You may not believe it, but representatives do actually receive your calls and emails; if they know their constituents’ opinions on an issue as important as civil unions, it will all be taken into account.
“Just look at all of the social change that’s happened in America that we look back on and shake our heads and go ‘Tut, tut, tut, how could we have believed that?'” says Harris. “The Emancipation Proclamation-the freeing of the slaves. It undid generations of history and tradition. That was hugely controversial at the time. Now people look back on it and say, ‘How could anyone have ever believed that?’ Women’s suffrage. Generations upon generations had taught people that women did not have the right to vote. And now, if anyone were to say that publicly, they would be looked at as some kind of kook. So when people say, ‘It’s just tradition, it’s history, it’s the way things have always been done’-that doesn’t make it right… The movement of [this country] has been toward greater justice and greater liberty and, you know, a lot things we didn’t get right in the beginning we made right over time. And I think this is another one of those issues.”