On Thursday 2 in Millennium Park’s Wrigley Square, a new term will enter the Illinois lexicon. Thirty same-sex couples will be civil unionized at a historic ceremony that will include opening remarks from Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as well as five “stations” where lovebirds can be conjoined by LGBT judges. The event celebrates a milestone day, when Illinois will begin enacting civil unions for the first time, thanks to a bill Quinn signed in January.
“Civil unions are a great step in the right direction,” says Bernard Cherkasov, CEO for Equality Illinois, an org that focuses on LGBT issues.
But others in the LGBT community aren’t ready to cut the cake just yet, and even some of the couples getting unionized in Millennium Park might be confused about what the legislation really entails. While civil unions will provide the same statewide benefits as marriage (federal benefits are excluded under the Defense of Marriage Act), Equality Illinois and other orgs like Lambda Legal, which fought hard for them, acknowledge they don’t go far enough.
“We don’t know how [civil unions are] going to roll out, how they’re going to be implemented and whether they will, in effect, provide the same benefits and protections that married couples have,” Cherkasov says. He calls civil unions a “parallel institution,” and worries the implementation may cause problems.
Camilla Taylor, the marriage project director for Lambda Legal, a national organization that litigates on behalf of the LGBT community, points to New Jersey, another state with civil unions, as a cause for concern. There, the complexities of civil unions have left hospitals, insurers and employers confused about what rights the unions grant. “We had to send a demand letter to UPS because they refused to apply the same relocation policies to civil-union partners that they had for spouses,” Taylor says. (Lambda Legal and Equality Illinois have joined to create the Civil Unions Tracker, a place for couples to share their experiences and where the orgs can monitor fairness; sign up at lambdalegal.org or eqil.org.)
Some Chicagoans flat out reject civil unions and are willing to keep fighting for full marriage rights. On February 14, Lindsey Dietzler and five other activists representing Join the Impact Chicago, GetEQUAL and Dietzler’s own Video Action League marched into City Hall demanding a marriage license for couple Judy Heithmar and Danelle Wylder. After a six-and-a-half-hour protest in which they read aloud rights being denied to them by the Defense of Marriage Act (while supporters cheered and objectors shouted “Jesus”), they were arrested, though charges subsequently were dropped.
“Civil unions aren’t even remotely enough,” Dietzler says. “They still carry the stigma of second-class citizenship. It’s basically saying, ‘We’ve created this special thing for you so shut up and go away.’ ”
Taylor similarly acknowledges the social stigma cast by civil unions. When she was representing lesbian couple Jen and Dawn BarbouRoske, plaintiffs in the suit that brought marriage equality to Iowa, the difference between civil unions and marriage equality hit her right in the gut. “When government excludes people from marriage and forces a particular class of people into a separate status with a different name, it sends a message that it doesn’t consider gay and lesbian couples worthy,” she says. “That causes all sorts of damage, not just to the couples themselves but to their children [who] understand when their families have been labeled bad families.” (If the BarbouRoskes were to relocate to Illinois, their marriage would be downgraded to a civil union.)
Marriage equality has been on the table, if briefly, in Illinois. In 2009, State Sen. Heather Steans (D-7th) introduced SB2468, a civil marriage bill that never made it to committee and is now dead. But Steans says the bill nudged civil unions forward by pressuring lawmakers to meet the LGBT community halfway. “I think having equal marriage as an alternative does help some people vote for civil unions,” she explains. “There are definitely a number of people in the Senate who voted yes on civil unions who would’ve voted no on equal marriage.”
Dietzler, however, while respectful of the legislative process in Springfield, worries that a piecemeal approach creates gay-rights fatigue. “I think it compromises the movement to do civil unions first because then you have people who are going to say, ‘These pesky queers won’t go away, why can’t they just be happy with what they have?’ ” he says. “We put community time, energy and money into something that is still inherently unequal.” To prove that point, Join the Impact Chicago is staging a marriage-equality rally June 11 in Boystown.
With civil unions a done deal, the question now is how to get Illinois to full marriage equality. Sean Eldridge, the political director at Freedom to Marry, a nationwide campaign to win marriage equality across the country, says New England may offer a clue to how Illinois should proceed. “There is a real precedent for states that have taken the step of civil unions to then go ahead and finish the job and provide full marriage for same-sex couples,” he says. “We’ve seen that in Vermont and also places like Connecticut and New Hampshire.” For Freedom to Marry, the push for marriage equality in Illinois includes working with statewide orgs to create a strategy and timeline.
That plan suggests an indefinite wait. Vermont, which enacted civil unions in 2000, took nine years to make the leap to marriage equality. However, New Hampshire and Connecticut took only two and three years, respectively. Steans offers a more concrete picture. “There’s very good timing for this because we’re going through redistricting…and that creates new opportunities for change,” she says. “Every senator and representative will be up for re-election in 2012.” However, she also cautions that a marriage bill, like the civil-unions effort, will likely take several tries before it’s passed.
Of course, major cases working their way through the courts may impact the Land of Lincoln. The Department of Justice dropped its defense of DOMA in February, although House Republicans are determined to defend it all the way to the Supreme Court. If DOMA is struck down, Cherkasov says, Illinois would be required to respect out-of-state same-sex marriages while not having to enact them (federal benefits apply only to marriage, not civil unions).
Cherkasov says Illinoisans should work toward protecting the fragile victory they just won (anti-equality forces already tried to amend the bill to make it harder for same-sex couples to adopt), but offers some advice for Chicagoans holding out for full marriage: “Pick up the phone right now and tell your lawmakers that you want marriage equality. If middle-of-the-road Republican and Democratic lawmakers hear from 20 of their constituents tomorrow, they’ll take that message very, very seriously.”
Marriage Equality Now: Rally to Repeal DOMA happens June 11 at 8pm at Roscoe and Halsted Streets; see jointheimpactchicago.com.