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Civil unions to start
by Joseph Erbentraut

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Months following the hard-fought and emotional legislative battle that ultimately resulted in Illinois' new civil-union law being signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn earlier this year, many LGBT Illinoisans have been eying June 1, the day the law finally goes into effect, with a great deal of anticipation.

In the Chicago area, that anticipation will culminate in a number of events honoring the milestone that are expected to draw large crowds. On June 2, the first day in which couples filing for civil unions will be able to mark their unions with a ceremony, some 33 couples are slated to participate in the city's official celebration of the law's fruition at 10 a.m. in Millennium Park's Wrigley Square.

Quinn, as well as the city's newly inaugurated mayor, Rahm Emanuel, will also be on hand at the event, co-sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, Lambda Legal, Equality Illinois and the Alliance of Illinois Judges. Timothy Evans, Circuit Court of Cook County chief judge, will lead the officiation of the civil-union ceremonies.

The Millennium Park event will be followed by another multiple-couple civil-union ceremony and celebration hosted by The Civil Rights Agenda ( TCRA ) Friday, June 3, at the Chicago History Museum. Tickets purchased for the event, which will include 40 couples at the organizers' latest count, will benefit TCRA's Families United Project.

Finally, celebrants in the suburbs will not be left out, as will also host civil-union ceremonies beginning at the stroke of midnight at the aLoft Hotel in Bolingbrook June 2. The organization will also be hosting representatives from the Will County Clerk's office at a welcome party the night before, allowing interested couples to skip a separate trip.

For state Rep. Greg Harris, the perennial lead sponsor of the civil-union bill he first introduced in 2007, the months that have passed since Quinn's Jan. 31 signing of the bill have put the moment into an illuminating context.

While some of his colleagues may have expressed concern for their constituents' reactions over their vote in support of the measure, Harris said media coverage showing couples, families and county clerks' offices alike preparing for the law's implementation, most interestingly appearing in the state's central and southern regions, have indicated "the people of Illinois are way ahead of their legislators on this issue."

"It's an emotionally charged issue and everyone has their opinions but I just watch the TV stations and read the newspapers down here [ in and around Springfield ] and they're talking about families who are so happy for their brother or sister or son or daughter who are finally seeing their relationship recognized," Harris told Windy City Times. "That helps you realize this is truly changing a lot of peoples' lives for the better."

Emanuel described the occasion as marking "a day of celebration and an historic milestone on the road to full marriage equality for LGBT Illinoisans" in a city news release, mirroring the assertions of the bulk of queer activists across the state that civil unions still fall short of their end goal. Although the law will grant many of the same legal protections to same-sex ( as well as heterosexual ) couples who register for civil unions as those afforded to married couples in the state, when it comes to federal matters, the civil unions remain unrecognized.

"There is something a little bit both exciting and bittersweet that it's not full marriage," said Jim Bennett, regional director of Lambda Legal's Midwest office, before noting that many of the couples participating in the Millennium Park event still have their eyes set on a full-fledged marriage ceremony in the future.

"You don't want to rain on an amazing parade but [ the law ] is a great step and it's nice that Illinois is on the leading side of making equality happen," he added.

Veteran gay activist Rick Garcia, who lobbied aggressively for the bill's passage, noted the law will provide "necessary protections that families need now until the time we have same-sex marriage" in Illinois but was quick to add the caveat that "separate is not equal and a civil-union is not a marriage.

"We have a job ahead of us to make sure there is only one set of rules and one yard stick for everyone," Garcia said. "This is a time to be celebratory and happy but it is also a time to recommit ourselves to equality and fairness."

Andy Thayer, co-founder of Chicago's Gay Liberation Network, noted the idea of civil unions for same-sex couples as separate but equal as "oxymoronic" though he hoped the law's passage would "help hasten the day of full legal equality."

In the months that followed the state legislature's approval of the bill late last year, social conservative groups, most notably the Catholic Conference of Illinois, supported repeated attempts to weaken the law, particularly as it pertained to gay and lesbian parents' adoptive and foster care rights.

Thayer hoped LGBT activists in the state would take the opportunity to face any further such opposition from faith-based groups head on—something he felt activists in other statewide battles in recent years have failed to do.

"In the California defeat with Proposition 8 and Maine with Question 1, our community hesitated to take on 'religious' bigots and those were hesitations which proved disastrous." Thayer noted. "It is my hope that many more LGBTs begin to feel that we cannot give a 'religious' exemption for bigotry."

Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov, too, called for continued vigilance on the community's part against further opposition, such as the call from some conservative activists, including American for Truth about Homosexuality head Peter LaBarbera, for a measure on the civil-union law to be placed on a statewide ballot in the next election.

"It's important for us to be vigilant and keep our eyes on the goal of full equality," Cherkasov said, "and we need to take every threat that comes our way very seriously."

Cherkasov added that he hoped couples embarking on civil unions would sign up for Equality Illinois and Lambda Legal's jointly launched Civil Union Tracker to aide their organizations' abilities to keep tabs on any problems or questions that arise for those applying for licenses.

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