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Marriage Protest on Cook County Clerk's Office, Ald. Mell's Daughter Arrested
by Cathy Seabaugh
2004-03-10

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All activists are invited to join Illinois state Rep. Larry McKeon and 44th ward Ald. Tom Tunney, both openly gay elected officials, at the Dirksen Federal Building. 219 S. Dearborn, on Thursday, March 11, where the two have planned a 1 p.m. appearance at the local office of Dennis Hastert, this nation's Speaker of the House, who grew up less than 50 miles from Chicago.

'We're going to demand an appointment to meet with Congressman Hastert as soon as possible to discuss the detriment of this constitutional amendment (classifying marriage as solely between one man and one woman),' said McKeon, who became state representative in 1997.

Hastert, who in 1999 became the third most powerful government official in the U.S., previously coached high school wrestling in Yorkville, Ill., a predominantly white population (95 percent of approximately 6,200 residents). Yorkville statistics in the year 2000 state that, for ages 15 and older, 18.9 percent were 'never married,' .5 percent were 'separated,' and 7.7 percent were divorced, which totals more than 27 percent of the townspeople. The Yorkville Foxes and their booster club might think there are bigger issues than marriage needing Congressional attention.

At Tuesday's County Board meeting, Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley (10th district) planned to introduce a resolution to oppose the federal amendment and Tunney promised to follow suit at Wednesday's City Council meeting.

'We've met with many people in the community,' McKeon said, 'and we believe the most dangerous thing is the constitutional amendment. We have to be sure we don't misdirect resources.'

McKeon, Tunney and County Clerk David Orr, all three avid proponents of same-sex marriage, met Monday morning to discuss plans to address the same-sex marriage tidal wave that is rolling across the nation. Orr, the target of last week's protest where some 300 individuals weaved through the county building at 118 N. Clark, ending up below street level at the desk where marriage licenses are issued, encourages the LGBT community to remain cohesive in its efforts.

'I spoke to Rick Garcia (political director of Equality Illinois) this morning and he believes the focus should be on the constitutional amendment,' said Orr, first elected County Clerk in 1990. 'The religious right's goal is to divide and conquer. Movements are sometimes sporadic. Every place where licenses have been issued there has been a legal decision, something that gives it a go-ahead. For me, while I've taken the position to support gay marriage, breaking the law won't get you any closer to that. We've all been delivering the best national strategy.'

'There has to be this education process as far as realizing the civil rights issues and separating the legal and civil parts of marriage,' said Tunney, who took his first elected official's oath in February 2003. 'We by no means are giving up on this issue, but we also don't want to move too quickly and draw this backlash.' Those words will sound familiar to Deborah Mell, 35-year-old sister-in-law of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and daughter to longtime Chicago Ald. Dick Mell.

'It's like any other family who is struggling with this issue; he's listening,' said Mell, arrested at last Thursday's protest after colliding with a female Chicago police officer. While Blagojevich opposes gay marriage, Mell's father supports her. The rookie activist was attempting to reach the center of Washington Street in front of the Cook County Administration Building to join Garcia in halting automobile traffic. 'Today [March 8] I asked [Blagojevich] point-blank what he was going to do. He skirted the issue. I think he said something like 'you can't be too far ahead on this issue'.'

Mell was the only individual arrested at the event—she was handcuffed and placed in a paddy wagon where she said she sat for quite a while.

'We moved a little and then stopped again and I figured they were hanging around to see if anyone else was going to be joining me,' she said. 'It was a little scary. I think I was in a state of shock.'

Garcia called Ald. Mell to alert him. Meanwhile, Deborah Mell experienced being handcuffed to a wall, then moved to a holding area where she was fingerprinted and a mug shot was taken. Served a bologna sandwich in her own private cell while waiting for her father to post bond, Mell was released that evening after a six-hour ordeal.

'I didn't intentionally want to be arrested,' said Mell, a graduate of Iowa's Cornell College, a small liberal arts school. 'I did want to sit on Washington Street. I don't consider myself an activist, but it's something I'm going to pursue because it's getting so much attention. I'd rather not have the attention, but it's about the much bigger issue.'

Gov. Blagojevich began dating Patricia Mell, whom Deborah calls her best friend, in the late 1980s, marrying the Alderman's daughter in 1990.

'When I was in San Francisco going through a bad breakup [with a woman],' Deborah Mell said, 'Rod was the one I talked to.'

Their conversations continue.

'Deborah being out is great,' said Rep. McKeon, who hopes Mell will be joining them at Hastert's office. 'I recall at the Equality Illinois dinner two years ago, [Blagojevich] made it a point to introduce her and let everyone know she was single, but I'm disappointed the governor is waffling on this issue.'

Prior to Mell's arrest on Thursday, supporters of same-sex marriage chanted across Clark Street to the dozen or so anti-gay protestors bearing signs that read 'AIDS is the cure.' Outside the building at 69 W. Washington, which houses Orr's executive office on the fifth floor, a thin, middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap shouted through a megaphone, 'The penalty for Sodomites is death. Read it in the Bible. [On Judgment Day,] you're going to do, my personal favorite, gnash your teeth. You're going to cry for your mommies, little boys.'

A female couple from Round Lake, together almost 13 years, quietly stood among their lesbian and gay peers, waiting to see if any progress toward recognizing them as a couple might be made that day. When they approached Orr's employee at the marriage license office, they were handed an 8-1/2'x11' white sheet of paper from the County Clerk's office, stating:

'Thank you for coming here today to express your position about the issue of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. I strongly support your position and will fight with GLBT rights advocates and elected officials to make civil marriage a legal reality for same-sex couples in Illinois. In addition, we must do everything in our power to stop the federal constitutional amendment that would put bias against gay and lesbian people into the U.S. Constitution. If this amendment were to pass, it would not only bar marriage but might void many of the relationship rights that gay people have fought so hard to gain over the past decade. If you would like to join us in our efforts to gain civil marriage rights, please leave your name and e-mail address or phone number. Sincerely, David Orr, Cook County Clerk.'

Orr's office also issued a press release last week further explaining his position and the potential harm of moving too quickly on the issue.

'I support people's right to protest,' he said. 'This change is going to come. In 1967, the tradition was to outlaw inter-racial marriage. I appreciate people's protest. I've been out there plenty of times. I want to make sure people know what my position is. But we need to be careful, to the extent that [an isolated protest] can divide us, keep us from the prize.'

Led in part by Andy Thayer and the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network, a second protest is planned for noon Thursday at 118 N. Clark. From there, McKeon and Tunney are hopeful that activists will join them down the street at the Dirksen Building for a 12:30 p.m. press conference and the 1 p.m. visit to Hastert's office. 'We're strongly suggesting to [activists] and asking for their support to shift our focus to the constitutional amendment,' said McKeon, who has asked Orr to walk alongside him on Thursday. 'On the state level, I think we have it under control.'

'In Chicago and Cook County, we already have domestic-partner benefits,' Tunney said. 'We want to do this without asking our County Clerk to break the law.'

Deborah Mell, who works for out business owner Christy Webber, is expected to join McKeon, Tunney and Orr. 'As elected officials, we have to pay attention to the concerns of our constituents,' said McKeon, who won his post with more than 80 percent of the vote. 'But we also have to be leaders and we have to be willing to take risks.'

'You don't run your life that way,' said Orr when asked if running for re-election alters a politician's actions on issues such as this one. 'You do things because you believe in them. Ultimately, to convince people, you have to catch them in the heart. I think the things happening over the past several weeks can be important. What we have to keep in mind is can we win in the courts? Can we keep the momentum?'


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