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Orr, marriage backers anticipate 10,000 same-sex licenses
Video below article
by Matt Simonette

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Just as attorney John Knight, of ACLU of Illinois, finished speaking at an Aug. 29 press conference heralding the 10,000th marriage license distributed to a same-sex couple in Cook County, County Clerk David Orr said, "I now forgive you for suing me."

While Orr was joking, his remark reflected the important contributions that his office played in implementing marriage equality locally. Orr refused to let the office defend itself legally against a lawsuit from area gay couples who wished to get married but did not yet have the legal right to do so. The office also hastily prepared paperwork and office computers when those couples were subsequently granted that legal right by a federal judge, months ahead of when the state's marriage equality was already scheduled to take effect.

At the press conference, Orr said Cook County was about 10-12 couples away from awarding the 10,000th license. Numerous elected officials, rights-advocates and married couples who played roles in the marriage-equality struggle joined him.

Pat Ewert became part of the first same-sex couple married in the county when she wed her late wife, Vernita Gray, in November 2013. Gray was in poor health at the time, so a federal court said they would not have to wait until the state's marriage-equality law took effect in June 2014.

"My wife Vernita used to say that, in the forty-plus years that she was out, in the very beginning, the words 'gay' and 'marriage' were never used in the same sentence," Ewert said. "Look what we've accomplished today. ... I know that Vernita is looking down and smiling right now, and I'm guessing that she's doing a little dance."

In his remarks, Christopher Clark of Lambda Legal—which, along with ACLU of Illinois, spearheaded the legal challenge to the state's marriage restrictions—noted the roles that couples like Ewert and Gray played in bringing marriage equality to the state. Other couples who attended the conference included Theresa and Mercedes Santos-Volpe, one of the first couples to marry when a judge extended the right to marry early to all Cook County couples who wished to do so, as well as Jim Darby and Patrick Bova and Brenda Lee and Lee Edwards. Attorney Amy Crawford also attended.

"It takes enormous courage to to share the details of their lives and they did that at every opportunity," Clark said.

Equality Illinois CEO Brian Johnson reflected on his recent marriage in his remarks. "It fills me with such pride for Illinois that we are the last wave of married couples who will have to tell the story of how, when we first met, marriage was not a legal option for our future," he said. While part of me is proud that we are 'Couple 9,191,' I look forward to the day in the not-too-distant future when we lose track of the number of same-sex couples who marry, and Illinois simply rejoices in how many families we call our own."

Orr noted that marriage equality represented a two-pronged victory in that it came about as the result of both legal and legislative victories. State Rep. Greg Harris and state Sen. Heather Steans, who sponsored the marriage bill in the House and Senate respectively, both spoke about the work that legislation entailed.

Noting that Illinois was the last state in the union to legislatively pass a marriage-equality law, Harris said the law has subsequently "meant so many important things to couples in their day-to-day lives that straight people have taken for granted for years. … But we've also got to remember how fragile these victories are. We have a candidate for president of the United States who has repeatedly said he wants to choose supreme court justices who would role back marriage equality. ... In Illinois, we're still struggling for trans rights. Transgender kids are denied rights that other kids have. So there are still fights to be fought."

Steans added, "It was not easy going from civil unions to marriage equality, never forget that. There were a lot of bumps along the road. Greg and I both had many people telling us, 'I can do civil unions but won't get to marriage equality, but all those hearts and minds were changed, in a short period of time."

Ald. Deb Mell, who was a House member during the marriage debate, recalled when a Republican colleague, who was not a marriage-equality supporter, acknowledged Mell's then-wife.

"She used the language, and I thought, 'We're on to something here," she said. "She didn't vote for the bill, but she didn't get up and rally against it."

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley noted that the first bill he passed when he sat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners was legislation granting domestic partner healthcare benefits for county employees, and remembered that it was a tough sell.

"It only passed by one vote—by the skin of its teeth," Quigley said. "We can go back even further, to the early days in the city council when this was introduced. Literally, the community was booed out of the chambers. …The message to all of us is: Love is love, and love shall persevere through all of these."

Knight subsequently pointed out that, even as the county is on the verge of a milestone, it is important not to forget that myriad issues still need to be settled for the LGBT community.

"The transgender community has been fighting for fairness for all of us," he said. "They have been fighting for marriage and non-discrimination all along the way, and yet there's so much they don't have at the moment, in terms of fair treatment in schools, in employment and so many other aspects. …So there's much, much left to do."

In a subsequent Aug. 29 press statement, Orr agreed with Knight's sentiment.

"Even with the euphoria we feel today, we should never let our guard down," Orr said. "There's still a lot of work to do. In some states, judges and clerks can refuse to marry same-sex couples because of their religious beliefs. Federal legislation has been proposed which would make that the case throughout the country. That's not fair or equal to anyone. Bigotry remains, sometimes under the cloak of 'religious freedom' or 'First Amendment rights,' so we can't become complacent in what we have achieved. We need to stay vigilant in the fight for equality."

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