Camilla Taylor knows how to win marriage equality. She did it in Iowa as the lead attorney in a lawsuit that overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage, and she's been moving toward that goal for years in Illinois, among other places, as the national marriage project director for Lambda Legal.
Today, Lambda Legal Midwest and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois are in the unexpected position of fighting for equal marriage in Illinois on two fronts. Both organizations filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage last year. Now, both are among the leading organizations fighting for the passage of marriage equality in the Illinois General Assembly.
There are benefits and drawbacks to each, said Taylor, who sat down with Windy City Times for an in-depth interview on both roads to marriage in Illinois and the strategies behind that fight.
Windy City Times: You are in the unique position of fighting two marriage campaigns in the same state. Did you imagine this would be the case?
Camilla Taylor: Well, we did draft the marriage legislation with [state] Rep. Harris and Sen. Steans prior to filing the lawsuit. The lawsuit was years in the making, and we had a draft complaint for almost a decade. My predecessor Pat Logue had played a big role in working with some of the clients at the very beginning.
So we'd done an awful lot of work and made a great investment in that case, and we knew we were filing it but we also knew that there was a possibility of winning it through legislation, and that you shouldn't be so myopic in search of one remedy that you neglect the other.
We didn't dream, I think, that we would have as much success so fast in state legislatures around the country. Winning in November in marriage-related votes in four states, depending on how you count it, was a huge propulsion to greater legislation traction here.
I think also we didn't anticipate the welcome that received from elected officials when we filed the lawsuit. We of course expected our elected officials would treat us fairly with the expectation that equality is for all people, including lesbian and gay citizens and their kids. But to have the attorney general move to intervene in the lawsuit just two days after it was filed, in order to say this law must be struck down and then to have the states attorney and the Cook County clerk hold a joint press conference just a couple weeks later to express the same thing and make their filing was a real affirmation. I think that was also helpful in creating legislative momentum.
WCT: Do these two separate campaigns impact each other?
Camilla Taylor: Yes, I think they do. I think legislators want to be responsible for doing the right thing. They want to be on the forefront and to say, "we took this step." And the court case provides a certain time constraint on that.
WCT: There's also mounting political pressure. It's not just about doing the right thing. In Illinois, many of the major players are backing this.
Camilla Taylor: Yes. Every single newspaper editorial board around the state that has opined on this issue has been soundly in support and repeatedly calling upon the legislature to do the right thing. We've had the governor, the mayor, all sorts of elected officials at every level. ... It's really been an overwhelming year in that regard.
WCT: I want to talk about Iowa and that campaign. A lot of people had long seen the Midwest as flyover country for LGBT rights.
Camilla Taylor: There was a great sign that I saw in Iowa on the day that marriage decision was rendered. There were spontaneous rallies in numerous cities around the state, and the statewide equality group had done a great job of preparing activists for the day when it could come down and asking everyone to come out in the streets.
So these public squares filled with people with posters that they had made and one of them said "Flyover Equality." It still brings tears to my eyes to think about that because everyone in Iowa understood that that's how they were viewed.
WCT: That seems to be the case for the southern part of our state. How do you reconcile the push for marriage equality in Chicago with that of southern Illinois?
Camilla Taylor: It's really the same way that we responded to this challenge with respect to our marriage lawsuit. We were very careful to make sure that this was a case that was going to be for all couples in Illinois and their kids. Even though we had couples clamoring to be part of it, we didn't go solely with couples from [the city]. In fact, of the 16 plaintiff couples in our suit, eight of them are from areas outside of the greater Chicago area.
We wanted to make sure that everyone felt included and that the concerns of downstate couples and their family members were going to be heard. Some of the most amazing and moving and heartfelt stories are coming from these downstate couples, who have so much to share, not just about the challenges they face as an out lesbian couple or an out gay couple in downstate Illinois, but also about the embrace that they're experienced from their communities.
So, we have to be careful too not to stereotype downstate.
WCT: What are the benefits and drawbacks to each of these different marriage campaigns in court and in the legislature? One of the concerns seems to be that if a marriage bill is not done right in the General Assembly, you could end up rolling back protections in the Illinois Human Rights Act.
Camilla Taylor: Yeah. In state legislatures, every time a marriage bill has been pushed forward, there has always been an effort by opponents, who can see that they're on the wrong side of history with this and that the legislation is likely to pass, to make opportunistic use of the fact that the legislation is moving forward in an effort to carve out exemptions to pre-existing non-discrimination protections for lesbian and gay individuals throughout the state.
As a sort of a bargain, you trade discrimination in employment in the workplace or in public accommodations like restaurants and hotels in return for the freedom to marry. That's what they ask. So when you fight for legislation providing the freedom to marry, you also have to combat the expectation that some trade must be made.
WCT: And the drawbacks to doing it in the courts?
Camilla Taylor: The courts take a long while. We filed this case because we confident that the law is with us, so we have a great deal of optimism about the outcome of our court case. But it does take a long while.
WCT: Something that is very much in the background of the lawsuits is the identity of Judge Sophia Hall. She is an out lesbian judge, and opponents have called on her to recuse herself from the case.
Camilla Taylor: The calls for a judge to recuse him or herself because of sexual orientation are ludicrous demands. We don't suggest that a divorced judge is incapable of overseeing a divorce or for that matter be particularly qualified to do so. And neither do we think that a woman is somehow required to recuse herself from a sex discrimination case. We understand that judges are required to rule on the law and we trust them to do so.
I went to law school in order to try to take cases that I thought might make a difference in people's lives. That world view only makes sense if you trust that courts actually follow the law. If you don't have the law, you can't win the case.
WCT: When do you think we will see equal marriage in every state?
Camilla Taylor: Things have moved a lot faster than many of us could have dreamed. When I joined Lambda Legal back in 2002, there [were] still 13 states that criminalized intimacy between people of the same sex.
We have moved with lightening speed on this issue. How long will it be before every last state? I think I'm going to see it in my lifetime. I'm certain of that. Will it be in the next 10 years? Probably.
WCT: What comes after marriage equality? What do you see as the major legal challenges for LGBT people down the road?
Camilla Taylor: We have a whole docket full of cases of kids who are being bullied in schools or who are trying to form student clubs on the same terms as other student clubs. ... There are employment cases that need to be brought.
We're also seeing a lot of effort from anti-gay organizations that still vastly outnumber us and have significantly more funding than we do. These anti-gay organizations are trying to create a body of law that would permit individuals or businesses to exempt themselves from non-discrimination laws simply by articulating some sort of religious description of their discrimination. We're seeing elements of that in the challenges to Obamacare.
WCT: One of the biggest critiques of the same-sex marriage movement has been that it does not apply to all LGBT people, that it will afford rights to some couples but not to LGBT people as a whole. What do you think are the next steps in terms of pursuing some of those rights for people not in couples or not interested in marrying?
Camilla Taylor: I think a lot of those cases are cases that we already do. They're cases on behalf of kids in schools or employees who are facing discrimination, whether they're cases on behalf of transgender people who are facing discrimination in custody disputes.
There's a whole docket of cases that I think will have broad ramifications for people outside of the marriage work.
Now that said, I think there is sometimes a misperception in the community that "Gay Inc." focuses on marriage cases to the expense of everything else and that marriage cases have no bearing on people's lives unless they get married. Actually, when you seek the freedom to marry, you often obtain all sorts of freedoms along the way, simply by virtue of your demand that there be equality in marriage. Sometimes the lives most transformed by the freedom to marry are the lives of kids who may face incredible discrimination, not just in school but rejection at home and from churches and so on, who now get affirmation from their government that they can share in the same dream of whatever kind of family they want to have when they grow up, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. I think that's the biggest value of eliminating a marriage ban.