It was important when Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Religious Freedom & Marriage Fairness Act into law: The latest dramatic step forward on the long road to freedom and equality for LGBT Illinoisans. And it's been a very long road.
I couldn't help thinking about that as I watched the ceremony live streaming over the Internet from New Zealand, where I now live with my husband, Nigel. I was there for a part of the history that led to the new law: I was an activist with the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force ( IGLTF ) in the early 1980s and 1990s. Some of our work back then helped lay the groundwork for eventual victory.
On Oct. 14, 1989, Lambda Legal sponsored a forum entitled "Domestic Partnership or Marriage? Priorities and Strategies for the Lesbian and Gay Community." Earlier that month, "registered partnerships" began in Denmark, the first country to create them.
IGLTF co-sponsored that forum, and announced there that it would introduce a bill to establish a "domestic partnership registry" in Illinois. It would have allowed opposite-gender and same-gender couples to register their relationship officially. At the time, marriage equality wasn't seen as even remotely possible.
IGLTF had surveyed its membership to find out what they thought the most important issue was. We assumed it would be civil rights protections, but recognition of relationships topped the list, comfortably. There were also practical implications. Tim Drake, who was in charge of state legislation at the time, recently explained it to me this way: "At the time, there were corporations and unions beginning to push for the rights of gay employeesbut, if they wanted to create an employee benefit for a gay spouse, there wasn't a mechanism in place for them to do so. We thought having a statewide registry would give them something to point to, instead of having a dozen different definitions."
We reviewed all the domestic partnership legislation of that time to draft the bill. After the public forum, we were ready to move forward. Even so, we knew that the bill wouldn't go anywherewe wanted to start the debate. As Tim Drake said at the time, "We're introducing [the bill] now to start the education process, which will be a long process."
So, we sought out the most "gay-friendly" legislator, someone who wouldn't suffer any political harm. That person was Ellis Levin, who at the time was the state representative for the most heavily LGBTand, arguably, most liberaldistrict in the state. He balked. In fact, the people who were at the meeting with him told me that he "threw a tantrum", claiming we were "ruining" his career. We weren't buying it; instead we insisted he introduce it, and eventually he did. We were right, of course: Sponsorship wasn't used against him.
As we'd planned, the bill was never called for a hearing, since it was merely introduced to give us something to organize around. Even so, as Tim put it, "our bill became the impetus for the successful registry in Oak Park."
That was the earliest ancestry of the marriage equality bill that was just signed into law. We all knew it would happen some day, but I don't think any of us could imagine it would be "only" some 24 years later.
Since that time, IGLTF disappeared and many of the activists involved with it retired from activism, some ( like me ) moved away, and some, sadly, have died. But I think it's important to remember where we come from and how we got to a place, and this is part of the story.
Finally, a personal note. The new law means that when Nigel and I go to Illinois to visit family and friends, we'll still be married when we get there. This is an important thing. But there's something that's even more important to me: I'm equal.
I'm a native Illinoisanborn there, grew up there, educated there and lived the first 36 years of my life there. In fact, the only reason I left and moved to New Zealand in 1995 was that my state and country didn't recognize my relationship. I don't know if things would have been different if marriage equality had been law 18 years ago, whether Nigel would have moved to the United States instead, but I do know this: For the first time in my life, I'm equal to all my heterosexual family and friends in Illinois. Whether Nigel and I ever live there or not, we nowFINALLYhave the same opportunity as everyone else. That's what we were fighting for all those years ago, and I have to say, it feels pretty awesome to see it actually happen.
So, thank you, Illinoisand huge thanks to everyone who made marriage equality happen. I was applauding you all from the other side of the world.
Former Chicagoan Arthur Schenck now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with his husband; they were legally married on Halloween of this year. This originally appeared in a different form on his AmeriNZ Blog ( amerinz.blogspot.com/ ).