CHICAGO - For decades gay and lesbian rights activists here and throughout Illinois fought to end discrimination against people in housing and employment based on their sexual orientation. Today, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights leaders and supporters say the fight for passing a civil unions bill is gaining steam in the state legislature.
Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, recently said he believes civil unions could be legalized in Illinois before the end of the year. A bill authorizing civil unions exited an Illinois House committee, but hasn't been called for a full vote yet. However Quinn, a strong advocate of civil unions, believes the measure has enough votes to pass during the legislature's fall session.
Rick Garcia, founder and political director of Equality Illinois says Quinn's recent remarks and the fight for equal marriage rights are a long time coming. "We're very thrilled by Quinn's leadership and commitment to ensure that all Illinoisans are fully recognized and protected when it comes to equal marriage rights," he said.
Garcia, a native of St. Louis, moved to Chicago in 1986 to work on Harold Washington's re-election mayoral campaign. Washington became the city's first African American mayor when he won that seat in 1983. He is widely respected as one of Chicago's most progressive and independent leaders. In 1987 Washington unexpectedly died while in office.
Equality Illinois' mission is to secure, protect and defend the civil rights of LGBT people throughout the state, says Garcia. He notes a bill that would have granted full equal marriage rights for same-sex couples failed to pass a House committee in 2007. Since then activists have talked to state lawmakers who said their constituents won't let them vote for a full equal marriage bill but would support a civil union one.
"In 2007 we recognized that there were couples and families in the state that need immediate protections now," said Garcia. He added that the current civil unions bill is close to having the 60 votes in the House and the necessary 30 in the Senate to pass.
"We realize today that real people have real needs and if we could pass a bill that grants civil unions for same-sex couples, then we should fight for it," added Garcia.
Garcia notes the fight for equal marriage takes stages and passing civil unions is part of it, despite critics that argue it's not enough and is only a second-class marriage.
"We believe a civil unions bill is not settling for second best. It's actually an important stepping stone toward a firm foundation for equal marriage in the future," said Garcia.
Civil unions are agreements that give gay and lesbian partners legal rights and responsibilities when it comes to issues such as property ownership, adoption and emergency health care decisions.
Garcia notes it took 30 years before the Ill. state assembly finally passed a bill in 2005 aimed at ending discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation when it comes to housing and employment rights.
Meanwhile Quinn faces the GOP's state Sen. Bill Brady in the tough gubernatorial race. "We're in the fight of our lives," Quinn recently said, adding it's critical to defeat Brady and the GOP's right-wing agenda in Congress and the state.
Illinois faces two crises: economic and political. The state has a huge budget deficit and Democrats are on the defensive since the impeachment of former-Governor Rod Blagojevich for corruption charges. Quinn, who was lieutenant governor and took over after the impeachment, favors raising revenue through progressive tax measures and job creation rather than severe budget cuts that would fall hard on the most vulnerable.
Brady opposes legal standing for same-sex couples, regardless of what it's called. He supported a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution that defines marriage as between a man and woman and banned same-sex unions. The amendment never made it beyond a subcommittee.
Brady continues to bash gay people and uses fear mongering and hate, says Garcia. "He is hard right-wing and his positions are not only bad for the gay community but for all Illinoisans when it comes to fairness and decency," he said.
"Gay, Latino and really all voters need to get motivated and go to the polls on Election Day or we will suffer for the next four years. If our communities don't come out to vote we are going to be saddled with a Republican governor who will fight to undo the few gains we have made over the years," says Garcia. "We must go to the polls and vote."
Photo: Freedom to Marry Day pride flags, Chicago, 2009, Gay Rights Media, Gay Liberation Network,