Thursday, November 21, 2013

Illinois history

Today was an important day for my native Illinois: Today, Illinois became a free state as Governor Pat Quinn signed the Religious Freedom & Marriage Fairness Act into law.

It was a LONG time getting here, as I well remember. I haven’t blogged much about it*, but I was an LGBT grassroots activist from the early 1980s to the early 1990s with the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force (IGLTF), at the time Illinois’ only statewide LGBT civil rights organisation. It was an interesting time.

In 1986, Chicago attempted to pass an ordinance to protect the civil and human rights of LGBT people. It failed under obstinate opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. That failure led to reorganising that—ultimately—led to the adoption of the city’s Human Rights Ordinance only a couple years later.

However, it was only a few years ago—2005—that Illinois finally passed a state law banning discrimination against LGBT people. That’s something IGLTF had been working toward since the 1970s (well before I came along). Then, the state enacted civil unions in December 2010. They began officially on June 1, 2011.

That’s the stuff anyone could glean from the news media or through a little diligent research. There is, of course, more to it.

On October 14, 1989, IGLTF announced that it would introduce a bill to establish a “domestic partnership registry” which 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.

The motivation behind that was that 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 gay relationships topped the list, comfortably. There were also practical implications. Tim Drake, who was in charge of state legislation at the time, explained it to me this way: “At the time, there were corporations and unions beginning to push for the rights of gay employees—but, 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.”

IGLTF gathered together all the domestic partnership legislation of that time and drafted a bill. After the public meeting in October 1989, IGLTF was ready to move forward. Even so, we knew that the bill wouldn’t go anywhere—we 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 (no longer a state representative) who represented the most heavily LGBT—and arguably most liberal—district in the state. He balked. In fact, 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 bill that was signed into law today. 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 Illinoisan: Born there, grew up there, educated there and lived the first 36 years of my life there. In fact, the only reason I left was that my state and my country didn’t recognise my relationship. They both do now. I don’t know if things would have been different if this had been the law 18 years ago, whether Nigel would have moved to the USA 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 we ever live there or not, we now—FINALLY—have the same opportunity as everyone else.

The same opportunities as everyone else: Isn’t that part of what equality is all about? 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.

Thank you, Illinois and everyone who made this happen. I knew we’d get there eventually.

* In fact, as near as I can tell, the only time I talked specifically about my time as an activist was when Robert Bork died.

Related: Windy City Times coverage.

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