“A journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step.”
—Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher (604 BC–531 BC)
On December 1, 2010, the Illinois Senate passed SB 1716 (the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act), just a day after the Illinois House had passed it. When the bill was introduced nearly two years before, it had seemed that it would go nowhere fast. Even when the governor said that he would be willing to sign the bill, it seemed like so many campaign promises made by so many candidates, It would be forgotten after the campaign was over. Yet after winning the election, Governor Quinn continued to assert that he would sign. I was pleasantly surprised when the Illinois legislature started to take real steps toward putting the bill up to a vote. When the bill finally passed with so much support, I was shocked.
The day before the Senate passed the bill, eQuality Champaign-Urbana, a local LGBT activist group of which I’m a member, voted to have a rally on Friday, December 3, 2010, in support of SB 1716. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we were determined to speak out about the need for LGBT equality. Fortunately, it turned out to be a celebration.
There are good reasons to celebrate, in fact almost 650 of them. This is the number of rights, benefits and protections that opposite-sex couples start to receive from the state of Illinois the moment they get married. Starting June 1, 2011, same-sex and opposite-sex couples who enter into a civil union will be able to receive those same rights, benefits and protections. Some of these include the power to make emergency medical decisions, hospital visitation rights and the right to share a nursing or hospital room. By passing this law, Illinois joins a growing number of states that give committed same-sex relationships state-level spousal protections in the form of domestic partnerships, civil unions or civil marriages.
But civil unions are not the same as marriages. While we don’t have a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Illinois, we do have a state law passed in 1996 that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. This law could be changed by a simple majority vote in the Illinois General Assembly, and The Equal Marriage Bill (HB 178 / SB 2468) would do that very thing. It would allow same-sex couples to be legally “married,” just like opposite-sex couples are. Until this law is passed, civil unions will be seen by many as second-class relationships because the same-sex couples in civil unions are not allowed by law to be “married.”
An Illinois marriage is not the same as a federally recognized marriage. Federally recognized marriage instantly gives couples over 1,000 federal rights including automatic
inheritance (even if there isn’t a will), the ability to put a partner and the partner’s children on your medical or life insurance, the ability to make a partner a US citizen (and
prevent deportation) and recognition of the marriage in all 50 states. In 1996, the United States Congress passed The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defines marriage as
being between a man and a woman. Because of this law the federal government does not recognize any same-sex couples as being married even if they have been legally married in a state that does recognize same-sex marriages. Every time they travel outside the borders of their home state they risk the chance of legalized discrimination.
The United States should grant full federal equality for all of its citizens. In order for gay and lesbian couples to have true legal equality in the recognition and protection of their committed relationships, it is necessary for the United States to have full federally recognized marriage.
The only way to do this is to repeal The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Furthermore, in the fall of 2009 the Respect for Marriage Act (HR 3567) was introduced into the House of Representatives. This bill would finally allow for full equality in marriage on a federal level.
What the Illinois legislature has done is great and it needs to be celebrated. Illinois civil unions give committed same-sex couples many important protections as well as the recognition that gay and lesbian relationships are just as loving and valid as heterosexual relationships. It also shows that Illinois values all of its citizens, not just the heterosexual ones. But civil unions are not marriage equality, not in Illinois and not in the United States. What has happened is good, but much more must be done if we are to be truly equal. Illinois civil unions are not the entire “journey,” nor are they even most of the journey, they are merely “a single step.” That, after all, is how every journey begins.