June 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm EDT | by Phil Reese
Illinois Civil Unions go into effect today

Bernard Cherkasov, the C.E.O. of Equality Illinois, is beaming with pride today.

“It’s a fantastic day.” Cherkasov told the Blade over the phone from his desk at the Equality Illinois offices in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, “We’re celebrating civil unions [for same-sex couples in the state of Illinois]. There is something special about today. The weather is beautiful and people are just smiling. I woke up this morning, suddenly, with 648 new rights and benefits that i didn’t have yesterday. The phone has been ringing off the hook with people asking ‘is it really here?’ and I say ‘yes, civil unions are now actually law!’”

According to Cherkasov, some of the new rights guaranteed by the law are hospital visitation rights beyond visitor hours, emergency medical decision making powers, inheritance rights and the ability for same-sex parents who give birth to a child to have both parents on the birth certificate.

Advocates in Illinois won over both houses in the legislature during the lame duck session, in the last days the lawmakers were gathered in Springfield before the new year, in order to pass the Civil Unions law authored by openly gay Chicago representative, Greg Harris. Governor Pat Quinn, who won re-election in November, signed the bill into law early this year to the delight of families throughout Illinois.

“The downside for me is that I had to be up at something like five in the morning,” joked long-time gay civil rights activist and lead lobbyist in the push for Civil Unions last year, Rick Garcia.

“But this morning I went to Cook county, they opened the office up early, and they were brilliant at the way they had it all arranged and everything was phenomenal.”

Garcia was stunned at the turnout today for licences. “I walked in at a little before 7:00 A.M. and there was this huge line all the way from the Clerk’s office out to the street. I was completely overwhelmed and started to cry. I’ve been crying since six o’clock this morning!”

Garcia looked on as the first couple was given their license and Cook county Illinois conferred its first official Civil Union.

“I could barely see them through the tears in my eyes.”

Anthony Martinez, Executive Director of Illinois LGBT advocacy group, The Civil Rights Agenda, felt a surge of pride this morning as he witnessed couples being conferred legal Civil Unions for the first time in Illinois.

“I am Absolutely thrilled and excited to be witnessing the amazing amount of support and outpouring from the community for civil unions,” Martinez gushed. “These couples have been waiting for this for years and now they can go apply and get recognized. This drives our work at The Civil Rights Agenda, and we’re so thrilled for all of this.”

Martinez is also aware that challenges to these happy couples are still a major risk to be monitored. Last week, the opponents of the Civil Unions law, led by anti-gay activist Peter LaBarbera of the conservative activist group, Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, called for a voter referendum in the state of Illinois on an Amendment to the Illinois constitution barring recognition of any same-sex partnerships.

“There’s a battle between gay rights and religious freedom,” he told the Chicago Tribune this week. “We want to give Illinois voters the same opportunity other states have had.”

Martinez is doubtful that the group will be able to collect the 300,000 signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot, but prefers to stay vigilant.

“in terms of what’s next, we take any attack on relationship recognition very seriously, especially with this marriage referendum. Though we don’t believe it will gain traction, we are watching it very closely, and want to make sure any attacks are addressed and that there is a plan and strategy in place to make sure those attacks are defeated.”

He’s also eager to concentrate on celebrating today’s victory.

“Friday we’re going to have sixty couples get committed at a mass civil union ceremony at 5:30 at the Chicago History Museum. Its going to be massive.”

Rick Garcia sees today’s victory as validation for years of hard work.

“One of the things I realized was that was where the rubber hit the road for me. On hot hot days like today in Springfield, you walk around the capital building, and its muggy, but today you see the fruit of your work. People who needed protections and benefits are getting what they deserved today.”

“I’m more thrilled than I thought I would be.”

“This has been a hard spring for us, because there have been six attempts to modify or scrap the civil unions bill. Had it not been for [Illinois LGBT advocacy group] The Civil Rights Agenda and the ACLU, today would have been much different. They stopped every piece of legislation that would attempt to gut this. I’m looking at these couples, together–some for a short time, some for a long time–waiting for this and never expected to see this day, and here it is!”

“That said,” Garcia continued, “separate is not equal. We deserve one set of rules; one yard stick for everyone. We’re going to celebrate for two days, today and tomorrow when ceremonies are allowed to take place for the first time; but the day after we have work to do and that work is equal marriage.”

At the Clerk’s office, Garcia was speaking off camera with several television reporters, one of of which remarked, “Oh my God, Rick you look like the proud father!”


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