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Cheers, boos and yawns as Illinois legislature passes civil unions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2010 - Some celebratory, some cynical, some opposed and others barely noticing, St. Louisans are of several minds regarding the Illinois civil unions bill now awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's promised signature.

On Wednesday the Illinois Senate voted to approve civil unions by a 32-to-24 vote; the Senate's vote came on the heels of yesterday's 60 to 52 vote in the Illinois House. The law, which will go into effect July 1, comes just a year and a half after Iowa approved same-sex marriage -- and just one day after the Pentagon released its survey that showed 70 percent of those in the military support or have no problem with gays or lesbians in the military.

"We now have two states that touch Missouri where you can have some sort of relationship recognition," said Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, a Missouri organization supporting equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT). "It's not just the east and west coasts but it's also right here."

Others view anything short of marriage as a hollow victory.

"It's kind of a big yawn for me," said Nancy Daby of west St. Louis County. "Civil unions are so 20th century."

The vote in Illinois split largely by party lines, with Republicans mostly voting against civil unions. According to the Chicago Tribune, GOP legislators raised a number of objections to the bill -- that it was a diversion from the state's pressing economic issues and that it could lead eventually to gay marriage.

Civil Unions, Marriage: What's The Difference?

In December 1999, when Vermont became the first state to offer civil unions, the move was seen as a huge step forward for the lesbian and gay community. It also became a lightning rod for controversy and paved the way for a national backlash.

In 2004, Missouri showed the rest of the country how to ban recognition of same-sex unions by passing the first constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Today, 29 states have similar amendments, and a dozen more forbid the union of same-sex couples by state law.

At the same time, five states --- Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont as well as Iowa -- and Washington, D.C., now permit the marriage of two men or two women. Nine others have civil unions, domestic partnerships or other laws allowing or approximating state-level rights for same-sex couples.

The patchwork of rights has created four tiers of equality, said Daby, who's had a commitment ceremony with her partner and may travel out of state to marry.

"First class is heterosexual civil marriage, second class is for those who live in states offering same-sex marriage, third class is civil unions -- and fourth class is us in Missouri, which offers nothing," Daby said.

While heterosexual marriage confers more than 1,000 rights on couples at both state and federal levels including Social Security and pension benefits, same-sex marriage offers only state-given rights. So, married same-sex couples in Massachusetts, for example, may file jointly for their state income tax but must file separately for their federal returns.

Like same-sex marriage, civil unions typically allow couples to visit each other in the hospital and make medical and burial decisions. But filing a joint state tax return isn't allowed because they're not married under state law.

Still, the advent of civil unions in Illinois is an important development, according to Colin Murphy of Belleville, who married his partner in Iowa last year.

"A lot of people will consider this to be a half step or even settling, but you have to realize that you can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Murphy said. "The goal is full marriage equality but in Illinois, this is a good day --- we should be celebrating."

'You Don't Count'

Twelve years ago, civil unions in Illinois would have meant a world of difference to Murphy. After his partner died in 1998, Murphy remembers standing with the coroner and a police officer, who said they needed to notify the next of kin.

"I said, 'I'm his partner.' And I'll never forget these words: They said, 'You don't count; we need a family member'," Murphy said.

Many St. Louisans don't want to go through the agony that Murphy experienced. Within a day of the Illinois House approving civil unions, at least one St. Louisan let it be known through his Facebook status that he's thinking of moving across the Mississippi River.

For others, it's a welcome advance, but one that makes little or no difference in their lives. Among St. Louis' African-American LGBT community, relationship recognition is a concern, but not a priority. Erise Williams, president of the Black Pride organization, said widespread homophobia among African Americans, racism within the lesbian and gay community and the disproportionate number of HIV-positive African Americans command more attention.

"Not to say that marriage is not important, but those issues take precedence over issues around marriage," Williams said.

What The New Law Means To Couples

Both same-sex and heterosexual couples in Illinois will be able to register for civil unions. Their status will travel with them when they go to most states that also offer civil unions or same-sex marriage.

Illinois will recognize the civil unions and marriages of other states, and the civil unions of Illinois residents will likely be honored in all states that recognize same-sex partnerships, according to attorney Todd Sivia, who represents numerous gay and lesbian couples and individuals.

But every state is different, and legal interpretations vary and change as lawsuits are heard. The bottom line: All same-sex couples who travel to other states, no matter their legal relationship status, should bring their power of attorney documents with them in case of emergency.

"If you're in a different state, having power of attorney is the best way to resolve an issue such as hospital visitation," Sivia said.

As for Murphy, he's planning to take advantage of the new law right after it goes into effect.

"Just as soon as we can we're going to go to the courthouse and make sure we are civilly united," Murphy said. "It was an honor to be married in the state of Iowa but it's going to be equally important to me to have my own state of residence recognize my relationship."

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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