Marriage equality fight heats up in Illinois

As the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act stalls in the House, many queer Illinoisans are wondering what the holdup is.

March 18, 2013

Five years from now, Illinois’ campaign for marriage equality is going to make for a great docudrama on HBO -- or a soap opera.

Last week, queer and allied Illinoisians flocked to Springfield, awaiting a full House vote on equality legislation. As of March 15, the Windy City Times stated that the vote could “come any day,” which was the same thing that onlookers had been saying all week. Although Rahm Emanuel warned that the “clock is ticking” on equality legislation, the bill stalled as advocates struggled to rally the votes necessary to pass the bill.

The House needs 60 votes to pass the euphemistically titled “Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act” onto Gov. Pat Quinn, who has sworn to sign it. Chicago Magazine counted 43 affirmative “yes” votes, as well as another 20 “toss ups.” The Huffington Post claimed last week that the bill was still 12 votes away from passage, and Windy City Times has their own running count of how representatives will fall based on their previous votes.

With the fervent support of Emanuel, Quinn and GOP party leader Pat Brady, who stated that Republicans are “on the wrong side of the issue,” many thought the bill would sail through the House, based on its easy passage in the Senate. On Valentine's Day, the bill passed by a 13 vote margin, giving voice to the wide support for the bill in the state.

In the past week, national momentum has added pressure to our local conversation about marriage equality. Colorado passed civil unions at the same time that prominent politicians like Hillary Clinton and Ohio Republican Rob Portman have come out in support of equal marriage. Portman’s son, Will, came out to his father two years ago, and the conservative senator announced his change of heart on the issue last Friday. Even George W. Bush recently signed a brief advocating that the Supreme Court overturn California’s marriage ban. He was joined in his opposition to Prop. 8 by over 70 other prominent Republicans.

In March, Jon Huntsman advocated that the Grand Old Party officially embrace the issue as the GOP struggles to stay relevant in the Obama Era. For Huntsman, it’s not just that marriage equality is a conservative cause. It’s everyone’s cause.

So, what’s the hold up in Illinois?

Although Chicagoans often like to pretend we like in a totally Democratic state, this fight shows just how politically divided we are, between the Blue North and the Red South. Illinois is a little perfect petri dish of the national conversation, where polls show a wide majority of Americans (58 percent versus 32 percent just nine years ago) now support full marriage benefits for everyone, even though a sizeable minority of queer people live in states that offer them those rights. Only nine states have passed marriage equality legislation, and most of those are tucked away in New England.

Like Huntsman, the former governor of heavily conservative Utah, Pat Brady of St. Charles has supported marriage equality only to see his popularity plummet and his own party work for his removal. Although the meeting for his official ousting was cancelled, the Daily Herald claimed Brady would have been only one vote away from losing his position.

At a time when conservatives are allegedly loosening their grip on marriage opposition, Brady and Illinois Senator Jason Barickman’s experiences tell a different story. Barickman was the only Republican Senator to vote in favor of the bill on Valentine's Day. As he cast his vote, Barickman clearly shocked the room. One rumor mentioned boos in the audience, like something out of Lincoln. Rumors of Barickman's demise have been slightly exaggerated, but he has faced criticism from colleagues for stepping away from the party line and been attacked by a conservative lobby group.

Earlier this year, the National Organization for Marriage threatened to fight the reelection of any Republicans who vote "Yes" on the bill, and another conservative group posted Brady’s number online (ala MIA and the New York Times). The chairman’s phone quickly overflowed with angry calls and messages from same-gender marriage opponents. According to Pat Brady, he “didn’t know [those words] were in the Bible.” Exasperated with the excoriation by his own party, Brady said, “It just plays into a national narrative of the GOP as being close minded.”

According to the AP, just 47 Republican lawmakers have voted for marriage in the eight state legislatures surveyed, and all of them have faced party retribution for it. Interestingly though, Freedom to Marry statistics show that 97% of legislators "who voted for marriage and ran for re-election won," as well as 71% of Republicans. More than half of the Republicans who lost re-election did so for other reasons.

In Illinois, Brady isn’t the only one getting hounded for his stance. In robocalls from the ultra-conservative Chicago-based Family PAC group, PAC director Paul Caprio decried Hillsdale Rep. Mike Smiddy for receiving “homosexual money” in his campaign donations and (like our new virulently anti-gay pope) warned that "same-sex marriage denies children the right to know who their real parent is.”

This leaves me with two sets of questions:

1. Where can I get some of that homosexual money? Is it covered in glitter? Can I only use it at Homosexualland or is it valid everywhere?

2. Are Republicans against adoption in general? What about straight adoption? Are they in cahoots with the new Pope on this?

Elsewhere, Rep. Jeanne Ives of the strongly religious and wildly conservative Wheaton, Illinois continued Caprio’s line of argumentation. In a February radio interview for the Catholic Conference of Illinois, Ives argued, “To not have a mother and a father is really a disordered state for a child to grow up in and it really makes that child an object of desire rather than the result of a matrimony.” Ives went onto call same-gender partnerships a “disordered relationship” and to refer to the marriage equality fight as queer people “trying to weasel their way into acceptability.”

Ives has since (kind of) retracted her statements, after being criticized by Think Progress, Civil Rights Agenda director Anthony Martinez and Illinois Rep. Greg Harris.

As the issue continues to divide our parties and churches, and both opposition and support becomes more vocal, a recent email from Harris reminded followers that “this is our chance to make history.” The local leader of the marriage equality fight highlighted the campaign’s “incredible successes over the past several months.”

According to Harris, advocates have “grown support in every region of the state and made [the] case to lawmakers, Every time we’ve faced an obstacle, we’ve overcome it because of [Illinois’] commitment to moving marriage forward.” Although the bill is seeing short-term blockage, Harris stated that it could have never come this far without wide support. It’s about playing the long game.  

When I spoke to Jim Bennett, the Midwest Director of Lambda Legal, he recognized that the bill faces obstacles to passage but assured that “we are confident that marriage is coming to Illinois, whether through the legislature or through the courts. No one should be satisfied with a second-class status.”

The organization is currently working with the Illinois Unites for Marriage coalition to get people to call their representatives.

“The most important thing any of us can do right now is to contact our representatives and ask for their vote on the marriage bill," Bennett said. "We have many priority areas, so we will continue to have plenty of work to do. Just because marriage is enacted doesn’t mean that the potential for discrimination disappears.”

Anthony Martinez, the Executive Director of The Civil Rights Agenda, (an organization I used to organize with) has been likewise working to keep the momentum going.

“With initiatives such as this one, that take such a long time to pass, we find that sometimes supporters get tired, and so we have to ensure that we are able to reinvigorate folks as we move forward,” Martinez said.

“Anybody who said this is a slam dunk is fooling themselves," continued Martinez. "Anyone who tried to put a timeline on this is fooling themselves and the community. The House has always been the heavier lift and we can do this, but the community must continue to push. This is not about public relations puffery, this is about getting the job done, and that is what we are doing."

I don’t know when we will see marriage equality pass in Illinois, but I know I can’t wait for the movie.

Nico Lang blogs about LGBT issues in Chicago. You can find Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on the Facebook.