Years of groundwork—and waiting—behind Illinois gay marriage suits

June 10, 2012

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(AP/M. Spencer Green)
Janean Watkins, left, and Lakeesha Harris were the first people to get a civil union license in Cook County last summer. They've received unwanted mail since joining one of the lawsuits challenging Illinois' gay marriage ban.

The fight over same-sex marriage in Illinois will soon begin to play out in the Cook County courts.

Gay rights groups are launching two separate cases arguing the state's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.

But only after years of strategizing, organizing and politicking do advocates believe their moment is now.

If you had any doubt how seriously gay rights advocates are taking these lawsuits, consider that they announced them with not one, but two press conferences. Both were scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 30 - one, at a hotel in downtown Chicago, the other at a hotel in Springfield.

And the message at both was nearly identical: "It's time. It's time for Illinois to recognize the love and commitment of these couples and thousands of others," said two lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois at both press conferences, seemingly reading from the same script.

Ed Yohnka, with the ACLU, was one of the guys behind these tandem press conferences. He's been helping coordinate media strategy leading up to the lawsuits.

"Our clients have now been through newspaper stories and radio and television, literally all over the state," he said. "And we heard a story about one of our clients who heard from someone from Italy."

Those stories come from the 25 same-sex couples represented by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights group.

But leaders in Illinois' gay rights movement know news stories alone won't win same-sex marriage. They've also spent years hosting town hall meetings around the state, talking to church groups, haggling with lawmakers and telling potential plaintiff couples to hold off on filing suit because it just wasn't the right time.

"People have been waiting for a long time," said John Knight, who works on the ACLU's national gay rights project and is also its lead lawyer in its Illinois case. "They're tired of waiting, we're tired of waiting."

Part of what advocates have been waiting for is public opinion, Knight said. He and his colleagues have spent years watching public opinion polls and listening for changes in political rhetoric. When both President Barack Obama and Gov. Pat Quinn, both Democrats, announced their support for gay marriage last month, many advocates say that was their cue.

"Well, obviously we are looking at bringing marriage to every state in the country," said Camilla Taylor, the lead lawyer in Lambda Legal's lawsuit.

But that has involved a lot of legal calculation, and a lot of patience, Taylor said. Lambda has had its lawsuit drafted, at the ready, for eight years. But they waited. First came Taylor's victory before the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2009. The group considered filing its lawsuit then, Taylor said, but instead chose to spend its energy on winning same-sex civil unions, which were approved by the General Assembly in 2011.

"Whether you file suit or whether you try and push legislation is determined by specific factors in a particular state, what your chances of success are," Taylor said.

Gauging how and when to move is determined in part by monitoring Illinois court decisions, with an eye toward ones that might be favorable to her cause, Taylor said. There are also some particular traits of Illinois' state constitution, such as a privacy clause, that she said could give her arguments some extra traction.

One of the key factors that both Lambda and the ACLU are relying heavily upon are their 50 clients and their stories. The 25 couples in these cases run the demographic gamut: They're black, white, Hispanic, churchgoers, military veterans, college professors. They're from Chicago and downstate. Some have kids, some have no kids, one couple has chocolate Labrador retrievers.

But aside from diversity, the clients' tales of confusion and discrimination under Illinois' civil union law make up the backbone of both civil complaints. And they've been chosen, as well, because they can deal with these pressures as the litigation moves forward, perhaps for years.

"They will possibly have their lives exposed in newspapers," Taylor said. "Sometimes people make comments underneath  newspapers online that aren't very kind."

Online, and through the mail.

Plaintiff Janean Watkins shows me a white envelope addressed to her long-time partner, Lakeesha Harris. The envelope, stuffed with religious chapbooks, was post-marked in the south suburbs on May 30 - the same day of those dual press conferences when the suits were filed.

"It says 'What to do to go to hell,' 'Spiritualism, Sorcery and Witchcraft,' "AIDS,' and, uh 'You have a date' - uh, I guess with the grim reaper, 'cause that's like one of the first pictures that you see," Watkins said.

Watkins and Harris, both from Chicago, said they prepared themselves for this kind of stuff, and they've talked to their six kids about what to expect as the suits move forward. Still, they say this piece of mail is a little scary.

But Watkins and Harris add they have a tight-knit family - the kind of people who can't seem to help but finish each other's sentences. And they said they're determined not to let the lawsuit take over their life.

"It didn't change anything," Harris said. "Like the kids were like, 'Okay, we filed a lawsuit. What's for dinner?'"