We all know this is a very big state. From Wisconsin down to Kentucky, our state legislature represents a vast diversity of people and cultures that make this state unique. The further away from Chicago one gets, the more one feels they're entering a very different world.
I live in that different world. I'm not quite so south as, say, Carbondale, but my surroundings are definitely typical Illinois. To my northwest, there's a town called Farmer City. To my southwest there's an Amish village called Arthur. Where I sit in Champaign, I'm only five minutes in any direction from vast, flat prairie lands, corn fields or soy farms.
The passage of civil unions is sure to have a significant effect on same-sex couples down here. Case in point: the 2004 case of Sprout v. Carle in Urbana, Champaign's sister city. A long-time pediatric nurse and manager in exceptional standing at Carle Hospital was suddenly and abruptly fired after taking time off to care for her dying partner. The City of Urbana's Codes required that the hospital offer her coverage under the Family and Medial Leave Act, but the hospital balked and initially fought the Urbana Human Relations Commission's ruling that Lynn Sprout be reinstated in her job and given back pay, before eventually settling with Sprout a year later.
Though the Illinois Human Rights Act now protects our jobs and use of public accommodations from callous discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, what about our families? Chicago is a progressive place where same-sex couples and their families can enjoy relative safety and protection from bias thanks to a more progressive climate and municipal laws that guide the behavior of businesses. However, things become gray throughout the rest of the state.
Plain and simple, civil unions will provide downstate same-sex couples the rights of other spouses when they need them most: in hard times, such as when a spouse or a child is sick or dying, or a spouse dies and the family needs crucial survivor benefits to maintain a liveable standard of living. The law will also be important if someone loses a job or can't get insurance and must rely on spousal insurance coverage.
Up to this point, these have been legal gray areas for downstate couples who often don't have to face discrimination in these areas, but never really know when they will encounter a situation that will rock them to the core. The mere possibility of having to be kept from one's partner in a dire medical situation is a huge hazard that same-sex couples have had to fear, especially downstate where human rights laws are patchwork and inconsistent. One may be considered a family in Urbana, and strangers up the road in Rantoul. Read more story below....
LGBT folks all over the state are celebrating this victory. However, this is rural middle America. What do the non-LGBT folks think? Is a backlash imminent?
On Dec. 2, I was on the phone with one of the key people involved with the civil-unions legislation after the vote getting a sense of what's next as I prepared for my show, SameSexSunday. Before we wrapped up, he asked me about the reception downstate:
"What are people saying down there? What has the news been saying?"
I hadn't thought much about it until that moment. I'd been so focused on collecting as much information as I could to explain the developments to a national audience, I'd not stopped to take the temperature of my very local constituency. I had been poring over newspapers and websites all day regarding the new law. I suddenly realized that I'd not seen a single letter to the editor opposing the bill. I went back and began scrolling through the comments sections of the news stories on these outlets' websitesnormally teeming with activity, the only story about civil unions that had any comments at all only showed positive comments.
I believe we're at a turning point here in Illinois. After so much build-up to civil unions in our own community press, worries about reactions in conservative downstate Illinois, it seems this law is, by and large, a non-issue among those folks who concern us the most. I'm not a Chicagoan, but I agree with Mayor Richard Daley; I think it's time we moved quickly to turn civil unions into marriage. Our whole state is ready for it, not just our big cities. Equal rights for all are no longer the controversial hornet's nest it once was. Illinoisans are smart people. We ought to give them more credit.
Later that night, I met up with a friend who heads the local LGBT law students' organization, and we sat down for some pizza at a beer-and-billiards spot down the street from where we live. There was a pool tournament going on that night, as well as a Texans-Eagles football game simultaneous with the Heat-Cavaliers Lebron James reunion game at Cleveland. In this audience we sat, discussing the civil-union news and enjoying some thin-crust pizza bianco. As we were leaving, I remembered the question I'd received on the phone earlier. I walked up to one of the tournament participants I knew, but didn't know well. He was sitting near the door with his girlfriend, taking a break.
"What do you think about the civil-unions law they just passed?" I asked.
"'Bout damn time," he said.
Phil Reese is a regular contributor at The Bilerico Project and FeastOfFun.com, the politics columnist for Out & About Illinois Magazine and is co-host and producer of the only weekly national LGBT politics roundtable podcast, SameSexSunday. As someone who has been an LGBT-rights activist since 18, Reese has held leadership roles in LGBT organizations around the nation and advocates for equality every day.