By Ben Meyerson
Illinois' gay and lesbian population scored a big win this week when lawmakers approved civil unions — a measure Oak Park and River Forest advocates have sought for years to put same-sex couples on equal legal footing.
Every one of Oak Park and River Forest's state legislators voted for the bill.
Oak Park Village Trustee Ray Johnson has advocated for the bill and similar ones for years, traveling with residents by the busload to Springfield every year to lobby the legislature.
The civil union bill's passage is momentous, he said.
"It really creates a more equal structure," Johnson said. "When you go through what's in this bill, from hospital visitation to state rights on property ... those kinds of things, people are spending thousands of dollars for things that married couples get with a piece of paper."
The Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association has been lobbying for nontraditional couples' rights for years, said Mike Cochran, the group's former co-chair.
"OPALGA was very actively engaged in pursuing this kind of legislation," said Cochran, who led the organization until his two-year term expired in January 2010. "It's a great day."
Gov. Pat Quinn made signing the bill one of his campaign promises, and he's expected to follow through.
State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), one of the co-sponsors, lauded the new privileges couples would have under the bill.
"For me, this matter is simply about establishing a more just and fair state for Illinois families," Harmon said in an e-mail statement. "Justice does not exist when some Illinoisans have rights which are prohibited by the state to others, and it is time we rectified this injustice."
He also said it would not infringe on traditional religious ideals of marriage.
"This bill simultaneously protects the rights of churches and religious institutions to respect their faith and traditions," he said.
Rebekah Levin, one of OPALGA's co-founders 21 years ago, said she's still waiting to get the same rights as the rest of the population — such as marriage.
"I'm very pleased about it, but it's still separate but unequal," she said of the civil union bill. "I'm not planning on going and getting one. I'm going to wait until something is granted that's equal with heterosexuals."