Jim Kelly and Bruce Broerman, two gay retirees living in south Oak Park, have been partners for almost a quarter century. They knew pretty early on they wanted to be together forever, but it wasn't until Wednesday, June 1, that they were offered the opportunity to pledge their love to each other in a way that's recognized by the state of Illinois.
The couple has found ways to gain the same rights as straight couples, such as power of attorney, so the civil union will be largely symbolic, said Kelly, 63. Still, they plan to get one, possibly as early as this summer, to honor the work that gay-rights advocates and state officials did to get the civil union bill passed last year.
"It's important for our lawmakers to know that the effort that it took to get this legislation passed was worthwhile," Kelly said. "Numbers count, so I would be motivated to do it sooner rather than later as a way to respond positively to the elected officials who actually voted for this."
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill into law in May, as Illinois joined six other states that offer or plan to offer gays the same rights as married couples through civil unions. Those include protecting a gay person from testifying against his or her partner in a state court, the right to visit a same-sex partner in the hospital and make medical decisions for him or her.
Until Wednesday, gays had to hire lawyers and pay thousands in legal fees to try and gain some of those rights.
"It's unfortunate that, until the civil unions bill came along, same-sex couples had to spend considerable amounts of time and money to create a legal framework for themselves that is automatically assumed and endowed to a heterosexual married couple," Kelly said.
Colette Lueck, a social worker and village trustee in Oak Park, plans to get a civil union sometime in June with Marge, her partner of 25 years.
She, too, had to hire a lawyer and jump through hoops to gain some of the rights that heterosexual couples take for granted. Lueck, 62, had to surrender custody of her biological son, who was 4 at the time, in order for the couple to get joint custody of him. That left the boy as a ward of the state for about 6 months, which Lueck called a "stressful" and "confusing" time for her family.
A civil union will allow Marge to get on the same insurance plan as Lueck, potentially saving the couple thousands of dollars. There are some 650 state rights that gay couples earn by getting a civil union that they didn't have before, she said.
Still, same-sex couples aren't recognized at the federal level, so they don't enjoy the ability to receive a deceased partner's Social Security check or military benefits.
"The work isn't done, but this is a good step," said Lueck.
Delena Wilkerson, 56, of Oak Park, got married to her longtime partner in California a couple of years ago. The rights she and Sally Olson gained through that marriage did not cross state lines with them, but they'll gain those rights back on June 1, when the civil union bill goes into effect.
Wilkerson and Olson decided to marry on a whim, but the couple was surprised at how much the ceremony and the words "I do" moved them — so moved, in fact, that Wilkerson started the website 10thousandcouples.com, to share the experience with other same-sex couples.
"It was an amazing change that we had not anticipated," Wilkerson said. "It was a combination of the legality and the saying of the words that we all grew up with; it just changed us."
Jeff Cobb, a real estate agent who lives in Berwyn, plans to travel to Iowa in July to marry his partner of 10 years, Wilbert Watkins. The two grew up as devout Christians and felt it was important to tie the knot in a church.
Watkins gave Cobb a ring nine years ago. And it's as if they've been engaged for almost a decade. Cobb, 52, said he never imagined that they'd eventually be able to say "I do" in front of a priest.
"We're both semi-shocked that this is even a possibility in our lifetimes," he said. "We're both 50 years old and years ago, this never would have crossed our minds that this would ever be a reality."