Illinois and Oak Park have been at the forefront of earlier gay civil rights breakthroughs. Gay rights first came out, so to speak, in the 1920s in Chicago with the formation of The Society for Human Rights. The group, whose incorporation papers referred to itself as an advocacy group for people with “mental abnormalities,” published “Friendship and Freedom,” America’s first gay publication. Within months of the society’s incorporation, Chicago police shut it down along with the publication.

In 1962, Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.

The modern gay rights movement, though, can most likely be traced back to June 27, 1969, in New York. After numerous patrons of a gay bar in Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn were arrested during one of many police raids, the bar’s other patrons fought back. They were soon joined by others in the gay community, leading to three days of street riots. Many consider that the turning point in the struggle for gay rights, which exploded from being the concern of just a few committed activists into a national issue.

“I think that’s pretty well accepted as, if not the beginning, then certainly the turning point,” said state Rep. Gregory Harris, the legislature’s only openly gay lawmaker.

However, the battle to expand the concept of gay rights and codify those rights has been a long and frustrating process. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association voted to no longer classify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

Oak Park, which has a long history of supporting gay issues, is among the few government entities in Illinois, including Cook County and the State of Illinois, that offer benefits to domestic partners. In 1994, Oak Park passed a Domestic partnership ordinance. In 1998, establishment of a domestic partnership registry at village hall was approved by referendum.

Since Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, each state has had the right to choose whether or not to recognize a same-sex union that took place in another state (an exception to the U.S. Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause, which requires each state to recognize the laws and legal contracts of other states).

In 2000, Vermont became the first state in the union to pass a civil union bill. They were joined by Massachusetts in 2004, Connecticut in 2005, New Jersey in 2006 and New Hampshire in 2007. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, state laws in Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Washington, and district-wide laws in the District of Columbia confer certain spousal rights to same-sex couples. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state sodomy laws criminalizing gay sex were unconstitutional.

In addition, 19 countries around the world offer some degree of domestic partner rights and protections.

The civil union and gay marriage movements – which are separate legal concepts, but frequently confused – have endured a series of backlashes. California had a gay marriage law, but it was overturned by a 2008 referendum. Kentucky and Louisiana, while offering some rights and protections regarding domestic partnerships, also have constitutional amendments explicitly banning gay marriages.

Earlier this month, Vermont legalized not just gay unions, but gay marriage. Around the same time, the Iowa Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriages there, ruling unanimously that a state law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Conservatives are vowing to block implementation of the law in Iowa.

-Bill Dwyer

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