Gay couples line up to receive Illinois civil union licenses

BELLEVILLE, Ill. – For being first in line, Sarah Baldwin and Heather Sowell got loving applause and smiles from behind the clerk’s counter.

Hundreds of miles away in Chicago, Lakeesha Harris and Janean Watkins won a donated stay at a historic hotel and a cheesecake for every one of their anniversaries.

The two couples were among scores of same-sex partners across the state who began celebrating before dawn Wednesday as they lined up to apply for civil union licenses under a new Illinois law that recognizes them as couples for the first time.

Signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in January, the law gives gay and lesbian couples – and straight ones who choose civil unions – many of the rights and legal protections already afforded in traditional marriage. Those include the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner’s property.

The law, Quinn said, makes Illinois “a place of tolerance and welcoming to all.”

Wednesday’s turnout, while unpredictable, was spotty. In Cook County, the clerk’s office said 203 licenses were issued by the end of the day, at least two to heterosexual couples. In Jackson County, home to Southern Illinois University’s flagship campus in Carbondale, two couples had gotten licensed by midday. In central Illinois’ Champaign County, the clerk’s office had issued at least 14 of the permits before lunch.

For many couples, it was worth the wait – and then some.

Partners for a decade, Harris, 36, and Watkins, 37, had waited since midnight Tuesday for the office at the Cook County building in downtown Chicago to open at 7:30 a.m.

When the two finally got their license, winning the stay at the Palmer House Hilton and the cheesecake prize, Harris couldn’t hold back the tears.

Until getting the license, Watkins had fretted with Harris about the futures of their six children, just in case something should ever happen to either partner. Now, “this is legally binding, this is official, we’re a family unit and our family is now recognized by the greater society.”

Couples must wait a day after getting a license before they’re allowed to hold a ceremony. One of the bigger ceremonies planned for Thursday will take place in Chicago’s Millennium Park, involving dozens of same-sex couples. Quinn is scheduled to attend.