Two years ago, the Illinois Legislature approved civil unions, which granted the rights of marriage – but not the right to marry – to straight and gay couples.
Since that time, Whiteside and Lee counties have each recorded 10 civil unions.
On Tuesday, the Illinois House passed a Senate bill to allow same-sex marriage, which Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to sign. The bill would take effect in June.
Barb Schwamberger, founder of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Sauk Valley, was surprised with the number of civil unions in the Sauk Valley, saying she thought it would be higher.
She said some gay couples in the area have gone to other states to get married.
Most people around here accept those relationships, she said, but some fear the consequences if they go public.
“People are afraid. People can be hateful,” Schwamberger said. “Sometimes we’re not totally aware of that because it’s underground.”
She knows a prominent couple in the community who are reluctant to reveal their relationship publicly.
In the Legislature, local lawmakers voted along party lines.
The two Democrats representing Whiteside County, Sen. Mike Jacobs of East Moline and Rep. Mike Smiddy of Hillsdale, supported the bill, while the two Dixon Republicans, Sen. Tim Bivins and Rep. Tom Demmer, voted against it.
Demmer said his office received thousands of messages – in the form of emails, letters and phone calls – about the issue, most opposing gay marriage. The majority of messages came from inside his district, he said.
“I think the definition of marriage is between one woman and one man,” Demmer said.
He said he and others would continue to work to ensure that religious objections are respected.
Bivins said he feared the Legislature would water down religious protections in the bill over time. In Europe, he said, ministers have been arrested for speaking out against such things as gay marriage.
As for consequences to the public, Bivins said, they remain to be seen.
“Before you tear down the fence, you’d better ask why it was put there in the first place,” he said. “The majority [in the Legislature] redefined marriage, which hasn’t been done in thousands of years.”