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The Long Road to Equal Marriage Rights in Illinois

11/08/2013 05:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

At a victory rally last night celebrating Illinois becoming 15th state to legalize same-sex marriage, I took the opportunity to announce from the stage my engagement to Aldo Pedro Hernandez.

Aldo and I actually decided to get married about a year and a half ago, after discussing it off and on for several months before then. I began thinking about it and discussing it with him due to some personal safety issues, particularly my trips to gay rights demonstrations in Russia, and a solidarity delegation to Honduras, but I also didn't want to do it until it became legal in Illinois.



The Gay Liberation Network, which I helped co-found 15 years ago, has been working on this issue for over a decade through sit-ins, arrests and other protests at the County Clerk's Office, in front of Holy Name Cathedral, and elsewhere. Early on, Michael Maltenfort and I unintentionally took a pair of felony arrests [2], and did a short internship at Cook County Jail as a result (I still feel really horrible for what we put his Mom through on that one!). Sometimes, especially in our annual February demonstrations, in the almost perennial rain, snow and the slush, it took a degree of stubbornness to keep at it.

Over the years, we took a lot of heat from some in our community for doing these actions, and from some, for focusing on the issue at all. This only accentuated a stubborn streak I've had since childhood. So I didn't want to run off to another state to get married, though I certainly understand those who did so and absolutely do not fault them for not waiting.



I'm very proud of the fact that over the years, by repeatedly raising and re-raising the issue, we helped make an unpopular issue a popular one. When we started this work, the percentage of those who favored equal marriage rights probably numbered in the single digits. By this past February, a clear majority of Illinoisan did, and we out-numbered our opponents by a nearly two-to-one margin.

But that still that wasn't enough. Even though the Democratic Party claimed to be our ally, in Illinois they just couldn't seem to be able to get it done, despite their overwhelming dominance of state government, especially the General Assembly. So I'm also proud of GLN being an early and ardent supporter of the big October 22 march on Springfield which helped put the issue back on the agenda for the Fall veto session. In particular, I'm proud of our beating up on our ostensible allies, the Democrats, for helping turn what looked like surely a lost vote a few weeks ago, into a victory this past Tuesday night.

When you get powerful House Speaker Mike Madigan, Lou Lang and others going to the floor of the Assembly last Tuesday, beating up on those who "picketed Greg Harris" (that's us!), but then muscling the House Democratic Caucus to finally vote the right way, then you know you've done something right. As Madigan said those words, the famous Gandhi quote rang through my head: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Thank you, Mike Madigan. The compliments you get from your opponents are often the most sincere ones! I don't need your love, damn it, just your doing the right thing.

For a Left in this country which has seen so many issues go from bad to worse over the past decade -- a rampantly growing national security state, brazen assassinations abroad, a record level of deportations, a tailspin in unionization, to name just a few -- the idea of directly taking on the Democrats, and not just the Republicans, has been anathema. Which goes a long way to explaining not just the weakness of the Left, but its increasing weakness during the Obama years.

Until we begin pasting, by name, up front and personal, the Democrats' march rightwards, they will pay no political price for their depredations, and will continue their bad behavior versus unions, immigrants, environmentalists, women, and others. The only pressure they will feel will be from the right, and that's the way that they will go. So in a small way, in blue state Illinois, we showed how to break that dismal record of Left failure following repeated failure. Hopefully it's an example that will be emulated elsewhere, and on a far bigger scale.



But what of the marriage issue itself? Why so much concentration of effort spent on it? Because this issue has always been, first and foremost, about citizenship for all LGBT people. The issue of whether or not this or that person can get married, was and is secondary to me, as important as that is for some individual, personal lives. The best way to explain this is by analogy.



The immigrant rights movement has a great slogan, "No human being is illegal," which recognizes that designating any person as "illegal" dehumanizes them, and opens them up as targets for all sorts of abuse and other discrimination. Which is why the anti-immigrant bigots love so much calling the undocumented "illegal," and why anti-LGBT bigots have focused so much energy on preventing same-sex couples from getting a lousy piece of paper from their local government. Some in our LGBT community still don't get that, but wasn't that the point of so much of the pettier aspects of segregation of the Old South, the segregated drinking fountains, lunch counters, etc.? -- it was to dehumanize African Americans, and make them vulnerable for far more serious physical violence and discrimination.



A little over three years ago, when I met Aldo, what had been a purely political issue to me for years increasingly also became a personal one. As my love for Aldo grew, and despite the often incredible tensions of activist life (which only grew worse over the past few years), I became happier than I ever thought was possible. I really don't think that I could have gotten through these past few years without him. Marriage, for practical reasons of helping protect each other, seemed the only logical way to go.



So Aldo and I will be getting hitched in June, when Illinois finally allows it. Given that I'm an atheist (and he's pretty close to that), a church wedding is not planned -- though I have a lot of respect for our religious allies who helped get us to this happy day. Given that both of us detest high government officials, a big ceremony presided over by one of them is out of the question too. Plans are simply to have a big party (no presents!) with friends and family.

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Photo courtesy of Stonewall Again