03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

LGBT Rights: The Time Is Now

Yesterday was a great day in this history of America's civil rights movement. A decade in the making, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was finally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The act broadens the definition of a hate crime to include violence motivated by sexual orientation or gender identification. It is considered by many to be the widest expansion of civil rights legislation in years.

I applaud Congress and President Obama for taking this great step forward. But it is by no means the last step, and we must turn today's progress into tomorrow's achievement.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- a failed policy from the beginning -- is making its way back into the public debate, and I'm pleased that Congress will work toward its repeal in November. Once again, the president appears poised to support such an effort. From CNN:

"We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country," he said. "I'm working with the Pentagon, its leadership and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy, legislation that has been introduced in the House to make this happen, I will end 'don't ask, don't tell.' That's my commitment to you."

I fully support President Obama on this and hope the abolition of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is immediate.

But as we all know, there is still one crucial step that this country needs to take to ensure that all men and women are treated equally:

We must make civil marriage equality the law of the land.

While the religious institution of marriage must be left to tenets of faith, we have an obligation as a democratic society to ensure our civil institutions -- including marriage and its legal protections and responsibilities -- are guided by basic principles of fairness and equality.

We need strong leaders who are not afraid to take on this challenge and make civil marriage equality a priority in the next Congress.

Last year, I co-sponsored the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act, which legalized civil unions in Illinois. I was also the chief sponsor of legislation to amend the pension code to allow the domestic partners of teachers to qualify for survivor benefits.

As your next Congresswoman, I will work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and champion full marriage equality.

Change doesn't come easily. It takes perseverance, determination and unwavering dedication to the cause.

In the early 2000s, I helped amend the Human Rights Act to outlaw discrimination due to sexual orientation -- "to extend to all individuals within Illinois the freedom from discrimination." This included employment protections, real estate transactions, access to financial credit, and the availability of public accommodations. In short, it included the foundational protections for living in an open, free and pluralistic society.

But even the fundamental can be monumental. Congress has not yet codified these basic tenants into our national code. As your next Congresswoman, I will make it a priority.

Delay is not an option. Civil marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our day. The time to act is now.