Civil unions day: Harris reflects on legislation, looks ahead

Civil unions day: Harris reflects on legislation, looks ahead

Posted by Kerry Lester on Wed, 06/01/2011 - 07:36

State Rep. Greg Harris says he's about to go broke from all of the toasters, punchbowls, and place settings that he's purchasing as gifts for the ceremonies he's invited to.

Still, the Chicago Democrat and sponsor of the civil unions legislation that passed the General Assembly in December says he plans to let the spotlight shine on the couples who are taking part in their various ceremonies, and not on him.

"I know so many couples who have been together like 30 years and for the first time society and their government are going to know what their family and their church members have known for decades, that they're a couple," he said.

The law makes Illinois the 12th state in the country to recognize same sex unions. Licenses are available for the first time this morning at suburban county clerks' offices.

As lawmakers hashed out redistricting and the budget this week in Springfield, I took a few minutes to ask Harris to reflect on the past six months, as well as the work for full marriage equality he remains committed to. Since being elected in 2006, Harris has filed separate pieces of civil union legislation every year.

He told me that he believes that the legislation finally passed because the timing was right, a "good sign that the attitudes of society are changing substantially."

"I spoke numerous times a year to (my colleagues) to find out where they were, to gauge where they were on the topic," Harris said.

"As time went by, the fact that this issue was on the table caused them to learn about the issue and also caused in their districts people who may not ever have spoken about it before to come forward on either side."

And because the legislation extends state rights and benefits to unmarried couples both gay and straight, Harris said having senior citizens vocalize how important the legislation would be for them only helped the cause.

December 2010 proved to be the right time, he said, not because Gov. Pat Quinn or others made statements that there were enough votes for the legislation's passage, but because the issue was one that was being discussed openly in communities throughout the state.

December 1, he says, when the legislation came up for a vote in the House, he said almost every representative was listening intently as the issue was debated on the floor. Normally, as lawmakers debate one issue or another, other members are milling about, chatting, or checking their emails.

"Here people realize that there are a handful of votes that we take down here that are really historic. I think people assess this as one of these days," he said.

After the vote was called, Harris said, "the things that stuck with me are not what my colleagues said but walking out the door and seeing people in tears, saying 'finally something's happened for us and our families.' One of our doorkeepers said 'I never thought I'd see this day for one of my grandkids.' He'd never spoken to me before about the issue."

Now finding himself thrust into the spotlight, Harris said he believes he should talk "about how important the issue is but realizing we still have a long ways to go."

He will continue to work for full marriage equality, filing and calling that legislation when the time is right.

"I think we'll let this bill go into effect, and (couples will) get their licenses, people will see that plagues of frogs will not come down and the world will not end. In time, when it's the right time, I'll put in a marriage equality bill."

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