And we're off! The race to marriage equality for the fifth largest state in the Union was kicked off this morning when State Senator Heather Steans became the first Illinois Senator to introduce a marriage equality bill - SB2468 the Equal Marriage Act - in that chamber.
Illinois - which promises to have the eyes on the world on it if it is chosen to host the 2016 Olympic Games - is one of the most progressive states in the Midwest. It is the state that President Barack Obama calls home and where he honed his leadership credentials.
Representative Greg Harris had already introduced a similar bill earlier this year in the lower house - HB178, the Same-Sex Marriage and Religion Freedoms Act - as he has every session since 2007. Today marks the first time that that language has been matched in the Senate. Rep Harris also introduced a civil unions bill that both houses have been grappling with for some time now.
Speaking on the phone this morning, Sen. Heather Steans makes clear that the time for waiting is over. "Look around the country. We have five states now with Equal Marriage. Its time. Illinois shouldn't lag," she said.
Both Harris and Steans noted that several prominent Illinois lawmakers have come out in favor of full marriage equality - starting with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley when Representative Harris first introduced the bill in 2007. The highest profile of these equality endorsements have been Gubernatorial candidate Dan Hynes and both rivals for President Obama's former Senate seat, Alexi Giannoulias and David Hoffman.
Illinois citizens have been fighting tooth and nail for civil unions in the state, while over the border in Iowa, residents have now for several months been enjoying full marriage equality. Senator Steans sees herself in a position to change this as a lawmaker.
"Help Me Put a Ring On It"
"It's a fundamental right to find your own family," proclaimed Senator Steans, who calls being the first Senator to introduce marriage equality in Illinois an "honor." Senator Steans described her reasons for sponsoring this bill - issues all too well known to LGBT people in loving relationships barred from recognition.
Senator Steans takes issue with keeping Americans from the rituals, health care decisions, child rearing decisions, tax privileges and access to the same institutions that opposite-sex couples are afforded. She believes all couples deserve access to "the same rights and responsibilities that I have with my husband."
Both Senator Steans and Representative Greg Harris - until recently the only openly gay House member - emphasized the importance of Illinois residents reaching out to their state legislators on a constant basis in person and with urgency. Citizens must demand that their lawmakers co-sponsor this bill.
"Its election time," said Harris, "They're out in the streets trying to drum up support. Go out and find them and say 'Thanks for shaking my hand, Senator. Now help me put a ring on it.'" Both agree that Illinois constituents need to be adamant with their lawmakers that the time is now.
Steans and Harris both said legislators need daily contact from constituents, "And don't just send form letters," said Steans, "They need to hear real stories."
When I asked Representative Harris if there is any indication of how Governor Quinn - who is on record supporting civil unions - will receive news of this bill, he encouraged the public not to make assumptions, but to begin work to educate the governor immediately so he sees the legislation is a matter of equality.
"This is a priority for everyone concerned with equality in Illinois," Representative Harris told me.
With marriage equality now on the table, Representative Harris also said that he has no plans to withdraw his civil unions bill yet, but emphasized, "We're pushing toward full equality. We need to lead on [marriage equality]. We need to be on the right side of history."
The World Will Be Watching
Harris, who has served since 2006, points out that while this law will help many Illinois state residents, couples will not experience full equality until the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed.
To folks in other states he says, "We still need your help. Meet with your legislators and tell them to co-sponsor Congressman Jerrold Nadler's 'Respect for Marriage Act' to overturn the 'Defense of Marriage Act.'"
With the Olympics possibly coming to Chicago, Representative Harris believes that the state has an opportunity to send a message to the world "Illinois could be a model for the world, showing the world what true equality looks like, here!"
The ripple effect could be major, with Illinois situated squarely in the center of America's "Heartland." A Midwestern agricultural and industrial bastion, Illinois can take the lead in the marriage equality movement. As Representative Harris said, "We can show this is not just something from the coasts. Illinois is a lot like the rest of America."
Representative Harris encouraged all people concerned with equality to support the ACLU of Illinois and Equality Illinois in whatever way you can - donate or volunteer - as they've already invested a great bit of energy and work in this fight. Most of all, please contact your legislators and set up face-to-face meetings encouraging them to co-sponsor this legislation.