On paper, civil unions in Illinois ensure a variety of protections for same-sex couples, such as hospital visitation and inheritance rights.
But as LGBT panelists at an ‘out in the suburbs’ forum pointed out Thursday evening, many same-sex couples who have their relationships recognized by the state still face major difficulties in situations where they should be protected under the law.
For example, some individuals have been barred from giving medical consent for their partners or have been asked to produce a civil union license at in-state hospitals, explained speakers at the forum held at the Wilmette Public Library and sponsored by Links, a North Shore LGBT youth support organization.
In these and other situations, the word ‘marriage’ carries the most weight, panelists said.
“These are things that heterosexual couples don’t need to worry about,” said panelist Joe Serio, a psychologist who lives in Palatine with his civil union partner Paul Dombrowski.
In 2011, Serio and Dombrowski, who also spoke at the forum, were one of the first same-sex couples to have their relationship recognized in Illinois when the law took effect.
But the spring legislative session delivered a blow to the LGBT community and its allies after the Illinois House failed to vote on a measure that would have legalized same-sex matrimony in the state.
The Senate passed the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act back in February. But the bill’s main sponsor in the House, State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), said he did not have all the votes needed to pass the legislation before time ran out in the session.
“In the bill not being brought up, it stoked my fire, and it’s going to make me fight even harder,” Dombrowski said.
Caroline Staerk, field director at Equality Illinois, stressed the importance of LGBT allies also speaking up for marriage equality.
“The more voices that we have in this, the more that these legislators ... will listen,” she said.
Even when marriage equality comes to Illinois, there remains more than a thousand federal benefits gay and lesbian couples would miss out on that heterosexual couples receive.
And all eyes are on the U.S. Supreme Court this month to see if it will uphold or strike down some or all of the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA). The court started hearing oral arguments in a case challenging DOMA at the end of March.
DOMA defines marriage between and man and a woman and prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, even in states where it is legal. Under DOMA, for example, couples cannot receive survivor's benefits from Social Security.
Also, if a spouse currently in a same-sex marriage travels to another state where the marriage is not recognized and gets into a car accident, the other spouse may not have hospital visitation rights.
“It’s ridiculous,” Serio said. “This is where we need to make some noise, not just here in Illinois, but across the country and say, ‘We won’t stand for this anymore.'”
In addition to marriage, panelists also discussed other issues that members of the LGBT community experience across their lifespan.
For example, the panelists touched on where same-sex couples should turn if they are looking to adopt children.
“Make sure you’re going to an adoption agency where you’re not going to get the runaround,” Staerk said. She added that adoption agencies run by the state have to treat gay and lesbian couples fairly.
Joe Gerber, 17, an LGBT identified student at Deerfield High School, said its crucial for teens who have come out or who are thinking about it to seek support from school counselors, friends and youth organizations, such as Links.
Going to their school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a club that aims to improve school climate for all students, is a good place to start, he said. A list of some Illinois public schools with a GSA can be found here.
Gerber suggested that students come together to start a GSA if one does not exist at their school.
“Every point in you’re life you’re coming out to people, and if you don’t have that strong base of when you first came out, it’s all going to be rocky in the future,” Gerber said.
Scott Olson, an intern at Lamda Legal, said students who are looking to start a GSA should seek out a teacher or faculty member who is an ally to be a sponsor.
“You can tell the wrong administrator that you want to do this, and then suddenly all these doors close,” Olson explained.
Dombrowski stressed that it is unlawful for school administrators to prevent a GSA from forming if there are other clubs at the school already. Schools also have to provide a club sponsor if students do not initially have one, he said.
“Never let them tell you no,” Dombrowski said. “It’s against the law.”
Dombrowski also highlighted the need to start discussing sexual identity earlier in school.
“What happens when marriage equality in Illinois passes? Kindergarten teachers are going to have to address this,” he said.
According to Dombrowski, research has shown that children typically begin to realize that they may be something other than straight between the ages of 10 to 13.
And at these ages, “This is when there are absolutely no services available,” he stressed.
But the LGBT community did experience a victory this week after Exodus International, a leading Christian ministry that proposed homosexual conversion or reparative therapy, announced it plans to shut down. Alan Chambers, the organization's president, issued an apology to the LGBT community for the harm Exodus and the Christian Church in general may have caused.
“It doesn't undo what they did, but it is a giant step forward for the field of mental health in terms of the LGBT community,” Serio said.
When it comes time for an LGBT youth to go to college, Serio said most campuses and faculty are relatively affirming. But even so, he added that it is important for young people who are thinking about coming out while in college, and at other times in their life, to consider their safety.
The panelists suggested scoping out the LGBT resources provided at the school as well as talking with someone from student affairs before committing to a college.
Although Gerber said many of the local high schools have GSAs, some students are still facing forms of discrimination. For example, Gerber said a transgender friend of his did not want to change in his sex's locker room. As such, it has been a struggle for the student to change in a separate room, Gerber explained.
Another friend Gerber knows asked his high school teachers to call him by a different name. And according to Gerber, the staff did not respect his request.
“He couldn’t be himself in his own school,” Gerber said.