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Gay couples finally wed as Illinois embraces marriage equality

Monday marked the first business day in which gay and lesbian couples across Illinois could obtain marriage licenses or have their civil unions “upgraded.”

Monday marked the first business day in which gay and lesbian couples across Illinois could obtain marriage licenses or have their civil unions “upgraded,” so to speak, as the state’s Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act officially went into effect.

“It sounded like a strange word to me; it sounded like something that you do at McDonald’s when you supersize something,” said Jim Williams, who was able to “upgrade” his civil union with partner Zach Lamm to a marriage on June 1.

“I think that the weirdness of that word, though, just reflects the weirdness of the whole situation,” Lamm added. “The idea that marriage is not, at this point, something that people in our situation would ‘enter’ into; it’s something that you would ‘upgrade’ into.”

Illinois became the 16th state to legalize marriage equality last November. But it would be almost another seven months before the law was due to take effect. For Patricia Ewert and Vernita Gray, who had terminal cancer, that wait was simply too long. They became the first same-sex couple to marry in Illinois, after a federal judge ordered the Cook County clerk to issue them an expedited marriage license. Four months later, Gray passed away.

In February, a different federal judge decided that all the other gay and lesbian couples in Cook County -- the state’s largest -- shouldn’t have to wait until June 1 either. That ruling cleared the way for Cook County Clerk David Orr to immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. More than a dozen other clerks followed suit.

But most of the state’s 102 county clerks decided to wait until the official start date, making June 1 all the more momentous when it finally arrived.

“Today is a special day and I thank everyone who worked so hard to pass marriage equality and put Illinois on right side [sic] of history,” said Democratic Governor Pat Quinn in a statement Sunday. “All couples across Illinois can now receive the rights and protections under the sacred vow of marriage. The Land of Lincoln has always been a place to embrace all people and today we stand as an example for the rest of the nation.”

Sunday also marked the beginning of LGBT Pride Month, as proclaimed by the White House. In a statement, President Obama reflected on the historic expansion of same-sex marriage rights over the last year, which brought the total number of states where gay and lesbian couples can wed to 19, plus the District of Columbia. Federal judges have also struck down same-sex marriage bans in Idaho, Oklahoma, Virginia, Michigan, Texas and Utah, though their decisions are on hold pending appeals.

“As progress spreads from State to State, as justice is delivered in the courtroom, and as more of our fellow Americans are treated with dignity and respect – our Nation becomes not only more accepting, but more equal as well,” Obama said. “During Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month, we celebrate victories that have affirmed freedom and fairness, and we recommit ourselves to completing the work that remains.”