Warning: long post!
The struggle for equal civil rights for gays and lesbians is being waged all around the U.S. I've watched with particular interest the supreme court cases over marriage equality in California and Iowa. Now a similar struggle--not for "marriage" but for "civil unions"--is brewing here in my own state. Last Thursday, the Illinois house committee on Youth and Family approved HB2234, the "Civil Unions and Religious Freedom" Act, which would allow gay and lesbian couples access to all the state-level legal benefits of marriage.
But this isn't the first time a civil unions bill has made it out of committee. Similar civil union bills have been introduced in the legislature for the past two years, but have never made it to the floor of the house or senate for debate and voting. This is no accident; the legislators who have crafted these bills are aware of the political firestorm they are likely to invoke when brought before the legislature. They have decided to try persuading their colleagues to support the bill before it ever appears before the full legislature, and they have decided not to bring it up for a vote until they are assured of its passage. Last year we came close: I am told that we had enough votes in the state senate to pass the bill, but we were 8 votes short in the house.
This year I felt inspired to get into the civil unions fight myself. A few months ago, I watched from afar as my buddy Pomoprophet doggedly fought against Prop 8 in California. Now that the struggle for equality is on my home turf, I've decided to get involved.
So, this past Monday night, I drove over to the Peoria Salvation Army Community Center for a joint townhall meeting with my state representative Jehan Gordon and my state senator David Koehler. My goal was to state my support for civil unions and encourage these officials who represent me to do the same.
There is so much to tell about Monday night. It was not my first townhall meeting with an elected representative--I had been to two before while I was living in Champaign-Urbana. But this meeting was unique. It was remarkably interactive. Previous townhall meetings I've attended were dominated by the elected official. Not so with this meeting. After opening remarks (which included a discussion of the recent unprecidented impeachment of our former governor--wow, what a state!), congresswoman Gordon and senator Koehler opened the meeting to anyone who wished to speak.
My emotions surged with the thought that I should stand up at this point and make my statement. But I decided to watch and listen and see how this meeting was going to go. I'm glad I did.
The meeting was dominated by economic issues. Let me remind the reader that I live in Peoria, a midsized city in downstate Illinois that is home to heavy equipment giant Caterpillar, Inc. Caterpillar is a Fortune 50 company that employs some 116,000 people worldwide. Well, at least it used to employ that many people. The global economic crisis has slashed Cat's income from $50 billion in 2008 to a projected $40 billion this year. With that 20% cut in income, the company has shed almost 20% of its employees; 22,000 layoffs that have been announced since December of last year.
The townhall meeting was filled with people who had lost their jobs. Our community has been flooded with unemployed people and employment is nowhere to be found. Of course I knew this as fact from the news reports I have heard--but I still go to work every day, and I still work next to other employed people. Monday night was my first opportunity to spend time with a lot of people who are unable to provide income for their families. The union presence was strong, but I had a sense that what was going on transcended union alliances; these people were desperate.
As I mentioned earlier, this conversation dominated the meeting. And you know what? I'm glad it did. And I'm glad I shut up and listened and had the opportunity to learn for an hour. I was impressed with the back-and-forth conversation between the community and the elected officials. Time was shared equally. Both sides asked questions of the other. And the elected officials explained the steps they were taking to address the jobs issue. Moreover, I had the sense that they were actually going to modify or tweak their plans and legislation based on the discussion that took place in that room.
As the meeting passed an hour, Senator Koehler asked if anyone who had not had a chance to speak would like to do so. I'll admit it--I was afraid. But with a deep sense of purpose and a rush of adrenaline, I stood up.
I didn't talk long. I just said that I wanted to briefly change the subject to a domestic issue. I let everyone in the room know that a bill that would legalize civil unions in Illinois had passed committee last week--and in my recollection, the room became very quiet at that point. There had been a lot of fidgeting from restless people who had hotly discussed their families' futures for an hour, but all that ceased. I pressed on into the silence.
I told the senator and representative that I wanted to encourage them to vote in support of civil unions if the bill was to make it to their respective chamber this year. And I asked them if they would let me know how they plan to vote.
And then, blood pounding in my head, I sat down.
Senator Koehler spoke first. "Yes. In fact, I am the sponsor for the bill in the Senate." Wow. I'm sure a relieved expression washed over my face as I mouthed the words "thank you" as the senator continued to speak. Senator Koehler apparently feels quite passionately about civil rights for gays and lesbians. I learned Monday that he is a minister in the United Church of Christ, and that night he took the opportunity to give the audience a short sermon on fairness and equality. I was blown away--not only that my senator supports the civil unions, but because he was willing to spend so much time talking about LGBT issues.
Congresswoman Gordon had much less to say--possibly because the senator had already taken up so much time--but she let the room know that she also supported civil unions and intended to vote for the bill if it is introduced in the house. At that point, the officials asked if anyone else in the room would like to comment or ask questions.
I thought "here it comes. Here comes the firestorm."
Nothing. Silence. The meeting moved on. Eventually education was brought up and discussed for about ten minutes. Finally, the legislators were wrapping up the meeting. They asked for one more question. And then it came.
A middle-aged man sitting near me asked, "these unions you talked about earlier--I heard they are anti-marriage. Aren't they anti-marriage?"
"Here we go" I thought. "We're going to have the big argument now."
But the big argument never came. Senator Koehler asked the man to clarify what he meant by "anti-marriage". The guy wasn't too clear, he said something to the effect that he had heard civil rights for gays and lesbians meant people would no longer be allowed to marry in Illinois. It was so odd hearing him say that. But I thought of all the propaganda I've heard that LGBT folks are destroying marriage in America, etc. etc. It was so interesting to realize that the bizarre statement this man just tried to articulate was the way that sound byte had been understood by this everyday guy.
Senator Koehler quickly put the man's fears to rest. Marriage would not be eliminated in Illinois. People who were married before would be married after.
And with that statement, the townhall meeting ended. I was so encouraged.
But not as encouraged as I was later that evening. There's one major detail I haven't told you about this townhall meeting--both my parents were there (long story, I'll explain it in a subsequent post--there is so much to write about their visit). But I will say this: as a direct result of the townhall meeting--no kidding--my mother said she supported civil unions. I was blown away.
So I left the townhall meeting glowing. I had learned that both my elected officials are supportive of equality under the law (albeit it separate and unequal, but that's an argument for a different day). Moreover, at least two people who were confused or opposed to civil unions before the meeting (my mother and the guy who asked the anti-marriage question) had misunderstandings corrected. And civil unions in Illinois gained at least one more supporter :-)
All because I was willing to stand up in a townhall meeting in the Peoria Salvation Army Community Center.