LGBT

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn: Marriage Equality Law A “Democratic Triumph”

In an exclusive interview before he signs the state’s marriage equality bill into law, Gov. Pat Quinn said the measure’s passage is a victory for the people. With his signature, Illinois becomes the 16th state to legalize marriage equality.

Gov. Pat Quinn moments after he signed the Illinois civil unions bill into law in January 2011. Courtesy the governor's office

CHICAGO — Illinois Governor Pat Quinn will invoke Abraham Lincoln when he signs marriage equality into law at Lincoln’s old desk, he told BuzzFeed in an interview.

“Lincoln was a man that understood that you didn’t have to make a long speech — the Gettysburg Address is only 272 words — to sum up the essence of democracy, and that’s what Illinois, his home state, has used here to pass a very important civil rights measure that will live on in history,” Quinn said during an interview in Chicago prior to the bill-signing ceremony, which is expected to draw over 3,000 people.

Illinois will be the 16th state, along with the District of Columbia, to offer marriage equality, and Quinn reflected on the speed at which the issue has moved: He was elected in 2010, just days before the Illinois House passed the state’s civil unions bill. He signed the bill into law in January 2011, knowing “the process of democracy was to reach marriage equality” some day, he said. But while Quinn had been a force in getting the civil unions bill passed, a marriage equality law still seemed something of a pipe dream. Even LGBT activists didn’t anticipate it could happen at the time, Quinn said.

Quinn himself didn’t announce his full support for marriage rights beyond civil unions until 2012, around the same time President Obama announced his support for full marriage equality.

“Talking to advocates at the time, it was always something that needed to be done, but folks thought it was something that would be done down the line in history,” Quinn said. “The fact that we accelerated history is a tribute again to the energy, and to the commitment, and to the intense organizing of thousands of people.”

But coming out in support of marriage equality was more than just believing it was the right thing to do — finding a majority in the legislature for the measure and making sure it was the right time to push for a bill was key.

LGBT advocates had planned to wait through the 2014 election cycle to push for a marriage equality bill, having just won civil unions, but major victories in Minnesota, Washington, and Maine in the 2012 general elections presented a new opportunity — and urgency — to pass a bill here.

“There was this amazing sea change in public opinion — all of a sudden it was like, ‘Wow, we need to really think about this and do what is right,’” said Anthony Martinez, executive director at The Civil Rights Agenda, a Chicago-based LGBT rights group. “I think this is where his evolution on moving forward tracked. It was the perfect storm for us to move this forward.”

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and effectively strike down California’s ban on same-sex marriage added even more urgency to get a state bill passed because “it made people in Iowa and Minnesota have more rights than people in Illinois, and that just didn’t seem fair,” Quinn said.

Senate Bill 10, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, was finally approved by both chambers of the Illinois Legislature Nov. 5 during the annual “veto session,” passing narrowly in the House — its main obstacle — with 61 votes. The victory was the result of a vigorous statewide campaign energized by the stunning failure of the House to take up the measure during the final hours of the spring session on May 31.

“People who were discouraged on May 31 didn’t give up hope — they went out and organized,” Quinn said. “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize, OK? I think that was very significant as it went through the summer and into the fall.”

Quinn said he did not feel discouraged by the failure. Disappointed, but not discouraged, because he always felt “the majority could be summoned this year.” Even in the LGBT community, there was grave concern the bill would not be approved until sometime in 2014.

“We had our hopes way up high that we could maybe get this done by the end of February — no such luck,” he said. “And then the months went on and we’re at May 31.” Quinn said Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), who was the chief sponsor of both the marriage equality bill and the civil unions bill in the House, came to his office after delivering an emotional speech announcing the House would not be voting on the marriage equality bill.

“He was so sad, but he didn’t give up hope,” Quinn recalled. “You have to have those virtues of faith, hope, and love, and this was all about love.”

Quinn was assigned part of the blame for the May no-vote. Harris told reporters shortly after the session adjourned in May that the governor’s repeated public statements that proponents had the necessary votes to pass a bill had actually eroded that number in the final weeks of the session, but sources say they were indeed very close at the time.

When asked about that criticism, Quinn said on Tuesday, “Well, I think in the hearts of the members, the votes were there. Their political courage needed some encouragement, and it took a few months to do that.”

Over the months that followed, Quinn contributed to a statewide effort to convince undecided lawmakers that voters would support them if they voted in favor of marriage equality. The Illinois Unites for Marriage Coalition fielded thousands of phone calls to legislators and facilitated hundreds of personal meetings with constituents and their legislators. “The people who needed counseling and encouragement received it, and they came to the House ready to vote,” Quinn said.

Quinn points to a conversation he had with Rep. Tom Cross, the former Republican minority leader in the House, regarding the bill. Cross was one of three Republicans who voted in favor of the measure.

“I had lunch with Tom Cross and I said, ‘You know, this might be the moment for you to say yes,’ and I applaud him for doing that,” Quinn said. “There were those in his party who were saying that was not the right way to go, and frankly, there are those out there who said I should not sign the bill. Well, they are wrong — and they will be proven wrong today, tomorrow, and for years to come.”

Even as the “veto session” began in October, doubts remained about whether the bill would be called for vote this year and if it would pass out of the House. On the first day of the session, thousands flooded the Illinois Capitol in Springfield for a rally and march for marriage equality. Quinn recalls it as one of his fondest moments throughout the journey to the bill’s passage, even though it was cold and rained for the duration of the demonstration.

“I just cannot forget the rally and hugging people who were soaking wet,” he told BuzzFeed. “To me, that is struggle. They were willing to go through whatever it took to pass the law, and I admire that and will always salute that.”

“All the people who worked together on this, in their own ways, contributed to this democratic triumph,” he said.

With signing the bill Wednesday, Quinn hopes to solidify marriage equality as one of the top accomplishments in his political career.

“If you look at the history in all the states where this has been done,” Harris said, “whether Gov. Cuomo in New York or Gov. O’Malley in Maryland, it took the power and the might of the governor’s office to help move all of these bills along.”

Quinn teased a number of surprises for the bill-signing ceremony, including hints of special guests singing the national anthem and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and key speakers. As for his remarks, Quinn, a Roman Catholic, said he will mention Paul from the New Testament and, of course, will invoke some of Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address, which turned 150 years old Tuesday.

“Lincoln, in his first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address, talks about liberty and equality, and that is what [signing the bill] is,” he said. “It’s a nation conceived in liberty, liberty for all, and equality; nobody is relegated to a second-class status when it comes to love. I think those are important paramount moments, being governor. It’s an honor to be governor, it’s a privilege to be governor.”

Same-sex couples can apply for marriage licenses beginning June 1.

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