Steven Rynes and Robert Smith dreamed of marrying one day in Illinois, their home state, but because the state’s General Assembly has continued to stall on a bill that would legalize marriage equality, that dream was cut short last week.
After battling Stage 3 melanoma for several months, Rynes died Sept. 10 at a Chicago hospital. He was 32.
Following Rynes’ death, the Illinois Unites for Marriage coalition produced a video recounting the couples’ story in hopes of raising additional awareness around the issue of marriage equality and persuading those who may be on the fence when it comes to supporting their effort to make it law.
“Marriage can’t wait,” the video declares.
In January, the couple joined together in a civil union — the highest legal recognition afforded to same-sex couples under Illinois law — because Rynes’ ailing health prevented them from crossing the border into Iowa, where marriage equality is legal.
“Steve was all about getting married — that was his thing,” Smith said. “He wanted that. He wanted that one thing in his whole life, and that was to get married.
Smith remembers the day when it he knew it would be too late for them to get married.
“One day, he was just like 1,000 times worse than he had ever been, and he never came back,” Smith said. “I mean, I took him to the emergency room and he lost the ability to speak and we weren’t even sure if he could hear or see or understand us. We never got our chance.”
After a Valentine’s Day victory in the Illinois Senate, the Illinois House was poised to vote on Senate Bill 10, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, but sponsoring lawmakers in the chamber were unable to secure the 60-vote majority the bill needed for passage before time ran out on the session May 31. The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), said he and his colleagues would vote on the bill this fall, during the legislative veto session. Several of the key people working on marriage equality efforts in the state have since raised questions about whether the veto session vote will go forward.
The marriage equality bill was heavily opposed by religious leaders from the African-American Clergy Coalition, an Illinois SuperPAC backed by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Cardinal Francis George, the the Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago, also lobbied against the bill, along with the Illinois Family Institute, a Christian conservative organization that has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I don’t think they realize that we’re real people,” Smith says in the video. “Thousands of us have probably missed out just in Illinois. I don’t understand the problem. People are dying without being equal.”
Because they were not married, Rynes and Smith were unable to access the federal benefits and protections afforded to married couples, including same-sex married couples, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to strike down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
“I don’t understand it,” Smith said. “And Steve didn’t understand it and he never will.”