Marriage equality has been making headlines across the country - from support for the right to marry being added to Democratic Party platform to the Chick-fil-A controversy over corporate funding of anti-gay hate groups and opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples. Yet sometimes, the most important stories are the personal ones behind the headlines, the stories that show the very real harm and struggles that same-sex couples face every day by being denied recognition for their relationships and families.
In its latest episode, the LGBT politics show Critical Thinking on Gay Chicago TV goes behind the headlines and looks at one of those very personal stories. Chicago, Illinois couple Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos have been together 20 years, with two children, 7 year old Ava and 4 year old Jaidon. When Jaidon was hospitalized near death for kidney failure, hospital administrators barred Theresa from entering unless she identified herself as a "stepmother," telling her Mercedes was already inside and Jaidon could only have one "real" mother. After that horrific experience, the couple has joined with 25 other gay and lesbian couples represented by Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois who have brought a lawsuit seeking to overturn Illinois' 16 year old ban on same-sex marriages.
The case is now moving through the courts rapidly, as Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan decided not to defend the state's ban on same-sex marriage and agree with the lawsuit that the ban is unconstitutional. Cook County Clerk David Orr, who is the subject of the original suits, also agrees that the current law is unconstitutional and refuses to defend it as well.
Yet now a judge has granted two downstate Illinois county clerks permission to defend the ban. The Thomas Moore Society, a conservative Chicago-based not-for-profit law firm that opposes gay marriage, filed that request to intervene on behalf of Effingham County Clerk Kerry Hirtzel and Tazewell County Clerk Christie Webb. The next court date has been set for Sept. 27.
But stories don't get more personal than this. Hearing the horrific story of Theresa and Mercedes, it quickly becomes clear that civil unions just aren't enough here in Illinois or anywhere. Opponents of full marriage equality for same-sex couples, like the National Organization for Marriage (which the episode also takes on), often ask why the LGBT community can't simply be happy with separate institutions and groupings of rights like civil unions and domestic partnerships. Well, we decided long ago that segmenting minorities out for separate treatment can never create equality - a fact demonstrated by a long-term, committed couple being denied access to their children during a life-threatening health crisis.
In fact, research has shown that in area after area -- whether tax law, health insurance, hospitalization, family issues, personal finance or actions by state and local officials - same-sex couples, even ones in civil unions, were either treated unequally or denied their basic rights, or singled out for discrimination. Civil unions create a lower class of recognition that, while providing much-needed rights and protections, reinforces the idea that LGBT relationships are less than their heterosexual counterparts. Creating this new, separate, and different level of rights and recognition among committed couples only creates further inequity, confusion, and discord, even internally among states that seek to expand rights like Illinois.
Hearing the story of couples like Theresa and Mercedes truly drives home why separate is never equal.