From AP - News Headlines -

Civil Union Bill Wins House Approval

The Illinois House approved legislation Tuesday night that would position Illinois to become the sixth state to allow gay couples to enter civil unions.

An emotionally charged Illinois House narrowly approved the measure Tuesday night. Civil unions are not marriage, but under the proposal, same sex and heterosexual couples who enter one would receive many of the benefits - including hospital visitation and the power of attorney.

State Representative Deborah Mell (D-Chicago) said those are rights she is now denied because Illinois does not legally recognize her relationship with her partner.

"After six years of building a life together, committing our lives to each other," Mell said. "We have a strong faith in God and in family. And after all that we are still not considered family. And I assure you, we are a family. And we deserve the same rights that you enjoy."

Larry McKeon became Illinois' first openly gay legislator when he was elected to the Illinois House in 1996. He is not around to see his successor, Democratic Representative Greg Harris, usher through the legalization of civil unions. McKeon died a couple years ago from a sudden stroke, but his legacy played a role in the measure's passage ... as Harris recounted a tale of how McKeon tried to visit his longtime partner in intensive care.

"The hospital turned Larry away," Harris said. "They said he did not have the proper documentation with him. They did not consider him next of kin. He would have to go home. He would have to go home and find the documents."

By the time McKeon returned with paperwork proving his status, Harris said, McKeon had missed his partner's passing by mere minutes.

"Should anyone have to be absent from the side of the person they most love in life because they don't have access to the proper paperwork at the right time," he said. "Should this not be a right that every person in Illinois be granted?"

If the civil unions measure becomes law ... it will no longer be an issue. Harris lists the benefits it would trigger: "To participate in health care decision-makings, it would allow them to share a nursing home room, it would allow them to be the first in line to make a disposition about their partners' remains when he or she dies, and it would allow them rights in probate."

Harris, who is openly gay, noted that it is not just for same sex couples. It applies to heterosexual ones too. He said many elderly couples don't want to take on a spouse late in life because a new marriage would cut into their social security payouts.

Harris estimated that it is these heterosexual senior citizens who will most take advantage of civil unions. Entering one will be similar to getting married - couples would pay a county clerk for a license. Dissolving the partnership would require a legal proceeding similar to a divorce. There are differences. Only married people can get perks like filing joint income tax returns. Illinois law does, and still would, define marriage expressly as between a man and a woman.

However, critics like David Reis, a Republican representing the Effingham area ... say with approval of civil unions, Illinois is on a direct path to gay marriage. He warned its passage will lead to equal rights lawsuits that could result in a court order requiring Illinois let same sex couples marry.

"And it won't take long for your people back home to know that your vote tonight, while for civil unions and individual rights and hospital visitations, was really a vote for same sex marriage in Illinois," Reis said. "I don't think we're ready for this, I don't think the people of Illinois want this just yet."

Another Republican, Ron Stephens of Greenville, said allowing civil unions may contribute to the crumbling of America's future.

"If you look at the sociological history of a society that has failed, what are some of the commonalities," Greenville asked. "One of those is that open homosexuality becomes accepted in the higher society. Whether it's in Greek times, the Romans or others. And here we are at the precipice again."

Despite advocates' claims to the contrary, critics also say extending insurance and pension benefits to partners will hurt government and businesses' bottom lines. Opponents had cranked up their protest in advance of the debate with such arguments. Prominent Catholics, like the head of the Chicago Archdiocese, Cardinal Francis George, repeatedly called legislators, trying to sway them to vote no. Nonetheless, with a vote of 61 to 52 a solitary vote over the required amount it passed.

While Democrats were the main backers, handful of Republicans including Lake County's Mark Beaubien also lent their support.

"I don't think this is a partisan issue," Beaubien said. "I respect everybody's opinion on this and their believes. My only statement is there comes a time. And for those of you that are on the fence. Now is the time to support this bill."

Charlie Beall was in the House gallery watching it all happen.

"I was the first kid in my school to actually come out of the closet," he said.

The Senate is poised to take up the proposal Wednesday and its passage is expected. As Governor Quinn is an outspoken backer, it's likely to become law.

Beall is now a 19-year old student at Heartland Community College in Normal, but looks back at when he was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school. Just weeks after the football season ended, he first told his friends and family he was gay.

"Well, actually I was going to see my first boyfriend and I was on a date with him - not him," Beall explained. "I lied to my parents because I didn't want them to know."

After his parents discovered he had faked an alibi, Beall said he broke down, and began to hear hear taunts of "fagot" or "queer" when he walked down his high school's hallways. He said with the House's approval of civil unions, he is hopeful that mentality will not continue much longer.

"just the fact that I have almost the same rights as everyone else now," he said. "It changes a lot. And hopefully when I'm having children, my kids won't even know what that was like. To be repressed in a way."

Despite Beall's positive take is that some gay rights activists say they will not be satisfied until they get all of the rights afforded to heterosexuals, namely the right to marry. They say by supporting civil unions, they are settling for inequality.

The Senate's poised to take up the proposal Wednesday, and it's expected to win approval there as well. As Governor Quinn is an outspoken supporter, it's likely to become law. Quinn said it is an important civil rights issue, and called passing it the "right thing to do.