One great aspect of my job is that I get to pick what I write about. Another is that I get asked to do things. I had no intention of attending Wednesday's signing of the bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois—I've kinda covered that topic. But my boss asked me to go, and I'm a "Give the lady what she wants" kind of employee. So I hopped on the Divvy and rode down to the UIC Forum. It was fun—I knew a lot of people there. And the room was suffused with a very warm, boisterous and happy spirit. It was impossible not to contrast the humanity and serious purpose of the people there, celebrating family and life, with the unhinged emails I've been getting from cramped religious fanatics, foaming in detail about the sexual practices that obviously obsess them. Makes you wonder which side is listening to the spirit of God, and which is really possessed by the devil.
Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president, said it best:
“Throughout our nation’s history, individuals and groups have fought for equal protection under the law,” she told the thousands of jubilant witnesses gathered Wednesday at the UIC Forum to witness same-sex marriage signed into Illinois law. “The battles to define a person, a citizen, a voter, a marriage. As a history teacher, I firmly believe that marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our time.”
To her right at the podium were most of the top government leaders in Illinois — not only Gov. Pat Quinn, who would minutes later sign the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act on the desk that Abraham Lincoln used to write his first inaugural address, but Speaker Michael Madigan, his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and dozens of state legislators and constitutional officers.
You could view it as a political victory for gay people. Or as one step in the very long historical process to which Preckwinkle alluded.
Once upon a time, everyone stayed in place. To see the remnants all you have to do is look at your last name — the Bakers and Farmers, Smiths and Taylors, were once the actual bakers and farmers, smiths and tailors, professions of locked-in subjects who wouldn't dream of trying to fill any other role than what your father or mother did, the only thing God and tradition intended them to do.
But some chafed under that. They wanted to be free. And they forced change.
And that is the entire story of modern life, the past 300 years at least. Institutions and rituals, religions and kings, laws and traditions, slowly yielding to the relentless pressure of the individual yearning for liberty. Yearning to be themselves or, more accurately, yearning to be something else. First the serfs objected to being serfs, and people from dominated countries tired of being dominated. Religions that weren't the main religion asked why they couldn't worship in their desired way. Women, minorities, children, each one being recognized, after years of argument, protest, struggle, to be welcomed by some, held back by others who pointed at the past as the only true and acceptable map for the future.
And now gays and lesbians, today in Illinois. Quinn, an honorable man, a practicing Roman Catholic, following the strong tradition of that religion toward social justice, signed a law in Illinois so that, as Emanuel noted, "There is no straight, or gay marriage; from now on there is only marriage in Illinois." In June, men can marry the men they love, and women can marry the women they love, just the way it has always been for heterosexual couples.
As we move forward, we might ask ourselves: Why were these fellow citizens held down so long? For what reason? In the distant past, it might have been limited resources, the need for someone to do the scutwork for free. More recently, perhaps some basic human need to hate and fear somebody. And ignorance that was swept away by realizing that this oppressed group includes our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, or friends and parents. Gays and lesbians, in freeing themselves, offer the entire society a chance to understand itself better.
So applause to gays and lesbians, for achieving a victory that their forebears could hardly dream of. And applause for the straight community, for sharing — grudgingly, gradually, true, but sharing eventually — the precious gift of sweet daily life, of recognized married relations and solid family life, of acceptance and normality. Because it isn't just homosexuals freed here, but all society, wriggling from the grasp of a powerful, destructive, long-term, hateful bias. Not fully, God knows. But a big step, another big step, in a journey of many steps, big and small.
This is is the moment in the wedding when the solemnities are done, the cleric closes the prayer book and smiles; the groom, or I suppose now the bride, steps on the glass - symbolizing a break with past sorrows and a bright future; the world shifts, slightly, and everybody cheers.