This Pride Month, The Alestle offers a look back at the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state of Illinois, and one of the couples that helped pave the way for the LGBTQ community.
Robyne O’Mara and her wife, Lynne Burnett, who are both from Godfrey, Illinois, met in 1980 at an unlikely location.
“We like to tell people we met in the Girl Scouts, because we did, although people usually assume we were kids,” Burnett said. “I was the business manager of the camp, and Robyne was the nurse.”
Burnett and O’Mara began dating, which was legally all they could do. That began to change when O’Mara received a phone call one day.
“It was about 2009 when I got a call at work from an attorney at Lambda Legal,” O’Mara said. “They asked if me and my wife [then girlfriend] would be a plaintiff couple for marriage equality in the state of Illinois. Of course, we knew this was an active thing that people were trying to do, and we’d been watching it with a lot of interest. We were surprised that they reached out to us. To this day, we never got a good reason. Overall, there were 25 couples in Illinois, some with the ACLU, and some of us with Lambda.”
O’Mara and Burnett said they were happy to be a part of this legal battle. Lambda Legal and the ACLU moved quickly, but at one point, according to Burnett, the legal battle paused momentarily.
“Lambda came to our house with a video crew. They talked to us and interviewed us,” Burnett said. “Then, in the legislature, they were starting to talk about same-sex civil unions. So, the lawyers on our side had to revamp what they were going to do and they asked [the plaintiff couples] to get a civil union.”
In June 2011, Illinois legalized same-sex civil unions. O’Mara said this was not better, though she and Burnett expected it to be.
“The attorneys at Lambda asked [all the plaintiff couples] to get civil unions with the new law, and they said they’d come back to us in a year and asked how it was working, and if it felt equal, and I thought that was it, I didn’t expect them to come back. But it was not equal,” O’Mara said. “For example, at my workplace, a civil union was supposed to be legally equivalent to marriage. So, after we got the civil union, I asked to put Lynne on my insurance, since technically we were married on a legal level, but they denied me. It just doesn’t work. It’s not the same thing.”
When the legal battle resumed a year later, Burnett recalled the specifics of the laws.
“There were two fronts. It was a lawsuit against Cook County and the state of Illinois. You have to pick somebody to sue to push for something like this, and all of the plaintiffs together picked the Cook County Circuit Clerk.” Burnett said. “The legislative front was the second one. We had to get both to get married. We needed the state to allow us to marry, and the county clerks to certify it. All 25 couples had to go to the county clerk up in Cook County at different times, and we had to wait in the office, and get denied a marriage license.”
O’Mara said getting denied the marriage license was the most important part, though she found it funny when looking back.
“We had to go up there, just so they could say no to us,” O’Mara said. “I remember the receptionist was this young girl, probably about 18. We went up and asked for a marriage license, and she tried explaining it to us. She talked about how she wanted to give us the license but couldn’t. And we were sitting there, like, ‘We know.’ The people in line behind were getting into it, too, saying things like, ‘Why can’t you give it to them? Let them have it, it’s okay!’ The girl was confused, as were the people in line, and they were all on our side, too.”
Then, after protests, legal battles and more, in February 2014, same-sex marriage was made legal in the state of Illinois. O’Mara said the specifics of the law made her and Burnett very happy.
“When the law passed in Illinois, it made any marriages retroactive to the date of their civil unions. So, we went to bed, woke up, and we had been married for two and a half years,” O’Mara said. “Governor Quinn, who was Illinois’ governor at the time, was the only one that did this, out of any state. I thought it was very considerate.”
When it was all said and done, O’Mara and Burnett were overjoyed they managed to help the future of the LGBTQ community, and that feeling only got stronger when gay marriage was legalized nationally.
“Through most of our time together, marriage was never an option,” O’Mara said. “We didn’t expect to even see it in our lifetime. We thought it might happen to other people, in the next generation. We’re so happy to see other couples get married thanks to our hard work.”
Burnett and O’Mara will celebrate 40 years together this July.