Beginning today, gay couples in the suburbs and all around Illinois could realistically consider something that was never open to them before -- a June wedding, or as close to that as state law will allow.
The new civil unions law took effect at midnight, and, while ceremonies cannot take place until Thursday, couples began lining up for their licenses almost immediately at courthouses in Cook and the collar counties.
It was familiar territory for Rosann Szalkowski and Barb McMillan, the first couple to get a license in DuPage County. For years, Szalkowski and McMillan would walk into the county clerk's Wheaton office on Valentine's Day and try to apply for a marriage license, only to be turned away.
Wednesday, they came away with the closest thing legally, their civil union license.
Civil unions give couples many of the rights that accompany traditional marriage. That includes the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner's property.
"It's almost overwhelming," said Szalkowski, 50, of Roselle, after she paid the $35 to pick up the license she and her partner have worked toward for years. "It feels very good to know that we've taken that first step. It's not marriage, but we get some rights and some recognition as being a valid couple."
In Lake County, Clerk Willard Helander, wielding a small digital camera, shot videos of couples as they applied for their licenses. Another employee, Cindy Pagano, took still photographs of the couples that will be available on the clerk's Facebook page and sent to the couples.
"This is history," Pagano noted between photographs.
Michele and Shannon Fagiano, who have been together for 13 years, arrived at the Lake County government center at 5:30 a.m., three hours before the office opened.
"It's an important day," Michele Fagiano said. "We've been waiting for a long time."
Frances Monaghan, who applied for a license with her longtime partner Laura Garrard, of Winthrop Harbor, said getting a license is "something that needed to be done."
"We're family," she said.
Cook County's vital records office downtown opened early, at 7:30 a.m., and will stay open until 7 p.m. to accommodate couples. Officials said they expect to give out about 2,000 licenses in the first day.
At the courthouse in Rolling Meadows, Lisa Notarnicola, 48, and her partner, Peggy Ognacevic, 56, both of Algonquin, were waiting when the doors opened to apply for their license. They plan on a formal ceremony in July with their pastor in Hoffman Estates.
"It's been a long journey for us," Notarnicola said.
Lakeesha Harris, who was waiting downtown with longtime partner Janean Watkins, expressed comments commonly heard at courthouses throughout the suburbs. She said she no longer feels like a second-class citizen in the eyes of the law.
"We've been ostracized and relegated to the bottom rung of society. I feel like this is some sort of justice for us, for our family," said Harris, 36. "I'm so grateful. I'm thankful. There are so many things going through my mind right now."
Michael VanDekreke of Crystal Lake, who got his civil union license today at the McHenry County courthouse with partner Dale Lenig, had similar thoughts.
"It's more about the ability for people who are in love to have some kind of recognition," he said.
The day was not one of celebration everywhere in the suburbs, however.
A representative of the Illinois Family Institute, a Carol Stream organization promoting a traditional view of marriage and family, called this "a lamentable day in Illinois."
"The civil union ... institutionalizes the belief that procreative potential is in principal irrelevant to marriage; that gender is irrelevant to marriage; that gender is irrelevant to parenting; that children have no inherent, unalienable right to be raised when possible by their biological parents; that volitional homosexual acts are inherently moral; and that marriage is solely a private enterprise constituted by only the subjective feelings of the parties involved," Laura Higgins, an IFI spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement.
Calling for repeal of the law, the statement asserted that gay activists have quickly moved to interpret it beyond its original intent and threaten to interfere with the rights of religious social service agencies that oppose permitting gay couples to adopt children.
Daily Herald staff writers Russell Lissau, Jameel Naqvi, Robert Sanchez, Ashok Selvam, James Fuller and the Associated Press contributed to this story.