When Geri Winters and Donna Corpolongo met 31 years ago as students at Western Illinois University, they say it didn't take long for them to know they were going to be together forever.
It was hard to imagine, though, that they'd ever be able to officially tie the knot.
"We were discouraged it might not happen in our lifetime," said Winters, who lives with Corpolongo in Lombard. "But we were passionate about it."
The couple decided to travel to Massachusetts in 2004 and get a marriage license when that state became the first in the country to legalize sex-same marriages. But they say they always hoped it would happen in their home state as well.
They got that wish Wednesday when Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation making Illinois the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriages. The bill signing took place in front of some 2,300 people at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum.
Winters and Corpolongo were two of those there, standing in the front row of a public viewing area, waving rainbow flags and cheering during remarks by Quinn and other elected officials.
When Quinn finally took his seat to sign the bill into law, he did so at a wooden desk used by Abraham Lincoln to pen his first inaugural address.
Winters and Corpolongo kissed.
"It's a pinch-me moment," Winters said. "We're recognized. It's real now."
The new law allows same-sex couples to marry beginning June 1, 2014. And it allows couples like Winters and Corpolongo, who got married in another state, to be recognized here.
The law also allows those who previously got a civil union in Illinois to get marriage licenses without having to pay the standard fee. They can also apply to their county clerk for a marriage certificate that would show them to be married as of the date they entered their civil union.
Another suburban couple at the bill-signing ceremony, Josie and Rachel Shattuck of Crystal Lake, entered into a civil union on April 28, 2012, at the McHenry County Courthouse. They say they could certainly fill out the necessary paperwork to make their civil union a marriage, but it's likely they'll do an official marriage ceremony.
"All of our family and friends want us to have another party," said Rachel Shattuck, 29.
For some there, the bill signing was the culmination of years of advocacy.
Vito Castanedo, 49, of Elk Grove Village traveled to Springfield in October to take part in a march with other supporters of legalized same-sex marriage. And he says all along he's made known his support for same-sex marriage on Facebook.
"This is the fruit of our labor," Castanedo said at the bill signing. "I figured it'd have to be a change in culture to see gay marriage. I'm glad to see it in my lifetime."
Leigh Hellman, 27, of West Chicago said she's also been advocating for same-sex marriage for years -- and it all started 10 years ago in the classroom of her senior year government class at West Chicago Community High School.
For a class project, all students had to draft a piece of mock legislation on an issue they were passionate about, debate it as a class, then take a vote.
Hellman's bill was to legalize same-sex marriage, which she says was a divisive issue among her classmates. But when it went up for a vote, it passed.
"There were people who were not OK with it, some people who were OK with it, and some people who changed their minds," Hellman said.
On Wednesday, Hellman said she was thinking of students sitting in government classes today.
"Now you don't have to have a class project," she said. "It's real."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.