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updated: 1/8/2013 6:00 AM

Society leads on gay-rights issues while 'leaders' dawdle

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  • Aurora couple Kirsten Lyonsford, left, and Tanya Lyonsford are the lone suburban members of a legal case on behalf of gay marriage filed by the ACLU and Lambda Legal.

      Aurora couple Kirsten Lyonsford, left, and Tanya Lyonsford are the lone suburban members of a legal case on behalf of gay marriage filed by the ACLU and Lambda Legal.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Civil rights in "Lincoln"

  • Video: Constitutional right to marry


Watching the movie "Lincoln," you see how President Abraham Lincoln took it upon himself to lead a wary nation and drag hesitant and timid lame-duck legislators into passing the monumental civil rights legislation that outlawed slavery.

That leadership is nowhere to be found when it comes to civil rights for gay Americans.

President Barack Obama, a former Illinois legislator who launched his presidential campaign in Springfield as Lincoln did, supports gay marriage rights. Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel do, too. Yet Illinois is expected to end another legislative session today without passing a gay marriage bill.

What are our legislators waiting for?

With most civil-rights issues -- slavery, voting rights for blacks and women, the end of segregation and the legalization of interracial marriage -- the majority of people weren't ready for the change. Our leaders in the executive branch, our legislature and the courts had to bring about the change and wait for the people finally to come around and accept it.

On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Virginia's ban on interracial marriages, declaring marriage "one of the basic civil rights of man" and "fundamental to our very existence and survival." When that case began in 1958 after Mildred (part black) and Richard (white) Loving were arrested on charges of violating the ban against interracial marriage, a Gallup poll showed that only 4 percent of Americans supported "marriages between white and colored people." Legal arguments noted God separated the races, and that man was overstepping his bounds by granting them civil rights. A century earlier, that same argument was used by people who wanted our nation to keep slavery.

By the time the Supreme Court got around to doing what was right with interracial marriage, the number of people who agreed with that decision had increased, but only to 20 percent. Nearly 25 years later, the number of interracial marriage supporters was still below 50 percent.

Today, that number is 86 percent, and society seems to have little respect for the 14 percent who still want to deny marriage rights to individuals on account of race.

That public-opinion pendulum already has swung in support of gay marriage. A recent Gallup poll suggests 53 percent of Americans support legalizing gay marriage, and the trend is overwhelmingly moving in support of gay rights. In the November election, voters in four states approved gay marriage or voted against bans of it. More and more openly gay politicians win elections.

Americans older than 65 are the only age group clearly opposed to gay marriage. Among people ages 18 through 29, 73 percent support gay marriage. The advance of civil rights is difficult to stop.

Yet our Illinois politicians still can't muster the courage to do what is right.

Supporters note that it's just a matter of time before Illinois legalizes gay marriage, maybe shortly after the new legislators are sworn in Wednesday. Or maybe after we solve the pension crisis, deal with gun violence or address other pressing needs. Civil rights are a pressing need. We shouldn't wait.

There are moments where chances are missed and stay missed. In the 1970s, when the nation seemed well on the way to passing a long-overdue Equal Rights Amendment writing the civil rights of women into our Constitution, the movement hit a bump. Traditionally a progressive state on the issue of civil rights, Illinois caved in to a strident opposition group led by future governor and prison inmate George Ryan and helped killed the ERA. Supporters vowed to return the following year, but a generation later, we still haven't made women's rights part of our Constitution.

Nine states already have granted civil rights to gay couples. Illinois must stop messing around with the civil rights of gays and legalize their marriages, not only for today's couples but also for the couples to come. History is going to wonder what took us so long.

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