Garcia, Staerk discuss Illinois marriage equality after suburban “8” performance

Caroline Staerk (left) and Rick Garcia (right). Photo: Tony Merevick.

NAPERVILLE, Ill. — Two of the state’s top LGBT rights activists led a short discussion on the progress of Illinois marriage equality following a reading of “8” at Center Stage Theater in west suburban Naperville Thursday.

Rick Garcia, policy director at The Civil Rights Agenda and Caroline Staerk, director of field programs at Equality Illinois, answered questions from the audience of over 50 gathered for the performance of “8,” which chronicles the long legal battle over California’s Proposition 8, written by Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black.

Some audience members asked questions about the prospect of marriage equality in Illinois following successful ballot measures in four states to approve it in the recent General Election and both activists were quick to note the conducive legislative climate in the state and, at the same time, the challenges of progress.

“We are at such an exciting time when it comes to marriage equality,” Garcia said. “It’s the first time in history that we achieved marriage equality by popular vote. This is a sea change.”

Both Garcia and Staerk marveled at the rate of progress at the national level.

“We went from six states to 10 states,” Garcia said. “I remember when there was one. I remember when there was none.”

At a local level, Staerk said “the tide is shifting” for marriage rights in Illinois, but it will only be won when enough people call their legislators and demand their support for a marriage equality bill. Garcia agreed, telling the audience that equality won’t be won merely by people like himself and Staerk in Springfield and Chicago.

“This is not going to be won in Boystown in Chicago, it’s not going to happen in Chicago. It’s going to happen here,” Garcia said. “This is where the rubber hits the road.”

Garcia said he thinks a marriage equality bill likely won’t get called in the state legislature until Spring, despite talks of it coming up in the lame duck session — simply because the votes aren’t there.

“We need 60 votes in house, we need 30 votes in the senate,” he said. “We are getting close.”

Currently, Illnois same-sex couples can be officially recognized by the state in a civil union, which affords much of the same benefits of a legal marriage in the state, but not all. In fact, Staerk said Equality Illinois used its civil unions tracker to record problems that couples in unions face all across the state.

“We went back and asked couples what the differences [between civil unions and marriage] were,” Staerk said. “Much of what they said was the word marriage. There is still a lot of issues with that. There is still not a lot of understanding when it comes to that.”

However, the majority of people understand the word marriage, she said.

Much of the challenge in ensuring the potential passage of marriage equality in Illinois came in returning the legislators who voted for civil unions two years ago to office in the following elections, Garcia said.

“If [the legislators] all got back, we would come back to them [for their support],” he said. “We came out really, really well. Nobody lost a seat because they voted for civil unions.” In fact, Illinois elected its fourth openly-gay state representative last Tuesday, Sam Yingling of Grayslake.

At the end of the conversation, Garcia was asked if religious leaders will be penalized by the state if they refuse to allow a same-sex marriage in their facilities should it be legal in the state, to which he suggested that religious leaders are exaggerating those claims.

“Lies take on the appearance of truth,” he said. “There’s not a single religious leader who is going to go to jail, but there certainly are some places I’d like to put them!”

“It’s such an offensive lie,” Garcia said.

The two speakers briefly touched on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, and the reasons behind starting with civil unions in the state instead of full marriage equality.

Ben Brooks and his partner, Joe Pittman asked Garcia and Staerk what would happen to their civil union if they are able to get married one day. The legislation that will come up for vote, they said, will have provisions for that.

“We are very encouraged by the marriage wins in other states,” Brooks told Chicago Phoenix. “[The new progress] is really undeniable. I’m glad that Mitt Romney is not president.”

In response to Garcia’s claim that equality will be won outside of Chicago, Brooks noted the divisions between the city’s LGBT community and the communities in the suburban areas.

Pittman, however, said that progress will come with outreach and education — especially around religion.

“I think this has a lot to do with religion,” Pittman said. “It’s interesting that this [performance] is in a church setting. Religion is such a turnoff for some gay people.”

Indeed, the performance was put on by Hope United Church of Christ, The American Foundation for Equal Rights and Broadway Impact.

“You’re not exposed to religion being accepting,” Pittman said.