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State Rep. Deborah Mell has legal gay marriage in Iowa

ChristBaker State Rep. Deborah Mell reveal they got married recently Iowa. Tuesday August 30 2011 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Christin Baker and State Rep. Deborah Mell reveal they got married recently in Iowa. Tuesday, August 30, 2011 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:30AM

State Rep. Deborah Mell (D-Chicago) quietly made Illinois history last week.

She got married.

To a woman.

Mell, 43, is the first high-profile elected official in the state to publicly enter into a same-sex marriage.

But she had to go to Iowa to do it.

It’s one of only six states plus the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal. A judge in Davenport performed their civil ceremony last Wednesday.

Mell’s wife of one week is Christin Baker, 36, a national director for the YMCA. They dated for seven years.

“Our relationship deserves marriage,” said a beaming Mell, her newly wedding-banded hand resting on Baker’s shoulder Tuesday. “That’s how I feel about it. I mean there was a time in our relationship where it just wasn’t right to call Christin my ‘partner’ or my ‘friend’ . . . or even my ‘civil-unionized partner.’ You know she’s my wife. . . . We deserve those titles, those rights.”

Last November, Mell stood on the floor of the Illinois House and made an impassioned plea for lawmakers to pass, at the very least, a civil union bill. But not before Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Highland), among other opponents, expressed his strongly held view that “open homosexuality” was contributing to the decline of civilization.

And yet, in the aftermath of that historic debate, con­servative members of the General Assembly joined liberals as they embraced Mell and then-fiancee Baker, who was in the chamber, and offered congratulations on their engagement.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed the civil unions bill in January.

A Gallup poll in May reported that for the first time, a majority of Americans — 53 percent — support the right of same sex couples to marry.

Another instance, it seems, where the people have moved ahead of the politicians.

Mell and Baker, back home in Chicago now, are preparing for a blessing ceremony of their marriage next week, when family and friends gather for an Episcopal mass. Under Illinois law, it cannot be a wedding.

“Their Iowa marriage is deemed to be a civil union under Illinois law,” said Christopher Clark, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal, a national civil rights organization.

What does it really matter?

It matters a lot.

Under the national Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996, civil unions or same-sex marriages legalized by states don’t carry the same rights and privileges that exist under federal law for married couples. That includes spousal access to Social Security in the event one dies and the ability to file joint federal tax returns.

Though the movement toward equality between gay and straight couples is undeniable, things are by no means equal yet.

But back to the story of Deborah Mell and Christin Baker — and the evident happiness of two people deeply in love.

Until recently, little girls, if they were lesbian, didn’t dare dream of a walk down the aisle some day. Which might explain why Mell and Baker didn’t think to contact a bridal shop to order outfits until just three weeks ago — when they were promptly told that no order could possibly be processed that fast.

“We headed to J. Crew instead,” said Baker, laughing.

And when it comes to the vows, “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse,” it’s safe to say they’ve already been tested.

Mell is, after all, the daughter of longtime 33rd Ward boss Dick Mell. And the sister-in-law of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who in October will be sentenced to federal prison on corruption charges. Deborah sat protectively beside her sister, Patti, through two grueling federal trials. Baker was often there as well.

Being in this family, let alone marrying into this family, is not for the faint of heart. But next week, they will all join together for a far different purpose.

“I know Patti is happy for us,” Mell said. “And the girls are standing up in our wedding and they have their dresses. . . . My whole family is just really thrilled and Rod is really happy to be there and be a part of it. . . . We are going through tough times ... [but] it does not at all put a cloud over our ceremony. Everyone is just really thrilled for us.”

See more on this story on the WMAQ-Channel 5 newscast at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

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