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Brown: Gay-rights failure is shameful

Updated: July 3, 2013 6:57AM

SPRINGFIELD — Lee Suarez and Char McAllister drove Friday morning to the state Capitol from the small southern Illinois town of Jerseyville, hoping for nothing more than to return home one step closer to being recognized as full and equal citizens of this nation.

Instead, the Illinois House of Representatives sent the two women away deeply disappointed. Those who participated in making it so should be just as deeply ashamed.

Suarez, 71, and McAllister, 60, were among dozens of gay and lesbian couples who traveled here in anticipation of state lawmakers at long last allowing them to be legally married.

They stood in the Capitol rotunda and sang “America the Beautiful” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” then sat patiently in the House gallery for eight hours while legislators droned through their other final business.

When Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the bill’s sponsor, finally rose to speak, they expected it was to bring the matter to a vote and that they would be witnesses to history.

But a choked-up Harris explained what others had been whispering all day — that history would need to wait. There would be no vote. Harris said some of the bill’s expected supporters had asked for a delay. They weren’t ready.

It was disappointing enough to Suarez and McAllister that they must continue to wait for the right to express their love in a manner that most of us take for granted. But like many in the audience, they found it especially painful they didn’t even get a vote to see where they stood — and who stood against them.

I found the weary couple afterward sitting on a stone bench back in the rotunda.

Suarez and McAllister told me they have been together for 32 years. They were wed in a civil union in 2011.

Jerseyville is a rural community of 8,500 residents just north of St. Louis.

“We live in a much different culture than Chicago,” McAllister allowed.

Before they applied for a civil union, they had to consider the fact that the license application would be published in the local newspaper and that everyone would know what they had long kept among their closest friends.

“It was kinda scary,” Suarez said.

I let that information sink in a little and thought about the difficulties the two women must have experienced in their lives as lesbians in a small town — and about the great changes, too.

Not that long ago they feared for their jobs if word of their sexual orientation reached the wrong people. Now they know it’s only a matter of time before marriage equality comes to Illinois as it already has to 12 other states.

But they also know the clock is ticking for them.

More than 10 years senior to McAllister, Suarez says she wants to be married in part to eliminate any doubts that her partner can make decisions on her behalf if she is unable. And she would like McAllister to receive her Social Security benefits, too.

“Every place we go, we carry a legal power of attorney in case one of us gets hurt,” Suarez said. “If you’re married, do you carry such a thing?”

More basically, though, they just want to be recognized as being the same as everyone else.

“We are like other families. We work hard. We pay taxes. We give back. We stand up for justice,” McAllister said.

I let that sink in a little bit, too. How many of us really do stand up for justice?

Suarez and McAllister only needed 60 state representatives to stand up for justice for them Friday, but it didn’t happen.

We are told there were tactical reasons for that decision. Given the uncertainty, it was better to wait to fight another day than to vote and possibly lose, in the process exposing allies to retribution and giving opponents a clear victory — or so goes the theory.

Others suggested it was more a matter of House Speaker Michael Madigan wanting to protect legislators who had been targeted by opponents of the bill — until after the fall deadline for candidates to file to run against them.

Many people feel threatened by individuals of the same sex getting married. Only a true coward would find anything threatening about Suarez and McAllister.

The Illinois General Assembly failed on many fronts this week, and in the arc of history, this particular failure will soon enough be erased.

But make no mistake: Good people were hurt and will continue to be until we stand up and make it right.

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