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Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005 03:03 am

Tying the knot

Last February, after losing Curt Sills, his partner of 10 years, to cancer, Springfield resident Randy Walden sent an angry missive to St. John’s Hospital in which, he says, he complained of “appalling, inexcusable treatment.”

It was more than just the cold stares and raised eyebrows Walden says he received from nurses and doctors at the hospital when they learned that he was gay.

On the last night of Sills’ life, Walden says, he was not allowed to stay in the room with him. And the next morning, when it became clear that Sills was dying, the hospital called his parents to warn them of his condition but never informed Walden.

Walden later filed complaints against St. John’s with the Illinois Hospital Association and Illinois Nurses Association, but nothing came of them.

A St. John’s spokesman said the hospital has no record of Walden’s complaint.

“It’s a case of a lack of professionalism and bigotry, as far as I’m concerned,” said Walden, a registered nurse, discussing his experiences during a gay-rights forum held last week at University of Illinois at Springfield. The discussion focused on same-sex marriage, marriage equality, and obstacles faced by gay and lesbian families.

Other panelists included a lesbian couple, a U of I professor, a local church leader, and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal defense Fund.

The event, attended by about 40 people, was held just two days before Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law a landmark bill that bans discrimination against homosexuals in matters of housing, employment, and credit.

“What we’re doing today is as old as the scripture — love thy neighbor,” Blagojevich said of the new law, which amends the state Human Rights Act to include gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered people to the list of protected groups. Gay-rights advocates had pushed for similar versions of the bill since 1976.

The law’s speedy passage in the final two days of the 93rd General Assembly surprised many, coming so soon after the November election, in which the debate over “moral values” played a divisive role.

Some gay-rights advocates are now fearful of a backlash against the new anti-discrimination law, expecting conservative lawmakers to increase pressure for Illinois to join the 11 other states that have recently passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

“I think this session we’ll be on the defensive fighting anti-gay legislation,” said Rick Garcia of Chicago-based Equality Illinois.

Opponents of the new law warn that it would force churches that disapprove of homosexuality to hire gays and lesbians. They also say it could open the door to gay marriage, pointing to the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s controversial ruling last year.

Indeed, marriage has become the defining goal of the gay-rights movement, as was demonstrated at the UIS forum, where advocates began looking ahead to the next step in what many view as a modern-day civil-rights movement.

“As with any civil-rights issue, you win one thing at a time,” Walden said. “The new law is not enough; it’s not even close — but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Illinois lawmakers were careful to distinguish between sanctioning gay marriage and protecting basic civil rights. But same-sex partners will continue to suffer discrimination until they are afforded the many benefits reserved for married couples, said Ramona Faith Oswald, associate professor of family studies at U of I.

In more than 1,100 federal laws, marital status is a factor in the determination or receipt of benefits, rights, and privileges, said Oswald, pointing to research compiled by the federal government’s General Accounting Office.

They include such critical benefits as access to Social Security after a spouse’s death, access to health and life insurance through a spouse’s workplace, and automatic inheritance of shared assets after a spouse’s death.

Oswald also discussed the prevalence of homosexual partners who are rearing children.

Nationally, she said, a third of female-female households and more than 20 percent of male-male households are rearing kids. Those percentages are slightly higher in Illinois.

Sangamon County, she said, is home to an estimated 400 same-sex couples, according to Census Bureau data from 2000, and more than 100 minor children being reared in such households.

Oswald argued that such households have no impact on a child’s development or sexual orientation. In fact, she said, studies show that children raised in such households tend to be more tolerant and have better social skills.

“It’s the quality of relationships that matters for kids,” she said, “not the structures of their families.”

Rev. Martin Woulfe, pastor of Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation, shot down the perception of marriage as a long and unchanged institution.

As an example, Woulfe and others pointed to interracial marriage, which only became legal throughout the country in the late 1960s.

“The tradition of marriage has changed in our lifetime,” said Woulfe, who has led several same-sex marriage ceremonies [see Will Burpee, “A simple ceremony,” July 15]. “The idea of protecting this ‘tradition’ is really a misnomer.”

After the forum, Woulfe said that such public discussions would be critical to further progress in the gay-rights movement.

“It’s going to take a lot of engagement with other people, particularly those who are hostile to the notion of gay marriage,” Woulfe said.

“It’s a long process.”

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