More than 200 civil union licenses were issued in Cook County on Wednesday, the first day legal partnerships between same-sex were granted in Illinois.
Couples got an early start on the day, lining up around midnight outside the Cook County Clerk’s downtown office. The office opened an hour early in anticipation of a crowd, offering a gift package to the first couple and a raffle of other prizes donated by local businesses.
"This has been a long, long road. So many activists have worked in this state to get us to this day," said Janean Watkins, first in line with Lakeesha Harris. Watkins and Harris have been together for more than 10 years and raised six kids together.
At the end of the day, Cook County Clerk David Orr said a total of 203 licenses had been issued.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act in Janurary. Under the new law, gay and heterosexual couples can make joint financial and health care decisions, as well as medical decisions for a seriously ill partner.
"They would have automatic rights to inherit, even if one of them passes away without a will," said Camilla Taylor of Lamda Legal after Quinn signed the bill. " And of course the most important right, for many families, is the right to be parent."
Illinois is now one of six states that recognize civil unions. The Illinois law also covers opposite-sex couples who wish to legalize their partnership without a marriage.
Once a civil union license is issued, couples must wait at least one day before the ceremony is performed. A mass ceremony will be held Thursday in Millennium Park.
"I'm thrilled this day has finally come," Orr said in a statement. "This will be a joyous day for all couples -- gay and straight -- who want to make history as part of the inaugural group of civil unions."
Under the new law, any couple that entered into a same-sex marriage or civil union legally in any other state will be recognized as a civil union in the state of Illinois.
Supporters say civil unions are a matter of basic fairness for all Illinois residents, but opponents argue it threatens the sanctity of marriage and moves the state closer to legalizing same-sex marriage.
“For a lot of gay and lesbian couples, it's a validation," said Tracy Baim, publisher of the Windy City Times. "Whether they're going to take advantage of the law or not, it's availability that wasn't there before."
Last week, supporters and opponents of civil unions came out in dueling rallies downtown.
Americans for Life, a group aimed at legally defining marriage as being between a man and a woman started their protest in front of St. Peters Church and marched to the Thompson Center. Gay rights activists, including members of the Gay Liberation Network, LGBT Change and Join the Impact, held a counter protest across the street.