BELLEVILLE – A few years into their relationship, Sabra Blumhorst and Chelsea Baker exchanged wedding vows, never mind the couple's November nuptials weren't legally recognized in Illinois. Civil unions didn't interest the Carbondale couple, who long had hoped to have a legal marriage.
"I felt very strongly that if we can't be married-married, I'm not going through the steps of the interim process of separate but equal," Blumhorst, who now uses the surname of her five-year partner, said Wednesday. "I wanted complete equality, and we decided to wait."
The waiting ends Sunday, when Illinois' 102 counties may begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Gay couples and gay-rights advocates across the state will mark the date with blessing ceremonies and group weddings, and several county clerks offices will make an exception and offer office hours that day for license-seekers unwilling to wait until Monday morning.
The moment is being heralded by many as another milestone in their decades-long quest for equal rights – even if the statewide rollout is a bit anticlimactic. Gov. Pat Quinn signed the gay-marriage law in November – shortly after the Blumhorst-Baker wedding, of sorts – and set June 1 as its effective date. But since a federal court ruling declared Illinois' original ban unconstitutional in February, 16 counties have been issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
Equality Illinois, a gay-rights advocacy group, estimates about 1,300 same-sex licenses have been issued statewide, more than 1,110 of those in Cook County.
Most of the state's remaining 86 counties opted to wait until the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act officially takes effect, in some cases worried that early issuances could trigger lawsuits and perhaps cause legal problems for the couples.
Under February's ruling, thousands of same-sex couples already in civil unions instantly became eligible to convert those into legal marriages, with the option of making their wedding date retroactive to when their civil union took place. By law, couples granted licenses must wait a day before actually following through with the wedding.
Montgomery County's Sandy Leitheiser is among the handful of county clerks planning to give up their Sunday to process marriage-license applications. She said she didn't know how many couples could show up in her largely rural, coal-mining, south-central Illinois county, where 11 couples are in civil unions.
"I'm here to uphold the law of Illinois," Leitheiser said, "and if there's a way to accommodate couples based on need and special circumstances, I'm available."
Meanwhile, the clerk in Sangamon County – home to the capital city of Springfield – began issuing the licenses Friday.
"A lot of people have worked very hard for this day, and me and Chelsea are just pleased as punch," said Blumhorst, a 31-year-old Carbondale coffeehouse barista who along with Baker, 24, expects to get a marriage license within days. "Others in the queer community think we should fight for other rights first. While I agree to that to an extent, I feel we should make strides where we can."
In Belleville, Jerry Angevine has shared the past 25 years with fellow retiree Rick Carr, an Air Force veteran. Long having shelved any idea of getting a civil union, the men – both in their 60s with children from previous marriages – chose to wait until marriage became a right.
They got their marriage license Wednesday, Angevine said, giddy about their plans next Saturday for what he says will be their "low-key" wedding at their home.
"We did it our way," he said. "Just because you're gay doesn't mean you're lower class. We have the right to be treated like everyone else. We are human beings."
In Carbondale, retired social services worker Duane Cole and partner Joe Powers are ahead of the curve: They converted their 3-year-old civil union into a bonafide marriage in March. Doing so, they say, gives them more decision-making rights as a couple on such matters as inheritance and health care.
Their latest mission: Jointly refiling their federal tax returns from the past three years.
Legalizing gay marriage "is really a tremendous step forward," Cole said. "Does that mean that from coast to coast and across the board, we're going to experience equality? Of course not. That will take time."