For well over 30 years, whenever the subject of gay rights came up in the Illinois General Assembly, legislators ran away in droves.
The excuses were always the same.
Homosexuality is immoral, so religious businesses owners shouldn’t have to hire a gay person, or serve a lesbian in his restaurant, or sell one of “those people” a home. The state shouldn’t “condone” this immoral act by passing such a law.
Besides, they said, Illinois just wasn’t ready to provide the same protection for gays as everybody else.
It’s been a long road.
Way back in 1819, a year after Illinois became a state, a law was passed setting the criminal penalty for sodomy between two males at 1 to 5 years in prison, plus 100 to 500 lashes with a whip and a fine of up to $500.
In 1845, the state kind of evolved a little and removed the flogging and the fine. But the Legislature also increased the prison term to one year to life.
That penalty was “softened” in 1874 to 10 years maximum behind bars, with no minimum imprisonment specified.
In 1919, a minimum of one year in prison was added to the penalty, where it remained in the statute books until 1961, when Illinois finally repealed its sodomy laws, the first state in the union to do so.
And the world did not end.
The issue of gay rights didn’t surface in the General Assembly until the late 1970s. But no gay-rights bill ever received more than 15 percent of the vote in the Illinois Legislature until 1991, when 40 House members and 21 senators voted for a bill. That was far short of the 60 and 30 needed to pass both chambers, but times were starting to change.
By 1998, things had progressed so far that Republican gubernatorial candidate George Ryan won some liberal Chicago wards because his Democratic opponent Glenn Poshard opposed gay rights.
Even so, no gay-rights bill ever made it to Ryan’s desk.
Conservative Republicans controlled the state Senate and the bill went nowhere. They did pass a bill protecting motorcyclists against discrimination, which Ryan used his amendatory veto powers to rewrite into a gay-rights bill. His proposal died.
When the Democrats won control of the Senate in the 2002 election, gay-rights proponents thought their path to victory looked clear. But it took more than two years before the Senate went along with the House and approved a gay-rights bill.
And the world did not end.
Not only that, but not a single legislator lost a re-election campaign based on a vote for that gay-rights bill.
Six years later came the civil unions bill.
Oh, how our world would surely crash if gays were allowed to legally consummate their relationships, we were told.
The bill passed in January of 2011 and was signed into law. No legislator who voted for civil unions lost in the next election.
The only serious consequence of the civil unions law was that the state stopped giving Catholic Charities’ adoption program any taxpayer funds after the group refused to place children in the homes of gay civil union couples. Otherwise, the world kept spinning.
Now, it’s gay marriage. And the gnashing of teeth and predictions of imminent demise are all around us.
The Senate passed the bill with one Republican vote. The House will likely pass it this spring sometime.
And the world will not end.