What's the Hitch? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

What's the Hitch? 

Oak Park's same-sex couples puzzle activists by ignoring pioneering legislation that gives them the same rights as heterosexual marrieds.

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By Robert Recklaus

In September 1997, after an agonizing three-year debate, the Village of Oak Park's board of trustees established a Domestic Partnership Registry by a five-to-two vote. The registry gave gay and lesbian couples living in Oak Park the same rights and privileges married heterosexual residents had, including the right for both partners to attend parent-teacher conferences; the right to pay family-membership rates at Oak Park public facilities such as swimming pools; the right to be considered next of kin in legal documents sanctioned by the village; and the same rights as blood relatives to visit a patient in the emergency room or in intensive care.

Oak Park was the first town in Illinois to grant such recognition to same-sex couples. Partners who wanted to sign up had to be Oak Park residents, pay a $50 fee, have lived together during the previous six months, and be over 18 years of age, and neither could be married to another person.

One of the trustees who opposed the registry, Fred Pospisil, said he couldn't support it because it didn't extend the benefits to unmarried straight couples. "I'm not at all disappointed the registry passed," he told Oak Leaves, "but for a community that promotes equality and inclusion, here was a chance to put different-sexed, unmarried couples on the registry." Ray Johnson, cochair of the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association, responded, "They already have the option of getting legally married. We do not."

Another opponent, Bernard Abraham, dismissed the ordinance as "symbolic and foundationless as a civil rights cause" in a letter published in Oak Leaves. "The registry confers no privilege except permitting certain individuals the privilege of putting their name on file at village hall."

In January 1998 opponents of the registry organized a petition drive that forced the village to hold a nonbinding referendum on the issue. The vote was largely symbolic; if residents voted against the registry, the village trustees wouldn't have to reconsider their vote--though they would be pressured to do so.

Both sides poured money into the campaign. Rumors flew. Some said Oak Park would become known as "the place with the gay registry." Others said the public schools would have to have "homosexual enlightenment programs" and the registry would force "a homosexual agenda" on Oak Park's businesses, churches, and government institutions. "I heard that taxes would go up because of the registry, then I heard that taxes would go down," says Johnson. "They threatened lawsuits against the village and told people that the registry would turn Oak Park into another Key West."

In the end, 51 percent of voters supported the registry.

"It's amazing, considering the bitter debate over the registry at the time," says Johnson, "but there has been no public opposition to the registry since the referendum. It has been accepted by the community."

Assistant village clerk Jan Jankowski says at first a lot of people wanted to be on the registry. "The first couple weeks following the registry's passage," he says, "couples came in to sign up almost daily." Twenty couples registered in the fall of 1997. But, he says, "interest has waned to close to nothing since." Two years later a total of 40 same-sex couples have registered with the village. So far only two couples have registered in 1999. "Actually more people call to remove themselves from the registry because they have moved than call to add their names."

Johnson says that numbers aren't everything. "The success of the registry should be gauged by the effect it has had on people's lives and relationships," he says. "The registry has allowed lesbian and gay couples to become more committed to each other by allowing their relationship to be more public. Every registered couple I have talked to has their registration certificate framed and displayed prominently in their home and carry the wallet cards given to them by the village. I know the registry has been an absolute success when people tell me how it has allowed them to add branches to their family trees. This says that it not only has had a positive effect on the couples but their extended families as well."

Johnson also points out that the Oak Park YMCA decided to change its family-membership policy to include same-sex partners. "I am positive that the YMCA would not have changed its policy if not for the registry."

He blames the big drop in the number of couples registering on the village, saying, "There has been no promotion of the registry by the village since the registry went into effect."

Village clerk Sandra Sokol says, "We never said we would promote the registry. That is OPALAGA's responsibility. We are a government office--we don't advertise."

Jankowski says the village clerk's office now occasionally receives calls from other towns and cities in Illinois and across the country considering registries of their own. "Not too long ago an official from Milwaukee called the office inquiring about elements of our registry," he says. "I guess the idea is catching on."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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