Gay Marriage Push Looking to Unions, Immigrants
CHICAGO -- After their efforts to legalize gay marriage fizzled in Illinois this year, advocates gave their campaign a serious makeover: They called on unions, focused longer-term and recalibrated their message by using personal stories instead of civil rights comparisons.
It’s a formula picked up from their fellow activists who made Chicago an influential player in the push for immigrant rights.
Proponents will try again this fall to push gay marriage legislation through the Illinois Legislature, where they fell a few votes short in a Democrat-dominated state that’s been surprisingly resistant. But this time, they’re focusing less on lobbying lawmakers and more on priming the environment to make it easier for skittish legislators to cast favorable votes, taking cues from a movement that brought nearly 500,000 protesters to Chicago streets a few years ago and helped advance "Dream Act" goals this year.
"The immigration advocates, they really know how to get it done," said Jim Bennett, a director for Lambda Legal, a gay rights group that’s part of the Illinois Unites for Marriage campaign. "We have a lot to learn from them."
While social justice movements often borrow tactics from one another, experts agree the overlap in Illinois stands out among the 13 states that have embraced gay marriage - particularly in the union connections and emphasizing the development of young, long-term leaders.
At the heart of the renewed push is John Kohlhepp, a lobbyist for Illinois’ biggest state employee union. He was hired to lead a coalition that since June has grown from three organizations to roughly 50, including other unions, and raised roughly one-quarter of the campaign’s $2 million.
On the campaign trail, Kohlhepp’s energy ripples out to the nearly 20 field organizers who have been distributing leaflets at events this summer, including the State Fair and Chicago’s Bud Billiken Parade, the largest African-American parade nationwide. Kohlhepp’s cellphone rings constantly with contacts through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, from which he has taken a leave. A seasoned lobbyist, he marks time by counting the days to Oct. 22, when legislators return to Springfield.
His involvement shows the strongest link yet between unions and the gay marriage campaign, according to Mary Bernstein, a University of Connecticut sociology professor who tracks social movements. That relationship resonates in labor-friendly Illinois, where immigrant-rights activists and unions made early links that are now hard to separate.
Unions, for example, helped Illinois become the first state to challenge the federal e-Verify immigrant worker identification system, and workers’ groups have pushed for fair immigrant wages.
Bernstein said the Illinois collaborations appear to be an "innovation."
Nationally, the two movements have picked up ideas from one another before. Students without legal immigration status have "come out" in public ceremonies - Chicago was among the first to hold such events - and some immigrant activists say they look up to the late Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected politician and a renowned organizer.
The push for gay marriage in Illinois started in earnest after lawmakers approved civil unions in 2011. But after it passed the Senate, House sponsors ultimately declined to call a vote on the same-sex marriage bill before legislators adjourned in May.