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Lawmaker's engagement spotlights gay marriage
By Chase Castle | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/28/2010 4:43 PM | Updated: 4/28/2010 6:45 PM

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SPRINGFIELD - A Republican from the suburbs toasted a fellow lawmaker's gay marriage announcement Wednesday and suggested that fellow Republicans rethink their stances on social issues in order to connect with voters.

Chicago Democratic state Rep. Deborah Mell appeared on the state House floor Wednesday with her fiancé, Christin Baker, to announce their official engagement a few weeks prior.

State Rep. Mark Beaubien of Barrington Hills was the only Republican in the House to offer public praise to Mell - a gesture he said dated back to when the two lawmakers both rented rooms at the Pasfield House Inn near the Capitol and formed a friendly professional relationship.

"I had the honor of walking over with (Rep. Mell to the Capitol) and have grown very, very fond of her, and I just wanted to wish her and Christin the best in the future," said an emotional Beaubien. "I know you'll do quite well, and one of my signs I see every morning: 'Live your own life, speak your own truth.'"

Beaubien later acknowledged that his comments were rooted in a broader issue, the waning electoral strength of Illinois' Republican party.

"This is an issue that the party ought to get off of," Beaubien said of the GOP's traditional opposition to gay marriage. "It's a whole different mindset than when I was young."

Beaubien said he understands the polarization of issues like abortion, which inevitably moves people in one of two directions.

"But what do you care what two grown adults do?" Beaubien said. "It just makes us look more strident than we probably should."

A 1996 state law specifically defines marriage as applying only to a man and a woman, and Illinois does not allow civil unions for same-sex couples. Only five states and the U.S. Capital permit either gay marriage or civil unions.

Mell said she's disappointed her marriage cannot take place in her home state, forcing her instead to marry in Iowa in the fall of 2011.

"Iowa's a great place - I went to school in Iowa," Mell said in a brief speech on the House floor. "But it isn't the state where I grew up - and it isn't the state where my family and friends live."

Mell said their engagement came from a desire to have their relationship recognized beyond the confines of a "girlfriend" or "partner."

"This is a decision we don't take lightly," she said, citing legal benefits afforded to officially married gay couples. "But it also is the highest level of commitment two people can make to each other. It has been amazing how differently people treat us since we've gotten engaged."

Immediately following Mell's announcement, a standing ovation started among House Democrats, and slowly seeped across the aisle to a select number of Republicans.

Mell, along with Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris of Chicago, is one of just two state lawmakers who are openly gay. In fact, Mell co-sponsored legislation last year to legalize "civil marriages" for gay couples, but that legislation stalled in committee. Beyond gay rights, Mell's name often is mentioned in tandem with her notable relatives. She is the daughter of influential Chicago alderman Dick Mell, and the sister-in-law of indicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Democrat from Northbrook, applauded Mell's announcement and echoed the sentiment that lawmakers should re-evaluate their position on gay marriage.

"This is something that the state of Illinois ought to be celebrating and recognizing as you build a life as Illinois residents and taxpayers together," she said.

Beaubien said there's little chance lawmakers will legalize civil unions let alone gay marriage in the near future, especially in a year when political pundits wager that the Democratic majority party will lose seats in both chambers.

Although Beaubien said he would vote for measures legalizing civil unions, he wouldn't sponsor that legislation. Members of his conservative home district were upset when Beaubien sponsored comparable legislation from former Democratic state Rep. Larry McKeon that banned professional discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"They really get after you," Beaubien said.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.