BELLEVILLE, Ill. (AP) - For Sarah Baldwin and Heather Sowell, receiving official recognition from Illinois that they are a couple after three years together was a long time coming. Yet they didn't mind standing in line for two hours early Wednesday to be the first same-sex couple in their county to get a license that allows them to legally unite.
The pair from southwestern Illinois joined scores of other couples who flocked to courthouses across Illinois, giddy with history and pride on the first day that the state allowed gay and lesbian couples to obtain licenses for civil unions - and hail what they called a victory for civil rights.
"I think it's an honor to do this, for historical reasons," Baldwin, 35, said moments before workers in the St. Clair County clerk's office slowly raised a grated metal window at a counter and declared to the five couples waiting that they were open for business.
Illinois has joined a handful of states and the District of Columbia in signing off on civil unions, giving same-sex couples many of the rights and significant legal protections that are afforded in traditional marriage. That includes the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner's property.
It was not immediately clear how many couples planned to make use of the law Gov. Pat Quinn signed in January, though more than 1,000 people attended recent forums on the measure.
Couples must wait a day after getting a license before they're allowed to hold a ceremony. One of the bigger ceremonies planned for Thursday will take place in Chicago's Millennium Park, involving dozens of same-sex couples. Quinn is scheduled to attend.
"We are so excited. We're overwhelmed," Janean Watkins, 37, said at the Cook County building in downtown Chicago. She and her 36-year-old partner of more than a decade, Lakeesha Harris, had been waiting in line since midnight Tuesday for the office to open at 7:30 a.m.
The couple said they had been fretting about the futures of their six children, just in case something should ever happen to either parent. That changed on Wednesday.
"We've been ostracized and relegated to the bottom rung of society. I feel like this is some sort of justice for us, for our family," Harris said as they collected their license. "I'm so grateful. I'm thankful. There are so many things going through my mind right now."
When it comes to their kids, Watkins added, the license means "nobody can take you from one of us if something should happen. This is legally binding, this is official, we're a family unit and our family is now recognized by the greater society."
Timothy Dever, director of the Cook County Bureau of Vital Records, said that office was prepared to hand out 2,000 licenses and stay open until 7 p.m. to accommodate anyone who wanted a first-day license.
Back in Belleville, Courtney Anderson embraced the accoutrements that come with the license she and partner, Laurie Wilkey, picked up Wednesday. As a paralegal from nearby Millstadt, Anderson is well versed in estate planning, powers of attorney and wills. But she said she and her partner, both 28, shouldn't have to worry about such matters any longer.
"I never doubted this day would come," said Anderson, adding that they planned to hold a civil-union ceremony Sunday with family before staging "a big blowout" later with friends said.