Aurora couple joins fight for marriage equality
By Matt Hanley firstname.lastname@example.org July 12, 2012 4:40PM
Andrea Lyonsford, 9, bottom watches as Kirsten Lyonsford, left and Tanya Lyonsford, right fix her brother Zachary's skateboard at their home in Aurora Wednesday, June 27, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 14, 2012 6:01AM
The new couple walked out of the church to greet the people who loved them.
Tonya Ford and Kirsten Lyons had met in 1999, when they were both working at AT&T. During mandatory diversity training, they had both identified themselves as lesbian. A few days later, they were on a dinner date. Right away, there was the spark that most couples are lucky to find.
Three years later, they were married in a Christian commitment ceremony in a Villa Park church. Outside the church, everyone was hugging, kissing and wishing them well. That’s when one person dropped a little reminder of an unpleasant reality: That was really nice, the person said, but it wasn’t legal.
“It seemed like they were saying you went all through this for nothing,” Kirsten — now Kirsten Lyonsford — remembered.
Of course, it hadn’t been for nothing. It was a public ceremony announcing their intention to spend the rest of their lives together. It had everything a heterosexual wedding would have included — except the legal standing.
Ten years later, the Aurora couple has joined a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of an Illinois law that does not allow marriage certificates to be issued to same-sex couples. If the lawsuit is successful, it won’t change Tonya and Kirsten Lyonsford’s relationship, but it might make history in Illinois.
“In the eyes of our parents, friends, coworkers — according to everybody that we know — we’re married,” Kirsten, 35, said. “The only thing we’re going to change is helping everybody else, long term. We want this to be an equal for everyone.”
Fighting for marriage
Right now, six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. Last year, Illinois approved civil unions for same-sex couples. The civil unions allowed couples to file joint tax returns, join most insurance policies and receive death benefits.
But there are still significant distinctions between a civil union and a marriage. For instance, couples who apply for a civil union must still formally apply for a name change by putting an ad in the newspaper and appearing in front of a judge — a process that is streamlined for heterosexual married couples. And the civil union does not have to be recognized by other states.
But it’s not just about legal paperwork for the Lyonsfords. It’s about having their relationship recognized in a way heterosexual couples takes for granted. Having already made the legal arrangements years ago, they chose not to get a civil union. It felt like a separate, and unequal, category.
“It was a step forward but it wasn’t fully what we wanted,” Tanya said.
“Marriage is the only thing that describes this relationship,” said Kirsten.
Cook County case
In May, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lambda Legal filed suit against Cook County Clerk David Orr on behalf of 25 same-sex couples, including the Lyonsfords. The suit claimed that Orr discriminates against same-sex couples by not issuing them marriage licenses.
ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka said the suit was filed in Cook County since that county issues the most marriage licenses in the state and is often a destination spot for people looking to get hitched.
The lawsuits argued that Illinois’ constitution, more than the constitution of any other state, guarantees a right for people of the same gender to get married, despite laws the Illinois Legislature passed in 1996 prohibiting same-sex marriage.
Instead of defending himself, Orr — and his lawyer, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez — said the gay couples that took him to court are right. Orr compared the ban to laws that kept blacks from entering restaurants and marrying whites.
“As the defendant I totally agree with the plaintiffs,” Orr said. “We are clearly admitting that people are being discriminated against.”
Challenges to suit
The ACLU had been hoping to file this sort of lawsuit for years, but legislators gave indications there was movement in Springfield on civil unions. Now, the climate seemed right. Critics have called the lawsuit an end run around the General Assembly, which passed the marriage ban with broad bipartisan support. Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel of the Thomas More Society, which supports the ban, called Alvarez’s response to the lawsuits an inside job, “a crass political move to force same-sex marriage on all Illinoisans without providing the residents of the other 101 counties an opportunity to be heard.”
Breen said that since President Barack Obama voiced his support for gay marriage, many officials are jumping at the chance to change the law.
“It’s not what the rule of law says. It’s not what court decisions and careful precedent say. It’s power. It’s who gave me more money, got me elected, those are the folks I’m going to go with,” Breen said recently.
Effingham County Clerk Kerry Hirtzel and Tazewell County Clerk Christie Webb have been allowed to join the lawsuit as objectors.
‘All people love the same’
Kirsten and Tonya Lyonsford are hopeful that the suit will be successful. Kirsten Lyonsford said she expected protestors to be standing outside of the press conference announcing the lawsuit. Instead, they were pleasantly surprised to be met with support and indifference.
“I think what people are realizing is that there are people in their families that this affects,” Kirsten Lyonsford said.
It wasn’t long ago that they had to inform their daughter that they have what some people would consider a non-traditional family. Kirsten Lyonsford said they were listening to a radio report about Obama’s support for gay marriage. Daughter Andrea asked what that meant.
“Some people think that only people who have moms and dads are the right kind of families,” Kirsten Lyonsford explained to her 9-year-old.
Andrea insisted that shouldn’t be right “because all people love each other the same.” Kirsten hopes someday Andrea’s feelings will be law.
And Kirsten and Tanya promise if the suit is successful, they’ll put on the same wedding dress and tuxedo they wore at their commitment ceremony one more time.
“At least then we’d be able to add one more photo to an amazing album,” Kirsten said.
contributed to this story.