A Minute With...

Ramona Oswald, expert on LGBT life in Illinois

12/19/2012  8:00 am

The Illinois Legislature is nearing debate on a House bill known as the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act. Ramona Faith Oswald, a professor of human and community development who studies LGBT life in downstate Illinois, has conducted extensive research on this topic. In 2011, she collected data for the Rainbow Illinois survey, which questioned 458 LGBT Illinois residents living in 36 downstate counties. She was interviewed by Phyllis Picklesimer, a media and communications specialist for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

How many same-sex couples live in downstate Illinois?

image of professor ramona oswaldSame-sex couples live in at least 99 of the 102 Illinois counties, and U.S. Census data document 23,409 same-sex couples living in Illinois. Although 60 percent of those couples reside in Cook County, it would be a mistake to overlook the 9,362 same-sex couples who make their homes outside of Chicago. The number of LGBT people is even higher if we include those who are single or in couples who do not live together.

Downstate LGBT couples are mainly born and raised in Illinois. Fifty-one percent of Rainbow Illinois survey respondents live within 100 miles of their parents, siblings or both. Thus, same-sex marriage is an issue that affects families with connections and history in downstate Illinois. A recent poll found that more Illinois residents support same-sex marriage than do not. Many downstate parents, siblings, and other relatives of LGBT persons would like for their loved ones to have the right to marry.

How likely are LGBT couples in Illinois to be parents?

Same-sex couples in downstate Illinois are more likely than those in Chicago to be raising children under the age of 18. Cook County roughly matches the statewide average with 16 percent of same-sex couples raising children. In 47 other counties, however, the percentage of same-sex couples raising children is higher, ranging from 18 percent (Bureau County) to 100 percent (Johnson County).

If you believe that legal marriage benefits children, it is logical to believe that same-sex marriage would benefit children raised by same-sex couples.

Why aren’t civil unions “good enough” for LGBT couples?

The language of civil unions does not provide equality. Rather it sets same-sex couples apart as technically equal but socially marked as “other” than married. This “otherness” perpetuates stigma even as it affords certain rights. Stigma has negative effects on health and well-being, and these effects in turn have societal costs related to treatment and prevention. Same-sex marriage would promote the health and well-being of same-sex couples and their families by reducing stigma.

One survey respondent wrote, “Although the civil union law is a positive step, it still distinguishes or separates human beings. Laws that allow homosexual couples to marry and gain the exact same rights as any straight couple would be the best thing to improve my life as a LGBT person living in Central Illinois.”

The advocacy group Equality Illinois has tracked the experiences of same-sex couples who obtained civil unions. Their report details many ways that couples in civil unions have not been treated equally. Examples include experiencing unequal taxation, difficulty accessing medical care or buying a home, and ongoing social stigma. The report is available (here)

If this law passed, would clergy be required to perform same-sex marriages?

Same-sex marriage would be a civil right, not a religious status. No religious organization or clergy would be required to perform or recognize same-sex marriages. However, it is important to recognize that religious beliefs motivate many same-sex couples who desire marriage. The Rainbow Illinois survey found that highly religious LGBT parents were most likely to have both taken steps to legalize their commitment (for example, establishing powers of attorney) and had a ceremony to recognize their same-sex relationships. Marriage was not an option for these respondents, but their actions suggest they would seek marriage. It also suggests that they uphold traditional American values about marriage.

Can you elaborate on the survey?

The Rainbow Illinois survey was conducted in 2000 and again in 2011. Both surveys were approved by the campus’s Institutional Review Board and funded by the campus’s Research Board. Survey questions covered demographics, religion, experiences in the workplace, the residential community, and the LGBT community, and solicited information about parenting, couples, families of origin, and experiences with stigmatization.

The 2000 survey obtained data from 527 respondents living in 38 downstate Illinois counties, whereas the 2011 survey obtained data from 458 downstate Illinois residents living in 36 downstate Illinois counties.

To obtain a copy of the survey, contact Ramona Faith Oswald, 217-333-2547.

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