By JIM SUHR and JOHN O’CONNOR
ROCKFORD, Ill. – Their half-century relationship has spanned 10 U.S. presidencies but also occasional chapters of intolerance and raised eyebrows about how they live their lives. Through it all, they’ve endured, to the point that they have adjoining cemetery plots and a headstone already in place.
What Richard Peterson and Frank Colson lament is that they’ve never had official recognition from their government that they’re a couple. This week, that changes.
On Wednesday, the Rockford retirees will be at the courthouse like scores of other gay and lesbian couples across Illinois, applying for a civil union license as a new state law bestows on them rights that were unimaginable when the two became a couple back in the early 1960s.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the historic civil unions legislation into law in January, making Illinois the seventh state, along with the District of Columbia, to give same-sex couples significant legal protections. That includes the power to decide medical care for an ailing partner and the right to inherit the partner’s property.
“It’s really quite astonishing, to my way of thinking,” said Peterson, 77. “It’s a very important time for this state.”
He and Colson, 75, were married in Iowa in 2009, a union that would be accepted under an interstate reciprocity provision in Illinois’ new law. But they are leaving nothing to chance, seeing the law not only as a victory for civil rights but also assurance that they’ll be able to make end-of-life decisions for each other.
It’s not clear how many gay or lesbian couples will take advantage of the new law, though more than 1,000 people have attended recent forums on it statewide. It allows for couples to apply for civil unions beginning Wednesday, then wait a required one day before they’re allowed to hold a ceremony.
A number of ceremonies are planned across the state on Thursday, including one for dozens of same-sex couples in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Quinn is scheduled to attend.
“There is a lot of bottled-up anticipation,” said Gail Siegel, the spokeswoman for the Cook County clerk, whose office began receiving calls for details soon after Quinn signed the law.
“This level of enthusiasm demonstrates this was not a symbolic battle,” said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive of Equality Illinois, the state’s largest gay-rights group.
Gay rights activists say the new law falls short of legalizing same-sex marriages, but don’t plan to push for that given its limited support in the Legislature.
Illinois still limits marriage to one man and one woman, and some conservative and religious groups opposed civil unions as paving the way toward the eventual erosion of that principle.
The new measure doesn’t require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, though critics fear it will lead to other requirements such as including same-sex couples in religious-run adoption programs or granting benefits to employees’ partners.
On Thursday, the Catholic diocese in Rockford announced that it will end its state-funded adoption and foster-care program in 11 northern Illinois counties rather than comply with the new civil-union law, which would require it to place children with gay or unmarried couples. Diocese officials said allowing such adoptions or foster placements would violate teachings of the Catholic faith, and church officials say other dioceses could make similar decisions after the law takes effect.
But across the state, gay couples are heralding the new law as a milestone for what they hope is growing tolerance.
“Sometimes I don’t believe it’s as big of a stepping stone for us as it is for straight people,” said Duane Cole, a retired social services worker now living in Carbondale.
Cole and his partner, Joe Powers of Chicago, plan to begin arranging the civil-union paperwork on Wednesday in Jackson County and hold a ceremony with a minister later in the week in Carbondale, where they plan to settle.
“It couldn’t have happened without straight society becoming more aware of the significance of legal recognition of any relationship,” said Powers, who works for a utility.
“The state is telling us, `Yes, you do make a contribution to society and we recognize that, and we want to make sure your relationship remains stable and viable.”
For Peterson and Colson, the new law is a landmark in a five-decade story of transformation and recognition.
More than 50 years ago, the men met through their parents while living in St. Charles, a Chicago suburb where Colson’s family was into dairy farming and Peterson’s dad worked construction.
Colson told his conservative, religious parents he was gay when he was 15. As a boy, Peterson wasn’t sure he was gay, even if a bully who taunted him mercilessly believed he was, but he dreaded any time he had to ask a girl out, remembering “I’d nearly have a stroke.”
“We each went through a period where we thought we were the only gay person in the world,” Peterson said.
Peterson spent two years in the Army in the 1950s, never telling anyone about his attraction to men. When asked on a questionnaire at the end of his stint about his sexual orientation, Peterson lied, worried that confessing could cost him an honorable discharge.
By 1961, when Colson was 25 and Peterson 27, the two had moved in together and the next year committed themselves to each other during a trip to Wisconsin. While they were more quiet about their relationship at first, the two opened a hair salon in the same brick, 19th-century building where Peterson had a flower shop.
Ultimately, they were open about their sexuality at a time when it wasn’t always accepted.
A female client at the salon told Colson once that she knew a psychiatrist who could turn him straight. They remember a “filthy,” anonymous phone call one night when they were just starting their business together.
Today, they proudly display their Iowa marriage certificate on the wall of their home, which they share with their poodle, Bogie. And they’ll soon be able to pair it with a civil union license from Illinois.
“Sometimes, we don’t find as many gay people who are as open as we are,” Peterson said. “Sometimes, I think they are frightened by that (openness), and I’m hoping that’s changing.”