- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

CHICAGO — Over the past 10 years, Lakeesha Harris and Janean Watkins have built a life together, with six children and a home. But they said they always felt relegated to second-class status. Until Wednesday.

The Chicago couple arrived at the Cook County building downtown at midnight to be the first in line as Illinois’ new civil unions law took effect, allowing gay and lesbian couples to obtain civil union licenses.

“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,” said Harris, 36. “I’m so grateful. I’m thankful. There are so many things going through my mind right now.”

Civil unions give couples many of the rights that accompany traditional marriage. That includes the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner’s property.

Hundreds of couples around Illinois lined up early for the chance to get civil union licenses, including five couples in line in southwestern Illinois’ St. Clair County when the clerk’s office opened at 8:30 a.m.

Cook County’s vital records office opened early, at 7:30 a.m., and will stay open until 7 p.m. to accommodate couples. Officials said they expect to give out about 2,000 licenses in the first day.

The first civil union ceremonies can’t take place until Thursday, when dozens of couples are expected to participate in a ceremony at Chicago’s Millennium Park.