After 17 years of marriage, many of which were wrought with emotional and mental abuse, Nicky Francke found herself unhappy, alone and addicted to cocaine and alcohol.
After a successful stint in rehab, she visited a group therapy website for former addicts where she met someone who changed her life forever.
Now that civil unions are in effect in the state of Illinois, Francke can legally express her relationship with her partner of two-and-a-half years, Mary Hirtle, which pulled her out of the darkness for good.
"I’ve been a student, a bartender, a wife for almost 17 years, a mother and it's just now that I see what it was all worth," Francke said. "A lot of things had to happen for us to get together. We believe that that is God working in our lives. We are very religious people but we are very spiritual people. We never give up. We never give up on each other."
Illinois’ civil unions law is in effect as of today, allowing both gay and straight couples legal recognition of their relationships. After obtaining civil union licenses, couples will have to wait 24 hours before they can use it, meaning that the first ceremonies won't be conducted until Thursday.
Francke, 44, said that she's still waiting for her divorce to go through, otherwise she and Hirtle, 61, would've been the first in line at the McHenry County Clerk's Office.
County Clerk Katherine Schultz said that her department had to fundamentally adjust the software that issues these types of licenses.
"Our software for issuing marriage licenses had to be adapted to issue civil union licenses, so we had to go make changes in the application," she said. "We had to go into the software and get it set so it would allow us to do it between two men and two women. Everything before said marriage on it. Now there's partner A and partner B. With marriages, you still have a groom and a bride."
Schultz said that the price of a civil union license is the same as a marriage license, which is $30, payable in cash only.
Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, a nonprofit that works to secure, protect and defend equality across the state for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, said that the civil union act now provides couples nearly 650 new rights.
He said that some of these new rights include equal tax treatment at the state and local level, emergency medical decision-making power, hospital visitation rights, equal access to state spousal benefits (including workers' compensation, spousal pension coverage, etc.), inheritance rights and equal estate tax treatment, equal access to civil actions dependent upon spousal status, spousal testimonial privilege and the right to share a nursing home or hospital room.
In 2009, when Hirtle, a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran, first moved to Illinois to join Francke, she suffered a pulmonary embolism in her lung. Without the cooperation of the staff at Centegra Hospital-Woodstock, the couple wouldn't have been able to enjoy hospital visitation rights by law. That fear no longer is an issue.
"If anything would’ve happened, I wouldn’t have been able act on Mary's behalf if she was incapacitated," Francke said.
"Little things like that don’t seem like a big thing, but that’s what a civil union does," Hirtle said. "It gives Nicky the right if I'm on life support to say ‘that’s enough.’ And that’s the person I want to make that decision."
Many in the gay community are continuing to fight for equality. Hirtle, however, said that a civil union does the job. She and Francke have built a home in Woodstock, along with Francke's two children, Andrew and Gina, filled with laughter and love.
"It depends on which generation you’re asking," she said. "For somebody from my generation, it’s enough. But for the young ones coming up, it’s not enough and they will never stop working until they get equality."
Francke and Hirtle are planning to get their civil union license as soon as Francke's divorce paperwork clears. After that, they said they'll be having a commitment ceremony at their church, Redeemer Lutheran Church in Woodstock.
"Even if we could never get a civil union that would be OK, as long as we’re together," Francke said. "Mary has made my life complete. She's made my life 100 percent better."