For 27 years Louisa Nicotera was in the business of saying "no."
Same-sex couples showed up to her window at the Cook County Clerk's office year after year to ask for marriage licenses. Every time, Nicotera rattled off the same mantrastate law prohibited marriage between same-sex couples, she said. Then, she encouraged them to reach out to their state legislators.
"My heart is tugging one way, and I'd say 'Look, I can't do anything for you,'" Nicotera said. "I would feel for them. ... Personally, me, as Jane Doe citizen, I feel like everyone has a right to be married."
Same-sex marriage sit-ins in the Cook County Clerk's office started in the mid 1970s and continued until June, when civil unions took effect. Sometimes loud and disruptive and other times disappointed and calm, LGBT couples approached the desk twice a year and asked for the same rights as everyone else.
Jeff Graubart thinks he holds the record for the most number of actions in the clerk's office. Graubart, who organized "marry-ins" with Citizens for Gay Action, spent more than 35 years approaching the desk.
Graubart spent eight days in Cook County Jail for sitting-in at the Clerk's office in 1976. He said that when current Cook County Clerk David Orr came on in the scene in 1990, things changed.
"They went out of their way not to arrest us," he said. "They were nice about it."
LGBT activists would often call the clerk's office and let them know they were coming. The following standoff between activist and staffers was sometimes theatrical. Many staffers did want to issue licenses and activists didn't always blame them for not doing so. But both sides agreed, the actions were necessary.
"They were trying. They want to get their voices heard," said Nicotera, adding that she understood why her office was the target of the demonstrations, even though the issue was out of her hands.
Orr also understood. Some gay marriage activists were his friends, and he supported gay rights publicly. He sometimes wanted to protest with them, but he knew that if he issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, courts would just overturn them.
"It was a drag," he said. "And the only thing that really keeps you going is the hope that things will get better."
According to Graubart, activists who put their relationships in the spotlight in the fight for same-sex marriage often suffered because of it. Graubart appeared on Oprah and Geraldo in the 90s.
"Putting our relationship up for public scrutiny was unhealthy for the relationship and contributed to ending it after 14 years," he said. "I remember two other guys who put their relationship up for public scrutiny on Oprah at the time whose story ended far more tragically…the early fighters for equal marriage rights often sacrificed their very loving families for the rights we are finally winning."
Activists from Gay Liberation Network, Join the Impact-Chicago and Queer Nation also participated in the "marry-ins" which drew media attention and occasional arrests.
Groups started protesting the Clerk's office the day before Thanksgiving and near or on Valentine's Day. In recent years, they targeted the days around the Chicago Pride Parade instead of the November protest.
The start of Illinois civil unions June 1 of this year changed all of that.
Graubart said he thinks it might be the end of "marry-ins," at least for now. That is a change he was happy to see.
"It was absolutely wonderful," he said. "I was just very excited."
Orr and Nicotera were excited, too.
When the civil unions act passed, Nicotera helped develop the program for implementing them.
Nicotera had supervised marriages in Cook County for several years. As supervisor, she had the honor of issuing the first marriage license every year.
When civil unions became legal, Nicotera was invited to issue the first license in Cook County. On June 1, she stepped up to a desk at the clerk's office where Janean Latricia Watkins and Lakeesha Harris waited for the first license.
With news cameras behind her and a jam-packed office in front of her, Nicotera took a deep breath and started on the paperwork.
"I just started crying like a baby," she said. "I just lost it. And everyone down the line started crying, too."