By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos' 8-year-old daughter, Ava, has learned about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in school.
So her school friends understand when she tells them her two moms are fighting for their civil rights to marry -- it's just hard to explain it to grown-ups sometimes, Volpe and Santos say.
"This is really for our kids," said Volpe, who along with Santos are plaintiffs in a lawsuit demanding same sex marriage in Illinois. "It's important for them to be treated fairly. We're just as much a family as any other family."
Illinois could become the next U.S. state to legalize gay marriage with a bill set to be introduced in the state Senate this week. Gay marriage supporters in Illinois say they plan to press for approval in a Democratic-majority legislature in the next few days.
President Barack Obama endorsed the proposal to legalize gay marriage in his home state.
If it passes, Illinois would be the 10th state to approve marriage between same-sex couples. And Volpe and Santos could get what their siblings have already had -- a real wedding.
Santos, 47, and Volpe, 42, have been together for 21 years and have two children, Ava and 4-year-old Jaidon, conceived by anonymous donor. The women have owned a business that provides editorial content for publisher for 13 years.
Their large, conservative Catholic families -- Italian on Volpe side and Filipino on Santos' side -- accept their relationship. Volpe's mother, Barbara, lives with them in their spacious Chicago home. A recent Saturday found Barbara out fetching ear medicine for Ava, while the kids built a pillow fort in the living room near colorful wooden statues of the Virgin Mary.
Santos and Volpe long ago had legal papers prepared defining their relationship, to carry with them in case someone had to go to the hospital. But they say having the paperwork, and even being in a civil union, allowed by Illinois law last year, does not always help in situations where they have to explain their family.
Two years ago, Jaidon had kidney failure and was in danger of dying. He was transferred from a suburban hospital to an intensive care pediatric unit in the city, and Theresa filled out paperwork while Mercedes sat with him in his room.
But then Theresa wasn't allowed to see Jaidon.
"The woman at the desk said 'Hold on a minute, there's already a mom in there'," Volpe recalled. When she explained that Jaidon had two moms, the woman said "Well, if you were his stepmom, we have a wristband, but we don't have a wristband for two moms."
Mercedes had to leave their son's bedside to help explain to a supervisor.
"When Jaidon was sick it was the turning point," said Santos, explaining why they joined the lawsuit filed last May.
"In an emergency situation, we should not have to sit and explain our relationship," said Volpe.
The civil union law gives same-sex couples some of the same rights and responsibilities of married couples in Illinois, including hospital visitation and shared parental rights.
But Santos said an emergency room worker in Illinois or out-of-state might not understand what a civil union is. Nor did some members of their family -- who did not come to their civil union ceremony because it didn't seem important enough.
"If you say 'marriage,' people know what marriage is," Volpe said.
Volpe and Santos went to the Cook County clerk's office to ask for a marriage license, and were told they could not have one -- just a civil union license. When they said they already had a civil union, the desk worker explained to a confused co-worker that Volpe and Santos wanted "an upgrade."
"We said, 'Yes, we want an upgrade!" Santos remembered, laughing. The people behind them in line cheered and clapped. "That really is so symbolic of what civil union is -- it's not in the same category as marriage. Marriage is an upgrade. Gays got the downgraded version of commitment."
Those opposed to gay marriage in Illinois include the state's Catholic Conference of Illinois and Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, who said that same sex marriage is opposed to natural law.
Volpe and Santos go to Catholic services -- though they disagree with the church's stand on gay marriage. They say gay marriage is not about religion, but is a human rights issue. They also see it as a generational issue and one of familiarity -- young people accept it, and people who get to know gay families can come to accept it, too.
"We want them to know we're a family, with the same issues all families have -- should we send our kids to private school? Are we making mistakes with them?" Santos said. "We have the same struggles, the same successes that everybody else has."
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by M.D. Golan)