BELLEVILLE, Ill. (AP) -- For being first in line, Sarah Baldwin and Heather Sowell got loving applause and smiles from behind the clerk's counter.
Hundreds of miles away in Chicago, Lakeesha Harris and Janean Watkins won a donated stay at a historic hotel and a cheesecake for every one of their anniversaries.
The two couples were among scores of same-sex partners across the state who began celebrating before dawn Wednesday as they lined up to apply for civil union licenses under a new Illinois law that recognizes them as couples for the first time.
Signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in January, the law gives gay and lesbian couples -- and straight ones who choose civil unions -- many of the rights and legal protections already afforded in traditional marriage. Those include the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner's property.
"I think it's an honor to do this, for historical reasons," said Baldwin, 35, moments before workers in the St. Clair County clerk's office raised the counter window to begin issuing the licenses.
The law, Quinn said, makes Illinois "a place of tolerance and welcoming to all."
Wednesday's turnout, while unpredictable, was spotty. In Cook County, the clerk's office said 203 licenses were issued by the end of the day, at least two to heterosexual couples. In Jackson County, home to Southern Illinois University's flagship campus in Carbondale, two couples had gotten licensed by midday. In central Illinois' Champaign County, the clerk's office had issued at least 14 of the permits before lunch.
For many couples, it was worth the wait -- and then some.
Partners for a decade, Harris, 36, and Watkins, 37, waited in line since midnight Tuesday for the office at the Cook County building in downtown Chicago to open at 7:30 a.m.
When the two finally got their license, winning the stay at the Palmer House Hilton and the cheesecake prize, Harris couldn't hold back the tears. Other waiting couples and workers at the clerk's office couldn't hold back the cheers.
"We are so excited. We're overwhelmed," said Watkins, who until getting the license had fretted with Harris about the futures of their six children, just in case something should ever happen to either partner. Now, "this is legally binding, this is official, we're a family unit and our family is now recognized by the greater society."
"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," Harris added. "I'm so grateful. I'm thankful. There are so many things going through my mind right now."
Couples must wait a day after getting a license before they're allowed to hold a ceremony. One of the bigger ceremonies planned for Thursday will take place in Chicago's Millennium Park, involving dozens of same-sex couples. Quinn is scheduled to attend
"It's a huge step forward, but we do hope that we still can get married in our lifetime," Mike Martinez, 50, said after getting a civil-union license in Cook County with his partner of three decades, Walter Wawrzyniec, 67.
In Rockford, near the Wisconsin border, Richard Peterson and Frank Colson -- inseparable for a half century -- hustled to their courthouse and got a license, leaving nothing to chance even though their 2009 Iowa marriage certificate would have been honored in Illinois, bestowing on them all the rights the come with a civil union.
"Fifty years ago, we never would have dreamed this would have happened because of the way it was through the years" in terms of acceptance -- or lack thereof -- of same-sex couples, said Colson, 75, who on Thursday planned a ceremony to mark his civil union with Peterson, 77. "I think there's just a widespread, better feeling about same-sex couples throughout the nation."
In Belleville, Baldwin and Sowell made their way to the St. Clair County clerk's office two hours before it opened, snagging their spot at the head of the line that had grown to include four other couples by the time the licensing began there.
"I think it's an honor to do this, for historical reasons," said Baldwin, 35.
The clerk, Bob Delaney, had been worried about Wednesday, uncertain how many couples would turn out for the licenses he said take 15 minutes to process. Delaney said he got little direction from the state on the matter and only hoped that the local prosecutor's advice and his office's two color printers would suffice.
As he opened the counter, Delaney and his crew were celebratory, with one worker clapping her hands as Baldwin and Sowell stepped up. Delaney greeted them with a caution.
"All right, bear with us," he said, smiling. "This is all new to us."
In Belleville, Courtney Anderson embraced the accoutrements that come with the license she and partner, Laurie Wilkey, picked up Wednesday. As a paralegal from nearby Millstadt, Anderson is well versed in estate planning, powers of attorney and wills. But she said she and her partner, both 28, shouldn't have to worry about such matters any longer.
"I never doubted this day would come," said Anderson, adding that they planned to hold a civil-union ceremony Sunday with family before staging "a big blowout" later with friends.
"The change of tides in the state can be a change of tides for us," she said.
Webber reported from Chicago.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)