After nearly a decade of advocating for official recognition of gay couples, Chicagoans John Pennycuff and Robert Castillo wanted to be sure they were the first to sign up for Cook County’s new domestic partner registry October 1.

“The only the way to do that was to get there at midnight,” Pennycuff says. “So we watched the Cubs game and after the Cubs won we went down to the county building.”

The next morning, before dozens of onlookers, they became the first of 71 couples to be officially partnered. Within days that number had grown beyond 100.

Cook County, the nation’s second-largest, became the 64th government body (cities, counties and states) to offer official recognition of same-sex couples. The registry confers no benefits or legal rights, but County Clerk David Orr nevertheless says it’s a significant step.

“The idea of convincing people of a domestic partnership registry 10 years ago was no less difficult than convincing people how crazy the war on Iraq is now,” he said. “It’s a good example of how if you organize you can change attitudes.”

Castillo and Pennycuff—who have been together for 12 years, are active in Chicago’s LGBT community and sit on the city’s LGBT advisory board—raised the issue of a domestic partner registry in a 1994 letter to Orr. He supported the idea but told them it would have to be passed by the county board, which had little inclination to enact such a measure. Over time, the election of progressives to the county board changed the political landscape, making such a registry possible.

County Board Commissioner Mike Quigley, who sponsored the domestic registry and a previous bill granting benefits to same-sex partners of county employees, is encouraged that the ordinance (which passed this summer on a 13-3 vote) met with less resistance than the legislation he sponsored four years ago.

“I think familiarity breeds acceptance and understanding,” he says. “And as more and more people became familiar they became less resistant to change.”

Conservative groups are banking on Quigley being wrong. The Associated Press recently reported that such groups as the Christian Coalition and the Southern Baptist Convention are looking to capitalize on sentiment against gay marriage by making the issue a rallying cry in the upcoming election. Around the same time, the White House christened October 12-18 “Marriage Protection Week,” saying that the weeklong observance “provides an opportunity to focus our efforts on preserving the sanctity of marriage,” defining marriage as “a union between a man and a woman.”

Castillo sees the president’s proclamation as a sign of the political strength of the LGBT community: “I think they’re afraid because they see that there’s a movement happening, so they’re digging in their heels.”