Every Valentine's Day for the past seven or eight years, Roseann Szalkowski and Barb McMillan walked into the DuPage County Clerk's office to ask for a marriage license, and every year the answer was the same: no.

Today, promptly at 8 a.m. when the clerk's office opened, McMillan asked department supervisor Judi Wilkovich the same question.

"I'd like to ask for a marriage license," said McMillan, tears welling in her eyes. An equally emotional Wilkovich, who for years was saddened to turn the couple away, again couldn't grant a marriage license, but she told the couple, "I'm happy to say that you can apply for a civil union license."

Amid applause from clerk's office workers, Szalkowski, 50,  and McMillan, 60, who come from Roselle and have been together 11 years, were the first to be granted a civil union license in DuPage County.

Illinois is now the sixth state that allows civil unions or their equivalent, and two other states — Hawaii and Delaware — have passed civil-union laws that have not yet been enacted.

Advocates of gay and lesbian rights say the civil union law is a historic moment worthy of celebration, but they stress that it in no way marks the end of their work. The next step would be to follow either a judicial or legislative path toward the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Similar scenes to the one in DuPage played out around the Chicago area this morning, the first day that same-sex couples were eligible for civil-union licenses.

In Cook County, Janean Watkins and Lakeesha Harris camped overnight outside the Daley Center to be the first in line as the state's new civil-unions law kicked in.

"It's historic," said Watkins, who has been with Harris for 10 years. "We wanted to be first. We wanted to make a statement. For us, for our kids. It really means something."

The couple has six children who will all be in attendance at a formal civil union ceremony tomorrow.

Watkins and Harris were followed by more than 100 other couples who arrived early to get licenses.

Vicki Kenyon and Lisa Martin of Skokie were up at 4 a.m. and headed to the Daley Center to get a license to legally cement their nearly 10-year relationship.

"We thought we'd just get it done in Skokie," Martin said. "But then we figured, hey, if they're going to throw a party downtown, we should be there, be part of history."

Couples can obtain licenses starting today, but must wait a day before holding a ceremony. On Thursday, the governor and Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be on hand in Millennium Park as more than 30 couples enter into civil unions.

The group The Civil Rights Agenda plans to host another cluster of civil union celebrations on Friday at the Chicago History Museum. Anthony Martinez, the group's executive director, said at least 30 couples signed up, reflecting the widespread enthusiasm he has seen in the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Linda Zetterberg, 59, and Sherry Burlingame, 52, wed in Ontario, Canada, on May 27, 2005, but showed up to the DuPage County clerk’s office today to see if their marriage would recognized in Illinois now that civil union licenses are being issued.

Plus, they wanted to be around to congratulate other same-sex couples.

“We’ve waited for a long time for this,” said Zetterberg, just as the office’s first couple became licensed. “We had to drive with all of our paperwork in a glove compartment in case anything happens.”

DuPage County clerk’s office officials told the couple they did not know whether foreign marriage licenses are now honored in Illinois and said they would have to defer to their legal department.

Workers who typically issue marriage licenses also had to make adjustments in how they addressed the civil union applicants.

One couple, Martha Flores, 37, and Jessica Meyer, 33, of Westmont, who became licensed just before 11 a.m., for example, didn’t know the proper term to use when referring to their relationship status would be once they held a ceremony.