BELLEVILLE, Ill. - For Sarah Baldwin and Heather Sowell, receiving official recognition from Illinois that they are a couple after three years together was a long time coming. Yet they didn't mind standing in line for two hours early Wednesday to be the first same-sex couple in their county to get a license that allows them to legally unite.

The pair from southwestern Illinois joined scores of other couples who flocked to courthouses across the state, giddy with history and pride on the first day that Illinois allowed gay and lesbian couples to obtain licenses for civil unions - and hail what they called a victory for civil rights.

"I think it's an honor to do this, for historical reasons," Baldwin, 35, said moments before workers in the St. Clair County Clerk's Office opened for business.

Illinois has joined a handful of states and the District of Columbia in signing off on civil unions, giving same-sex couples many of the rights and significant legal protections afforded in traditional marriage. That includes the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner's property.

It was not clear how many couples planned to make use of the law Gov. Pat Quinn signed in January, though more than 1,000 people attended recent forums on the measure.

Couples must wait a day after obtaining a license before they are allowed to hold a ceremony. One of the larger ceremonies planned for Thursday will take place in Chicago's Millennium Park, involving dozens of same-sex couples.

"We're overwhelmed," Janean Watkins, 37, said at the Cook County office in downtown Chicago. She and her 36-year-old partner of more than a decade, Lakeesha Harris, had been waiting in line since midnight Tuesday for the office to open at 7:30 a.m.

The couple said they had been fretting about the future of their six children in case something should ever happen to either parent. That changed on Wednesday.

"We've been ostracized and relegated to the bottom rung of society," Harris said. "I feel like this is some sort of justice for us, for our family."

Timothy Dever of the Bureau of Vital Records said the office was prepared to hand out 2,000 licenses and stay open until 7 p.m.

States that have civil-union laws include New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Civil-union laws in Delaware and Hawaii are to go into effect Jan. 1.