Same-sex couples exchange ‘I do’s’ in Chicago

The Filipino Channel-Balitang America
June 03, 2011

Text and photo by Ted Regencia

(To read the full story, please visit Philippine News)

CHICAGO — Almost 20 years of committed relationship and no legal recognition. That’s the span of time Mercedes Santos and Theresa Volpe had to wait before they could formalize their union under the law.

On Thursday, the Philippine-born book publisher and her partner joined 35 other same-sex couples in the very first mass civil union ceremony in the state of Illinois.

With Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel lending their support, the couples exchanged vows before a huge crowd of family, friends and hundreds of spectators as well as the media.

At Santos and Volpe’s side during the emotional ceremony were their children six-year old Ava and three-year old Jaidon, 3, and dozens of friends and family members.“We’ve been together for almost 20 years and this is really an awesome time for us,” Santos said shortly before the ceremony. “It’s about time we’re getting married.”

“It’s really significant because our children can see that we’re recognized now legally as family,” added Volpe. “We’ve always been a family and it really shows our children that people support us, and we need rights as well.”

Santos wiped away tears as she read her vow recalling their time as “just two girls in love,” to the moment when they lost Volpe’s dad.

Mercedes’ parents Larry and Florence Santos said, “We’re happy that they’re happy too that they’ve reached this far.”

Her sister Rose Santos-Batiste said she’s “very proud” of Mercedes and Theresa adding, “they’re very good people and they deserve a lot of goodness.”

The governor, who signed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act last January, called the legislation “one of the most important bills that Illinois has passed in anyone’s memory.”

“This is indeed a historic day, a special day, a day that all of us in the Land of Lincoln can all celebrate,” Quinn declared prior to the event at the Millennium Park. “We believe that everybody’s in, and nobody’s left out in our state. Everybody is important.”

Emanuel, a supporter of outright same-sex marriage, also hailed the progress Illinois is making in protecting gay rights.

“It’s been a long journey here,” Emanuel said at the festive event. “To all those who are about to get married and join in civil union, you have a fruitful journey going forward. You have our blessings.”

As mayor, Emanuel has the authority to conduct civil unions in Chicago. He told the crowd he used that role for the first time to administer the civil union of a top adviser David Spielfogel and his partner.

Emanuel also highlighted the policy of giving similar medical benefits to civil union partners of city employees.

Chief Judge of Cook County Timothy C. Evans said he is “pleased” to be part of the event.

“People of this community have the right to be treated fairly and that justice should prevail,” Evans said.

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of the gay right group Equality Illinois, said that “the struggle for civil union was long-fought and hard won.” “People have been in relationships for such a long time” and are eagerly anticipating the civil union to begin, he added.

James Darby and Patrick Bova of Chicago, for instance, have been together for 47 years.

On the other hand, Chicago native Roy Wesley and Mark Weber of Buffalo, New York have been a couple for 20 years. They also decided to be part of the historic ceremony.

“It is a great day of celebration for Illinois as a whole to get the kind of legislation,” Wesley said. “To get the acknowledgement of the whole community behind us is absolutely fabulous.”

For partners Shirley Lee Edwards and Rev. Brenda E. Lee, the event marks a “significant day” for Illinois as it “recognizes that our relationships are valid and deserve the dignity and respect as other heterosexual married couples.”

The new law gives partners in Illinois the right to hospital visitation and insurance coverage. It also gives the partner the right to dispose of property in case of incapacity or death.

At the same time, it gives protection for religious institutions to define marriage. Religious organizations cannot be forced to perform civil unions.

The new law allows anyone 18 and older to apply for a license. Applicants who are related by blood are disqualified, as well as those who are currently married or in civil union. They must present proper identification and pay a fee of 35 U.S. dollars.

The new state law technically took effect last Wednesday, June 1. But the law requires all couples to wait one day before holding a ceremony, which means that Thursday, June 2 was the first day ceremonies can be performed.

Illinois now joins five other states in allowing civil unions or their equivalent. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont plus Washington D.C. give same-sex couples the legal right to marry. New York is also awaiting a vote by its state legislature.

The law is still not recognized in the federal level. The U.S. Defense of Marriage Act prohibits gay couples from receiving benefits, like tax breaks and immigration rights of foreign partners.

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