A couple together for nearly half a century, two TV chefs and an official in new Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration were among the 35 gay couples joined in civil union ceremonies Thursday in a downtown Chicago park after a new Illinois law recognized their relationships for the first time.
"Never thought it was going to happen," said James Darby, who at nearly 80 was legally joined to his partner of 47 years in a ceremony presided over by Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans.
Thursday was the first day that couples across Illinois could have a partnership service officiated after getting their civil union licenses a day earlier. The law went into effect Wednesday but, like traditional marriage licenses, couples are required to wait until the next day to execute them. The public ceremonies in Chicago were hosted by the city's Commission on Human Relations and other groups.
The judge wished Darby and his partner, Patrick Bova, a union filled with love and trust before pronouncing them "partners in civil union. You may kiss your partner."
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law in January that gives gay and lesbian couples many of the rights and legal protections of marriage, including the power to decide medical treatment for their partners and to inherit their partner's property. Heterosexual couples also can enter into civil unions in Illinois.
Both Quinn and Emanuel attended Thursday's ceremonies in the park. The event was peaceful with only a small number of protesters gathered nearby.
"This was one of the most important bills that Illinois has passed in anyone's memory," Quinn told the crowd of family and friends who had gathered for the occasion.
While couples at the celebration were grateful for the official recognition of their relationships, many said they want the right to marry. Gay marriage isn't legal in Illinois.
"This is one step towards the ultimate goal," said the Rev. Brenda E. Lee, who was there to be joined with her partner of eight years, Shirley Lee Edwards.
Other couples having ceremonies Thursday included Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith, Chicago restaurateurs who hosted the Food Network's "Party Line with The Hearty Boys," and Mona Noriega, whom Emanuel recently named as Commissioner of the Department of Human Relations, and her partner Evette Cardona.
Judges presided over the individual ceremonies. Couples were called up five at a time and then each was assigned to a judge in designated areas at the head of the park. Family, friends and the media gathered to witness the exchange of vows.
McDonagh and Smith held hands with their 5-year-old son Nate during their ceremony.
"You still take my breath away," McDonagh said to Smith. The two have been together for 15 years.
Their friend, Chicago pastry chef Gale Gand, who also hosted a Food Network show, wiped away tears during their ceremony.
"It just feels so fair. I don't know if that's a big enough thing to say but they're one of the most lovely couples that we hang out with ... It just didn't seem fair that they don't get the same rights that me and my husband get," she said.