The MCA celebrates marriage equality with free weddings for LGBT couples.
Sunday, June 1 marks the dawn of a new era in the fight for marriage equality in Illinois: Moving forward, same-sex couples can officially pledge their love for one another in a legal ceremony (Cook County, along with several other counties, began issuing licenses earlier this year, but on this date, the initiative goes statewide). It’s been an uphill battle for the thousands who’ve fought to legalize same-sex marriage, and as a longtime supporter of the LGBT community, the MCA Chicago wanted to mark the occasion with a one-of-a-kind gift: free weddings for 15 local couples. “The very day the legislation passed, we started talking about a way to celebrate this milestone with the community,” says Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn.
After the MCA announced the initiative via social media March 21, it was immediately flooded with applications from more than 100 couples vying for the opportunity to tie the knot at the iconic venue. The staff quickly set to work narrowing down the list alongside a panel of representatives from Equality Illinois. “We received submissions from enthusiastic couples who have been together for years and for some, decades,” says MCA Chicago spokesperson Karla Loring. “We focused on a group that reflects the diverse fabric of Chicago and Illinois.”
On Monday, June 2, each of the 15 pairs will participate in a private ceremony in the museum’s stunning Kovler Atrium, with a nondenominational officiant doing the honors. Afterward, they’ll take a wedding portrait in front of the colorful “Work No. 1351” by Martin Creed, provided by Fandl Photography, before moving outdoors to the Kern Terrace with 20 guests to enjoy a half-hour reception with Champagne, petit fours by Wolfgang Puck Catering and décor provided by Event Creative.
In advance of the weddings, Splash sat down with four of the couples to talk about the landmark law, what marriage means to them — and of course, their upcoming nuptials.
For Hannah Jones-Lewis, 27, and Jessica Jones-Lewis, 29, the opportunity to get married is meaningful on many levels. “It reaffirms the principles of fairness and equality,” Jessica says. But it’s also a second chance for those who didn’t support their first ceremony to watch them re-pledge their love to one another — this time, legally.
The couple, who met after literally running into each other at a mutual friend’s college party in March 2007 (“I turned the corner, and Hannah was coming around the corner full steam and knocked me over,” Jessica laughs), first tied the knot in Philadelphia on Nov. 6, 2010. Jessica recalls Hannah’s proposal as a complete surprise: “I was in a really bad mood that day and I was storming around the house. Hannah gave me some space to be upset, and after that, I thought our conversation would be, ‘OK, now that you’re not angry anymore … ’ But it was like, ‘Will you marry me?’ ” she says. “And while I was sleeping, she slipped the ring on my finger. I woke up a little disoriented.”
At that point, though, neither the law nor Hannah’s family were ready to recognize their union. “I grew up in a pretty conservative family,” Hannah says. “Being with a woman ended several of the already fragile relationships I had with some family members.” Though the two were joined by 120 guests, with support from many friends and Jessica’s close-knit family, there were noticeable absences on Hannah’s side. “I had my cousin, who is wonderful, and two of my sisters, but no one else from my family,” she says.
Fortunately, Jessica’s family stepped up. “One of the things that has been significant in my relationship with Jessica is that her family has really taken me in. They’ve been incredibly open, sweet and loving, and brought me in as their daughter,” she says. “[That] helped me deal with the fact that there was going to be an isolation from my family.”
But on Monday, when Hannah, a project manager at the Fussy Baby Network at Erikson Institute, and Jessica, a teen programs manager at literacy nonprofit Open Books, say “I do” in the Kovler Atrium, it should be a vastly different occasion. This time, the women’s ceremony will be legally recognized, and members of Hannah’s family who didn’t support the Philadelphia ceremony will be there supporting them. “I think that shows how we’ve grown, how the people in our lives have grown and the depth of our relationship and the level of commitment that people can see,” Jessica says. “It’s beautiful to witness that.”
After nearly 51 years together, James Darby, 81, and Patrick Bova, 76, will finally be able to call each other “husband.” “I’m not sure I want to take the plunge — I might get cold feet,” Darby jokes. It’s been quite the journey for the couple, who first met in 1963 after Darby spotted a handsome young Bova reading a book while walking. “I whistled at him, and my friend said: ‘Darby! We don’t whistle at guys on the South Side!’ ” Darby recalls. “And I said, ‘I don’t care, he’s so good-looking.’ ” Within six weeks, the two were living together. “Found a good one,” Darby laughs.
All joking aside, the new law and pending nuptials hold significant weight for the pair. Darby, a retired schoolteacher and veteran of the Korean War, and Bova, a retired librarian, have been at the forefront of the struggle for marriage equality: They were the lead plaintiffs in the landmark Lambda Legal lawsuit Darby v. Orr in May 2012, fighting for the right to obtain a marriage license in Illinois. Over the past two years, Darby has met with veteran politicians several times in Springfield as a part of Lambda’s Freedom to Marry campaign, reminding them how he’d fought for the rights of all Americans during the war — and questioning why, as an LGBT American, his personal rights weren’t equal. “I’ve been involved in veterans activities for so many years, yet as a gay person, I still didn’t have all the rights,” he says.
To say the win comes as a relief to Darby and Bova is an understatement — neither thought they would see this day come. “In a way, we’ve been engaged for 50 years, and marriage is a culmination of that commitment,” Bova says. Matrimony will also bring with it important practical benefits, including marital rights to pensions and the ability to rest next to one another for eternity in the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. “What this does is give us many legal rights that we didn’t have before,” Bova says. “The emotional and fulfilling aspect of it is very important. I expect to cry.” Darby chimes in: “I’m different about that. I try to hold back the tears, and then they roll out in a waterfall.”
The strongest emotion the couple feels approaching the ceremony? Pure excitement. Both say they never expected to win the MCA’s contest. “It will be spectacular!” Bova says. They haven’t given much thought yet to how they’ll personalize the ceremony (“I said we should come from behind closed doors and they should play ‘Here Comes the Bride’ and two men come out in tuxedos,” Darby says) — they’re just thrilled they’ll be legally wed. “We’ll be able to say to the world, ‘Look, we’re married,’ Bova says. “Isn’t that amazing?’”
Chai Wolfman, 34, and Mandi Hinkley, 33, first met as students at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 1999, where they were both working at Einstein Bros. Bagels. “I showed up my first day, and Mandi was assigned to train me,” Wolfman recalls. “We started hanging out right away.” Eight years later, the pair cemented their love by holding a commitment ceremony in front of friends and family. “Neither one of us really thought we would be able to have a legal wedding, so we decided to have a ceremony and party anyway,” Hinkley says. Adds Wolfman: “We never thought that it would be only seven years before that would happen.”
A lot has happened in those seven years: Wolfman and Hinkley welcomed twin daughters Autumn and Violet in 2009, they moved into their Sauganash Park home in 2013 — and the marriage equality legislation finally passed, something their family had been actively fighting for alongside Equality Illinois. When the law finally became a reality, the couple knew they had to celebrate in a big way. “We saw the MCA’s contest on Facebook, so we applied the very first day,” Wolfman says. For Hinkley, a lawyer, and Wolfman, an artist, the location was kismet. “In college, we took one of our very first trips together to visit the MCA, so we feel incredibly grateful that they chose us.”
They’re also grateful to now be able to raise their daughters in a world where their parents can get married — just like anyone else. “One thing we talked about before the marriage bill passed is that we are a family, we love each other and we will be there for each other no matter what,” Hinkley says. “Now there’s not this additional hurdle that we’ll have to explain to them.”
For Wolfman and Hinkley, the wedding represents a high point in their 15-year love story. “We talk a lot about the seasons of life, and we feel like we’re in the summer of our lives right now,” Hinkley says. “We have each other, our children, our families and dear friends, our health and good fortune, and we have been blessed with the opportunity to be a part of this change in the course of history. And we hope for continued progress — a further spread of peace and joy in the world, and the will to continue the fight for future generations and other people who deserve the chance to live their lives freely and fully.”
Andrew Jones describes himself in many ways: high school music teacher, military veteran, father, minister-in-training, mentor for LGBT youth, African-American and, most recently, gay male. On Monday, he’ll add “husband” to the list when he marries fiancé Sean Holley. “I had to find a way to consolidate all these different roles,” says Jones of his decision to proudly wed Holley. “I couldn’t continue pretending like I was one person at work and a different person at church. It’s much easier for me to be one person and share that one person with all aspects of my community.”
Jones, 30, and Holley, 28, acknowledge their relationship hasn’t exactly been traditional. Jones was formerly married to a woman, with whom he has a 9-year-old daughter, before getting a divorce in 2010. He and Holley, a licensed massage therapist, first began communicating via Facebook in April 2010, when Jones was on military active duty in the Caribbean. “We had many friends in common, and our friendship developed from there,” he says. When they finally met in person nearly a year later, they knew their relationship was the real deal — and so did his daughter. “Anmarie gave him two thumbs up,” Jones says.
Jones, a minister’s son who’s always been active in the church, was initially conflicted about coming out. “My entire life, I’ve struggled to consecrate my faith and my sexuality,” he explains. But as Jones and Holley’s relationship blossomed, they decided to join a new church, Urban Village, and finally found unconditional acceptance. “Life is much simpler only having to be one person within my greater community,” Jones says.
The passage of the law feels like a personal victory for both. “It’s like we’re setting an example — I hope that other states in this wonderful country of ours see and realize that there’s nothing wrong with it,” Holley says. “I don’t have to feel like I’m living an alternative lifestyle because of my sexuality. I can have a family and get married like everybody else.” They’re eagerly planning the details of their ceremony: Their guests will wear all white, and one of Jones’ military supervisors will fly in from Ohio to serenade them on their special day. Anmarie, of course, will also take part in the ceremony as the flower girl. “Now she fully understands we’re a family and she loves that,” Holley says.
For Jones, the occasion is particularly momentous. “Being able to get married heals my heart from a lot of pain,” says Jones. “I’m looking forward to being able to take a deep breath and say, ‘I’m OK.’ ”