BELLEVILLE, Ill. — While same-sex couples began marrying in Chicago and Illinois’ Cook County as a result of a court ruling on Friday, more than a dozen gay and lesbian couples downstate are preparing to celebrate their big day at the 7th annual Metro East PrideFest in Belleville, Ill., on June 21, 2014.
The Illinois state legislature approved same-sex marriage last year, and the new law is set to take effect statewide on June 1, just in time for LGBT pride month.
With a population of 43,765, the Southern Illinois city is among the smallest towns in the nation to host an annual pride celebration, produced by Metro East Pride of Southwestern Illinois (MEPSI).
“We felt with the passing of marriage equality we had to do something to commemorate this exciting and truly historic event,” said Allen Irby, Vice President of MEPSI, a social and educational organization dedicated to advocacy and empowerment of the LGBT community. “What better way than legally marrying your partner at festival in front of everyone.”
The ceremony will be held on historic West Main and officiated by Fr. Marek Bożek of Saint Stanislaus Church in St. Louis, a welcoming Catholic faith community that cherishes the Polish heritage of its founders and celebrates diversity of all who enter.
Earlier this month, MEPSI put out feelers on their social media sites to gauge interest in a public marriage ceremony. The response was immediate and organizers expect more couples to sign on.
Local vendors have stepped up to offer their services to make the event a special one for all involved, which will include a reception complete with first dances, cutting of the cakes and a champagne toast with members of the MEPSI board and other dignitaries.
“I am happy to be able to share in a day of pure joy,” said Belleville Alderwoman Janet Schmidt, also on the MEPSI board. “A year ago, this was a dream and this year, a reality – that finally in Illinois all who want to marry can do so. I am very proud to be a citizen of this great state. Pride in Belleville is always something to be proud of, but this year, we can be even more proud as we join these happy couples in celebrating their glorious day.”
Alex Young, 22, and Bob Baker, 46 of Sunset Hills, Mo., are among the couples planning to tie the knot at Metro East Pride. The two have been together for two years and in 2012 participated in the symbolic commitment ceremony at St. Louis PrideFest across the river.
“Words cannot describe how exciting and wonderful it is to finally get the right to get legally married,” said Young. “Being in an interracial, intergenerational relationship has its challenges but we both are fortunate to have loving and supporting families and friends.”
The benefits of legal marriage are not lost on Young. Last year when Baker became ill and was hospitalized in intensive care he was kept from visiting his partner by Baker’s family. Young also points to the insurance and tax benefits that they currently do not enjoy.
“On January 30, after reading the post about Metro East Pride’s plans for this year’s pride, I took our picture from our commitment ceremony and added the words, ‘Will you marry me for real’ and sent it in a picture text message,” explained Young. “Bob said yes and I’m excited to be able to also take on Bob’s name and call him my husband. Alex and Bob Young-Baker has a nice ring to it.”
The couple plans on moving to Illinois, which does not have a residency requirement to be married, later this year.
But for Illinois’ estimated 23,049 same-sex couples, it’s been a long wait for equality.
The Illinois Senate first approved the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act on Valentine’s Day 2013 with the House following suit on Nov. 5. The legislation was signed into law on Nov. 28 by Gov. Pat Quinn. To date, 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.
“Personally, I feel like this is our time,” concluded Irby. “I think of all the LGBT Couples who have come before us fighting for equality; we have finally been validated. We will celebrate pride and equality at PrideFest and beyond.”