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Couples plan to make it official at TCRA ceremony
by Steven Chaitman

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Tony Harper and James Abernathy have been in love for almost 11 years. They live together, work together, travel together—travel to work together—and soon they will make history together. On June 3, they will be among the first LGBT couples across the state of Illinois to be civilly united in a community-wide public ceremony titled "Unite with Pride: A Community Celebration."

For Harper and Abernathy, who both work for the City of Country Club Hills and run a personal assistant company for celebrities, the busy nature of their work schedules would have long-delayed their plans to unite and celebrate with family and friends. They say the "Unite with Pride" event will allow them that opportunity while removing the stress of planning.

"We've been in love for eleven years and what better way to show that than something shared with all of the people that had a struggle in this battle for same-sex domestic partnership," Harper said. "And not just do it by ourselves, but with our friends, colleagues and families."

Harper and Abernathy will be one of an estimated 40 couples to come together at the at the Chicago History Museum's Uihlein Plaza. The event is a fundraiser for its host group, The Civil Rights Agenda (TCRA), an equal rights advocacy organization that was part of the Springfield lobby that helped pass the civil union bill back in January.

"We had about five people down (in Springfield) working full time during the period civil unions were coming together and this is just a very fitting and appropriate event to usher in a new era for gay and lesbian couples in Illinois," said TCRA Board President Jacob Meister.

TCRA Executive Director Anthony Martinez said that the event is not only a celebration for the couples but also for TCRA, which has seen a lot accomplished after forming less than a year ago.

"We really wanted to take part in [the event] as a way to tie it back to [when the civil union law was signed]," Martinez said. "I think for us as a new organization, we wanted to do something to commemorate our anniversary and as a community organization, we wanted to give back to the community as well."

Martinez said another goal of "United with Pride" was to provide couples who had previously planned quick ceremonies in other states or countries with legalized civil unions and marriage the opportunity to stay in Illinois while being able to afford an actual celebration.

Erica Feliciano, who proposed to girlfriend Vanessa Pabon last year, said the couple had been planning to go to another state to legalize its relationship. Now, she said, they can celebrate with friends and family, most of who live in and around Chicago, as well as with the greater Chicago community.

"We thought that [the event] would great idea to participate in the community," Feliciano said. "It just felt right. We planned on just doing something ourselves, but then thought it would be great to be part of history and part of the community together."

Among other historical ties, the Chicago History Museum, which rented out its event facilities for the evening, also recently debuted "Out in Chicago" a Chicago LGBT history exhibition. All couples and community guests that register for the event will be able to view the exhibition.

The Chicago History Museum has a 20-year history of working with the Chicago LGBT community beginning with an AIDS exhibit in 1992 in conjunction with the Gerber/Hart Library. Executive Vice President and Chief Historian Russell Lewis said that TCRA's event occurring at the same time as the new exhibit marks a coincidence that proves history is in the making.

"People have an expectation that [museums] are 'validating history' and that's exactly what we wanted to do," Lewis said. "We wanted to say to them that this is a group that has a history and it's a powerful history and it's as much part of history as anything else is."

Some couples registered for the event are chiefly looking forward to celebrating this new chapter in history. Chris Link and his partner, Stephen Gruhn, had a formal partnership ceremony in Australia five years ago, but are looking forward to celebrating with more friends and family as well as those who feel equally passionate about their new legal protections.

"We considered [that the event] was great reason to not only celebrate ourselves and our relationship, but also the new law that gives us the opportunity to do so," Link said.

For Harper and Abernathy, the event constitutes a one-of-a-kind opportunity.

"You're only slotted so much time in your gay life to experience an occasion like this," Harper said. "There are so many naysayers and non-believers who might try and revoke something like this. We want to take advantage of what we have now. Regardless of what a piece of paper may say or society says, we have been united since 2001."

The ceremony begins at 5:30 p.m. to be followed a black-tie optional cocktail reception in the museum's "Chicago Room." Professional photographers will be on hand as will local caterers, bakeries, florists and entertainment. Taylor & Co., led by president Derrick Taylor, will plan and direct the event.

The Chicago History Museum has been working with the Chicago Police Department to provide ample security for the event.

"Unite with Pride" costs $50 for the community and $75 for couples wishing to be united. All fees go to the TCRA's Families United Project, a social networking project that aims to educate and inform about civil unions. Guests and couples who register by the May 28 11:59 p.m. deadline will also be entered in a drawing to have brunch with U.S. Sen. Al Franken at a private event on June 12. To register or for more information, visit .

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