Latina lesbians facing terminal illness celebrate life, love in wedding

New spouses celebrate in joint weddings on first day same-sex marriage is legal statewide

June 3, 2014

(WBEZ/Yolando Perdomo)
Mae and Carol Yee take a quiet moment together during a joint wedding ceremony with four other couples. Their daughters are holding Carol’s train.

It was about 30 minutes before Carol Boyd was going to tie the knot Sunday. She was upstairs at the Chicago Urban Arts Society in Pilsen, touching up her makeup, while her two daughters fluffed up the skirt on her wedding dress.

“Thank you,” she told them. “ My daughters are giving me away, I’m like the proudest mom on earth.”

She took photos, then headed downstairs with her daughters and friends running lookout. She was trying to avoid even the briefest glimpse of her bride-to-be. The couple wanted to honor the traditional custom and be surprised.

“Now we get to take exactly what everybody else gets to take, a marriage certificate, a marriage license,” Carol said. “I’m excited, I’m happy, and I’m proud to be able to do this today and make history.”

In a hallway off to the side of the reception area, her future bride, Mae Yee, was pacing. She has a shaved head, and was sporting a white brocaded vest and a red bow tie.

“I’m a little nervous,” Mae said, laughing. “I’m getting married for the first time for real, I mean ‘real’ real, this is like federal real.”

They were about to join three other lesbian couples in a ceremony called “A Big Queer Latina Wedding.”  They were among dozens of couples -- gay, lesbian and straight -- who took part in various mass weddings across Chicago to celebrate June 1, the first day same-sex marriages became legal in Illinois.

May and Carol Yee both hope the state’s new same-sex marriage law leads to greater mainstream acceptance, but their particular wedding vows go even deeper than that.

Carol’s a colon cancer survivor, and Mae has stage IV breast cancer. She’s going to chemo every 21 days, hoping to prolong their life together as much as possible.

Mae said marriage means she can take care of her family financially, even if she’s not here anymore.

“I get sick, I can say, ‘This is my wife, and these are my kids, and please let them in,’ and they have to abide by that, so I’m very, very happy about that.”

“Oh my goodness, today is amazing, “ said Jessica Carillo, who organized the Latina event, which was sponsored by United Latino Pride and Lambda Legal. “Today is a day closer to sort of being seen more equal in the eyes of our families, in the eyes of our community. For Latinos, marriage is a huge milestone. Marriage is, sort of what you’re meant to do, to build a family.”

Carillo said many Latinos face the twin challenges of Catholicism prohibiting same-sex marriage, and having parents who grew up in another country.

“They’re bringing the ideas from back home, they’re bringing whatever those biases in the way they grew up,” Carillo says, adding the younger generation is growing up here with new ideas. “And so when you mix those two things, there’s a clash.”

Carillo said she hopes same-sex marriage becoming legal will lead to more acceptance by Latinos and society.

But even though this was a day of celebration for LGBT people across the state, Evette Cardona said there’s work to be done. She co-founded Amigas Latinas, an organization that seeks to empower and educate LGBT Latinas, with her wife, the city’s Human Relations Commissioner, Mona Noriega.

“While today we celebrate these four couples, tomorrow there’s 10 times the number of families that won’t accept their lesbian daughters,” Cardona says. “In the communities of color, if you are rejected by your family, and you also experience rejection by the mainstream community, where do you turn?”

In fact, the parents of one of the brides, Juanita Gonzalez, didn’t attend the wedding. But she found support in her aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as the family she’s formed with her wife, Janet Cecil. Janet has two daughters, and a granddaughter, and they all stood by as the couple spoke their vows and exchanged rings.

When Juanita broke down midway through, one of Janet’s daughters reached out to pat her back, and her little granddaughter did the same.

The couple, grandmothers now, were best friends in high school. Juanita says she knew she loved Janet at 16. But Janet thought it was wrong for her to feel this way about a woman. They moved in other directions, but said they kept finding their way back to each other, until they finally became a couple. Janet’s friends and family’s reaction? Essentially, ‘Finally.’

Like the other couples, Carol and Mae Yee shared their vows with laughter and tears, the promises to care for each other in sickness and health, deep with meaning.

“...I vow to love you with every being, even after my last breath,” Mae said. “I promise to cherish each moment God has given us together for the rest of our lives …”

“I love you whether you’re fat or fit, and when you’re hurt, and when you’re sick…” Carol vowed.

The couple runs a charity together in their spare time called Humble Hearts, providing the homeless with food, clothing and furniture.

Carol said that didn’t leave much for a fancy wedding with a reception, so she was grateful for the all-volunteer event in Pilsen, which was free for everyone attending.

Before the ceremony, a tearful Carol said of her bride, Mae: “She’s here today to live long enough to actually be married. It’s my gift to her, it’s me committing to her for better or worse, sickness and health. She’s got a lot of sickness right now, but I’m not going anywhere.”

On this, their wedding day, there was no sickness in sight, only joy.

When the music started, they jumped out onto the dance floor with the three other newly married couples. And their first dance?

The song made famous by Etta James, “At Last.”

Lynette Kalsnes is a WBEZ producer/reporting covering religion and culture.