Sixth Ward Alderman Mark Tendam, standing, and Neal Moglin in the early 1990s. The two were among the first to obtain a civil union license earlier this month.  Photo courtesy of Ald. Tendam

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Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the law establishing civil unions in Illinois – the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act – in January. The law, however, did not take effect until June 1. Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, and his partner of 21 years, Neal Moglin, stood in line bright and early Wednesday, June 1. They were among the first in the county to obtain a civil union license and shortly after midnight became joined in official civil union.

Ald. Tendam, who in 2009 was instrumental in Evanston’s decision to offer same-sex partner benefits to City employees, wanted to be one of the first. Although he said that he serves “all of the citizens in the ward,” he also said that he wants to serve as an example to other gay, lesbian and transgender members of the community, particularly among the youth. A rabbi once called the alderman and his partner “truly [the intolerant right’s] worst enemy” because they embody none of the negative stereotypes cited by opponents of same-sex marriage. “I’d like to think young people could see parallels between [Neal and me] and their parents,” said Ald. Tendam. “I hope they can see a very positive, successful, pretty much
normal relationship.”

A desire to serve as an example stems from Ald. Tendam’s experiences in southern Ohio and Mr. Moglin’s home of South Carolina, not Evanston. “We chose our venue very carefully” when moving to Evanston, he said. “I have never felt like a second-class citizen in Evanston, Illinois.” The community has afforded him full rights and is “accepting, loving and open-minded,” he said. “Don’t try this in Texas,” he added with a laugh.

The experience itself was rather low-key, he said. “We got to [the Skokie Courthouse] at about 8:30,” said Ald. Tendam, and there were four or five couples there already. Everyone was “very, very happy” and “congratulating each other” as they received their licenses, he said.

The new state law provides that a license will actually take effect the day after it is issued, meaning that the earliest possible date for a valid civil union in Illinois was June 2. Ald. Tendam and Mr. Moglin waited – but just until midnight. The official union took place at 12:01 a.m. on June 2, officiated over by Judge Larry Axelrood and Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl.

Now officially members of a civil union, the couple has planned a larger ceremony in their synagogue, with clergy officiating, in the fall, Ald. Tendam said.

Ald. Tendam said that he has been “reluctant to use the term ‘married’” to describe his relationship with Mr. Moglin. “We need a new term,” he said, trying out “unionized,” “organized,” “partnered” and “committed” before dismissing each. “‘Domestic partners’ sounds like a cleaning company,” he said. “I don’t consider myself married, but we have decided to call each other ‘husband.’ Go figure,” he said.

Although willing to laugh about the issue, Ald. Tendam said he takes it very seriously. “In a perfect world, I don’t think states should be issuing marriage licenses at all,” he said. Instead, all couples – same-sex, opposite sex, transgendered – would be issued a civil union license. Whatever religious affiliation the couple selects would declare the couple married, or whatever term they choose, he said. “That would be, in my mind, what makes sense.”

He said he also views civil unions as a serious civil rights issue, and pointed out that same-sex couples have for years been denied many basic rights afforded them by the constitution, including property rights and inheritance rights. As an example, Ald. Tendam said that several years ago he had a heart attack and was hospitalized when Mr. Moglin was traveling in London. Mr. Moglin called the hospital, but because he was not officially related, could not get any information about Ald. Tendam’s condition.  Had they been married (the term available at the time), there would have been no problem.

Ald. Tendam and Mr. Moglin have been together for 21 years and said they would have made the union official years ago had the option been legally available. “We exchanged rings after 15 years,” Ald. Tendam said. He described two turning points in the relationship. The first was when the couple bought a house together. People would ask him if he was “married,” and he would say he “was joined, if for no other reason, than by financial debt.”

The second turning point was when Ald. Tendam commissioned a series of portraits of himself and Neal in 1991. That is, he said when he felt he had a true commitment to the relationship, such that he wanted to “hang a picture of the two of us – embracing – in my home.”

That was almost 20 years ago. The country has come a long way since that time. “I’m proud of what we’ve done, the 21 years we’ve survived,” Ald. Tendam said. He gave credit to his extended family – his parents and Mr. Moglin’s –  for supporting them every step of the way. Others have not been so lucky, and family disapproval has been a “huge problem” for many, he acknowledged.

But times are indeed changing. Public approval of gay marriage has now “exceeded the 50-percent mark,” he said, and civil unions have come to “places you would not expect, like Iowa.” One day, when the history books reference the shift in public opinion and the beginning of civil union in Illinois, perhaps they will note one of the first couples officially joined in a civil union in Illinois – Neal Moglin and Evanston Alderman Mark Tendam.