Gay and Lesbian Wedding Expo kicks off Chicago gay marriage, civil union season

Carla Barger and Jessie Haddad have been looking for the perfect venue for their civil union ceremony for over two months, so they came to the fourth annual Rainbow Wedding Expo March 24 for ideas and information. The couple, like hundreds of others in the Chicagoland area are embarking on the process of tying the knot, a task that could present unique challenges for LGBT couples, according to organizers.

The expo, at the Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza, was put on by Rainbow Wedding Network and brought together over 30 select gay-owned and gay-friendly vendors, including photographers, DJ’s, bakeries, venues, and more to pack the three-ballroom event. Over 500 nuptial minded individuals registered to attend.

Barger and Haddad, who met while in college 14 years ago, have been together for eight years and came to the event looking for ceremony ideas.

“We were hoping to get married [in Boston] next year because that is were we were living but we moved,” said Haddad. “We got engaged in November because civil unions finally passed,” Barger added.

Since the state’s civil unions bill went into affect in June of last year, 2,293 licenses have been issued according to the Cook County Clerk’s Office. Of those 2,293, 1,141 were female same-sex couples and 958 were male same-sex couples.

With more states legally recognizing same-sex relationships, a growing number of wedding businesses have seen an increase of interest in civil union ceremonies.

“Every time a state legalizes gay marriage we see probably a 60 percent increase in advertising [from businesses] online and in our magazine,” said Rainbow Wedding Network Founder Cindy Sproul.

Many supportive straight-owned businesses came to Chicago’s expo to show their alliance and solidarity with the LGBT community.

“I’m a friend of the community,” said Larry Burrows, a wedding photographer. “It’s my job to make couples happy, all couples.”

A wedding can average around $28,000, depending on where you live according the Theknot.com. One of the primary purposes of the expo is to highlight the importance of knowing where your money is going, said Sproul.

“In states where there is civil unions or marriage equality, businesses sometimes come out and say, ‘Yes, we’re gay friendly,’ but they’re not in it for the right reasons,” said Sproul. “We help connect couples with businesses screened to be gay friendly.”

Planning a same-sex marriage or civil union ceremony can carry with it additional challenges compared to their straight counterpart. Some companies touting to be gay-friendly don’t understand the intricacies of a same-sex union.

“Many vendors try to push you into the traditional walk down the isle and seated dinner,” said Haddad, about her planning challenges. “But we are [non-traditional] people; we just want to celebrate our friends and family who have supported us for this long.”

Other couples at the event, who have already planned their ceremonies, emphasized the importance of being upfront about being a same-sex couple. As local businesses grow to accommodate the rise in same-sex couples, the more couples will be at ease having their ceremonies in Chicago.

“We are both very well-traveled, but this is our hometown” said Haddad, who is of Lebanese descent. “We’ve lived in many different places and when it finally became legal we finally just said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Barger and Haddad plan on their saying their vows next year.