Testimony of Mercedes Santos and Theresa Volpe before the Illinois Senate Executive Committee

January 2, 2013

Case: Darby v. Orr

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Delivered by Theresa Volpe:

Thank you for letting us speak with you today. I'd like to start by introducing my family, I'm Theresa Volpe and this is, Mercedes Santos. These are our children, Ava and Jaidon, and this is my mother, Barbara Volpe. Mercedes’s parents, Larry and Florence Santos are also here, along with several of our close family friends.

Marriage, to us, is about a lot of things but more than anything—it's about our family.

Mercedes and I met, and fell in love 21 years ago. We weren’t expecting it to happen, but it did. It was clear to us very early on in our relationship that if “we could get married to one another, we would.” We said those exact words to each other. It was the only language we knew. So, we come from families where our parents were in loving, committed relationships, and they were responsible for our family. They were our role models.

Through these years, Mercedes and I grew up together. We bought our first house in Rogers Park, Chicago 16 years ago and still live in that house today. We started a small business together in the basement of that same home, and today we have offices in East Rogers Park where we have been riding to work together for the last 13 years, and work side-by-side. Eight years ago, we made the best decision of our lives when we decided to have children, and now are raising Ava (8) and Jaidon (4), the biggest joys of our lives. We are in a civil union, but wish to get married because civil unions are not enough.

A few years ago, Jaidon was hospitalized and close to death—he was in the pediatric intensive care unit for kidney failure. I traveled with Jaidon to the hospital in an ambulance and was admitted to the intensive care unit to be with Jaidon. Mercedes followed in our car and was given a wristband identifying her as a parent so that she could enter the ICU, too.

However, when I briefly left the room and attempted to return, a hospital administrator refused to let me pass unless I could identify myself as a “stepmother,” telling me that a child could have only one “real” mother, that Mercedes was already inside, and that admission to the intensive care unit was for “parents only.”

It didn’t matter when I told the administrator that we were both Jaidon’s legal parents.

As this story shows, sometimes being a legal parent is not enough. All the administrator wanted to know was whether we were married. I would have been allowed in if I could have described myself as a “stepmother”—even though many stepmoms aren’t even legal parents. If we had said, “We are in a civil union,” we would have had to explain what that means because not everyone understands what a civil union is referring to.

Perhaps some of you are parents, too. We ask you to think for a moment about how you would feel if your son were close to death and you were blocked from being by his side. All because you can’t say, “We are a married family.”

Our children have had other visits to the ER, and Mercedes and I both become a bit panicked, thinking we will have to explain why we both need to be with our child. We shouldn’t have to always carry paperwork to explain that we are the “real mothers” of our children. We shouldn't have to fight for respect as a family in future emergencies—if we had been married, we wouldn't have had to go through that ordeal.

We have been in a loving, committed relationship for 21 years.

For us, marriage is about our love, our commitment, and our responsibility for our family, just like our parents’ marriages’ and our siblings’ marriages. Civil unions are not enough, as we were reminded when we went to the County Clerk’s office to apply for our marriage license. We told the clerk we wanted to be married and wished to get a license. The clerk said, “You two want to marry? But you are two women.” We said, “Yes, we wish to marry.” The clerk said, “You want a civil union.” We said, “ We already have a civil union.” The clerk then turned to her co-worker and said, “These two women want a marriage license.” Her co-worker said, “They want a civil union.” The clerk said, “No, they already have a civil union. They want the upgrade.” The fact that our own city clerks saw getting a marriage license as an upgrade to a civil union license is very telling.

We often joke that we would like to be married before we have to use walkers to go down the aisle. We love each other. Our daughter, Ava is very aware that a civil union is not marriage, and she understands that civil unions separate her family from those of her friends. Our children want us to be married. We want to feel secure that we can protect them and be there for them when they need us. We want them to understand that their family is just as worthy of respect as any other Illinois family.

We respectfully request that you pass this bill. Not just for us, but for them.

Mercedes and Theresa