June 13 turned out to be a lucky day for Jerry Lee, 62, and Don Ofstedal, 59, of Minneapolis. That's the day the two men flew out to California for what they thought would be a pleasant, yet uneventful vacation. But along with wine tastings, fresh food, a tour of Hearst Castle and stunning drives up the coast, Lee and Ofstedal added a last-minute stop: San Francisco City Hall, where they were married June 19.

"Our vacation turned out to be a 'pre-honeymoon,'" Lee said with a laugh.

Their trip had already been planned when a California Supreme Court ruling in May overturned the state's ban on gay marriage, opening the door to same-sex nuptials beginning June 16. Three days after the ruling, the couple, who have been together for 35 years, donned white dress shirts, ties and jeans and recited their vows in front of a judge and two close friends.

Lee and Ofstedal know their vows are largely symbolic. Although California joins Massachusetts, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, more than 500 rights and responsibilities granted to married couples there are denied to gay and lesbian American couples who live outside of those two states. Those prohibitions include probate and end-of-life issues, property distribution -- even the mundane joint fishing license for married couples.

Yet, Lee felt compelled to do this.

"It's about wanting to express love in that way," he said. And, he admitted, "We also want to be part of the news. We want to push it a little and see where it goes."

But not every same-sex couple is rushing to the altar. Many gay and lesbian couples say they don't want to take part in a ceremony from which they long have been excluded. Lee has friends who are, in principle, opposed to same-sex marriage.

"They prefer that gay couples keep separate from this heterosexual milestone," he said.

Many say they don't need marriage to prove their dedication to each other.

Carol Cummins, 55, and Suzanne Born, 62, of Golden Valley, have been together for 30 years. From time to time, they talk about getting married but, frankly, Cummins said, "we're as married as a couple can be, in the sense of our commitment to each other." Still, she added, "I must admit that the legal aspects would be a huge benefit."

Born, an attorney, noted that marriage was established historically "for the preservation of property; it was, and continues to be, a civil contract." She is a big believer in marriage for couples who have, or want to have children.

"There's a certain security and protection for children," said Born, who specializes in adoption and assisted reproduction.

But personally? She laughs, recalling the considerable planning that went into the commitment ceremony of friends about five years ago.

"We saw all the work, and we said, 'Nooo. We're not doing that!'" she said.

But the women, who met at Hamline University School of Law when Born was a student and Cummins was director of admissions, have found other symbolic ways to cement their union. Early in their relationship, they exchanged tiny gold bands with bezel-set diamonds. They call them "rings of significance."

More important to the attorney, though, is that the couple have clearly spelled out their end-of-life issues in wills and health-care directives, which would not be guaranteed otherwise.

"We wanted to make sure that we didn't have problems with hospitals and doctors," Born said. "We knew that our families would be supportive."

'Just for us'

Rick Groger, 53, and Don Yager, 60, followed yet another path. They were married July 3, 2003, in Thunder Bay, Ontario, by a Unitarian minister. In attendance were their dog and the minister, with the minister's husband and houseguest from Ireland as witnesses.

"It wasn't meant to be a political statement," said Groger, a management analyst with the Minnesota Department of Revenue. "We didn't tell anyone about it. It was just for us."

The couple, who live along the river in St. Paul, wear rings, and Groger introduces Yager as his "husband" more and more within the gay community. Yager, who still uses "partner," said the marriage ceremony was more important to Groger.

"But, after 26 years, it was very nice," Yager said. "It didn't change our relationship, how I feel about him."

They've pooled their money "from Day 1 and always acted as if we were a married couple," Groger said.

Since meeting 30 years ago, they have witnessed tremendous changes in how gay couples are treated. Once, they were refused hotel rooms. Today, no one bats an eye when they check in together. They no longer get "funny looks" in the checkout line with two names on their checks. Young people, they say, grow up with friends who are gay or lesbian. Their nephews and nieces "often surprise us with their candidness about gay issues," Groger said.

But, like others, they long to have legal rights in Minnesota. Last summer, for example, Groger was sick and was rushed to the emergency room.

"There was no question that I was the person they came to for questions," Yager said.

"But we are very much at their mercy," Groger continued.

They, too, have drawn up health-care directives.

Flooding to the courthouse?

A UCLA study in June estimated that half of California's more than 100,000 same-sex couples will get married in the next three years and that 68,000 out-of-state couples will travel there to exchange vows. (Unlike Massachusetts, California has no residency requirement for marriage licenses.)

Lee, a former English teacher at Coon Rapids High School, and Ofstedal, a former co-owner of a travel agency, are glad they were part of the historic moment in California.

But signs of change for the couple, who once endured people yelling "Faggots!" as they walked around a city lake, were welcomed throughout their vacation. At one upscale hotel, for example, they were asked: "One bed or two?" When renting a car, the young attendant casually asked, "Are you domestic partners or anything?"

"Years ago," Ofstedal said, "they wouldn't make any assumptions."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350