A tale of love and loss that vindicates Minnesota's actions

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 6:20 PM

Contrast this state’s policies on same-sex marriage with Indiana’s, and as you do, consider this couple.

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Polly Philblad and Kathleen Driscoll were married in Minnesota in January. Driscoll died last month.

It might be said that Minnesota made Polly Philblad a widow. And she loves this state all the more for it.

Philblad is still in Indianapolis, in the home she shared with her 20-year soul mate and, as of Jan. 28, 2014, her wife, Kathleen Driscoll. Later this month, the 46-year-old medical assistant expects to return for good to Minnesota, her native state and the state that allowed their dream of legal marriage to be fulfilled before Kathleen died last month, at age 59.

Polly can’t wait for Indiana to recede from sight in her rearview mirror.

For other Minnesotans, looking at Indiana is instructive. It reveals what might have been in store if Minnesota’s voters had not opted for love and fairness in 2012, and made Minnesota the first state to say no at the ballot box to a proposed state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The Legislature tore down Minnesota’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage six months later.

Indiana’s same-sex marriage ban is so rigid that application for a marriage license by a same-sex couple is a felony, and use of the word “marriage” by the officiant in a same-sex commitment ceremony is a misdemeanor. Discrimination against LGBT people in housing and employment is not barred by state law, as it has been in Minnesota since 1993.

Last month, Indiana’s attorney general sought an “emergency stay” by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of a federal district court ruling that the state’s marriage ban is unconstitutional. “An emergency? That’s for a tornado, not a whole bunch of happy people at the courthouse,” Philblad huffed.

Last week, in a U.S. legal first, a three-judge Seventh Circuit panel ordered Indiana to recognize the Massachusetts marriage of another female couple staring death in the face. That order makes Amy Sandler and Niki Quasney, who is terminally ill with ovarian cancer, the only same-sex couple in Indiana whose marriage has legal sanction today. More legal action lies ahead.

Polly and Kathleen could have opted for a similar court fight. Instead, they decided after Minnesota dropped its legal bar to same-sex marriage last Aug. 1 — before Kathleen fell ill — that they’d had enough of Indiana. Polly is originally from Mendota Heights. She and Kathleen spent 17 of their 20 years together in Minnesota before moving to Kathleen’s home state to help care for aging parents.

They were planning to return this fall and have a proper wedding. They looked forward to a ceremony at their church home, Michael Servetus Unitarian Society in Fridley, standing side by side, exchanging vows and rings, celebrating with friends.

They got only some of what they’d planned. When Kathleen was diagnosed with aggressive singlet ring cell carcinoma late last year, her one wish was to marry Polly. But Kathleen nearly died twice from strokes in January and was in intense pain. She could no longer travel.

Polly contacted a Minnesota legislator for whom she had once pounded lawn signs, state Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights. Laine was in Mexico on vacation, but she swung into action. Within days, arrangements were made for a computer-assisted civil ceremony at Hennepin County Government Center, the sort judges have performed for couples separated by military service.

Instead of standing together, Polly was in Hennepin County District Judge Mark Wernick’s chamber on Jan. 28, seated before a computer screen. Kathleen was at home in Indianapolis. At Wernick’s prompting, they exchanged vows, promising to “tenderly care for you … through all the changes in our lives.” They blew kisses via FaceTime. Polly and the judge were joined by two friends and a journalist she’d just met. Kathleen was surrounded by neighbors and family members, including a registered nurse.

They were reunited the next day, after bad weather diverted Polly to Kansas City on her way home. They asked for no publicity at the time, out of fear of Hoosier homophobia.

“I should have been with her,” Polly laments about her wedding day. “I should have been able to face her, hug her, kiss her.” It’s one of the grudges she holds against Indiana.

But their 20-year dream of having their names on a signed-and-sealed marriage license came true, thanks to the voters and legislators of Minnesota. It was a source of solace for four months, until Kathleen died on June 3. Polly and Kathleen could banter about being newlyweds as Kathleen endured the rigors of chemotherapy. Kathleen, a biomedical technician and former IBEW journeyman electrician, could have peace of mind knowing that Polly would be her legally surviving spouse, eligible for survivors’ benefits.

Polly’s involvement in Kathleen’s medical care was never questioned at St. Vincent’s Hospital or by Kathleen’s family, for which she’s grateful. She was told that other Indiana hospitals would not have been as respectful.

“The coolest thing about the whole deal is I got to say ‘wife’ ” in describing herself, Polly said. She embraces the label “widow” today. “There’s respect in that word for Kathleen,” she says.

On Aug. 1, this state will mark the one-year anniversaries of the first wave of same-sex couples to marry under Minnesota law. That milestone will be a time of joy for those couples and of pride for Minnesotans who appreciate living in a state that did not need a federal court order to apply its marriage laws equally to all citizens, gay or straight.

Polly expects to be back in Minnesota then. Her joy on that anniversary day will be marred by grief. But my guess is that her pride in her home state will be off the charts.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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