6 months of gay marriage has state confronting profound change

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2014 - 9:29 AM

Nearly 3,000 couples are settling in to married life and its legal consequences while opponents wrestle with the quick shift.

Thom Bieniek remembers when he had to go by the name “Marissa” just to communicate with his partner Tyler Bieniek during Tyler’s combat deployment in Afghanistan in 2009.

Now that burden is gone: Last fall, for the first time, he even got the chance to attach a promotion pin on Tyler’s National Guard uniform — a privilege that came because they are married.

Last summer, Jan Knieff and Cathy Hare faced the dread that shadows a diagnosis of serious illness. But the pair, together 31 years, were able at last to wed days before Knieff’s hospital admission, ensuring that Hare could visit Knieff in the hospital and with full spousal rights.

Across Minnesota, same-sex marriage is subtly but permanently altering the social fabric. The political rancor that gripped the state for more than two years before legislators took the historic step that legalized such unions last summer has given way to a new and still forming landscape. Same-sex couples are settling swiftly into married life, and others still uneasy with the momentous change are struggling to adjust to it.

At least 2,934 same-sex couples have wed across Minnesota. Hennepin County clerks found that about one in every four couples seeking a marriage license in the past six months was gay or lesbian. In Clay County, on the North Dakota border, 52 of the 309 marriage licenses were for same-sex couples.

In a testament to how much has changed, in just the past couple of months a group founded to raise awareness about the 515 legal protections for married couples that were denied to same-sex ones announced that it is closing up shop, its mission accomplished.

Ann Kaner-Roth, the former head of the group Project 515, recalls her children sitting on the steps of the State Capitol the day Gov. Mark Dayton signed the same-sex marriage bill. Her oldest daughter, she said, will remember the campaigns and intense conversations during those months leading up to legalization. Her youngest two will not.

“All they will ever know is a state where everyone is free to marry the person they love, and families that are protected by our state,” she said. “That new reality is a gift for all of our families and children, and is part of the legacy that all of us now leave behind.

Yet, in a state where 47 percent of voters supported a constitutional ban on gay marriage less than a year and a half ago, some hard or uncertain feelings linger among those who cannot reconcile gay marriage with their religious or moral beliefs.

“I’m a Christian believer,” said Linda Sevlie, 70, of Coon Rapids. “Anyone who knows the Scriptures knows this is not part of God’s plan. Families are very divided over this.”

In one rural Minnesota town, a florist is considering shuttering her business, unwilling to provide flowers for gay and lesbian nuptials but fearful that she might face lawsuits if she refuses.

And in Owatonna, Misty Zacharias, 36, said the passage of same-sex marriage “was a real eye-opener for me,” and an object lesson to the self-described conservative on the value of making your voice heard.

“The people for gay marriage worked really hard and told people about their beliefs and their lives,” she said. “I want people to be happy, but there are certain values that I have to stand by. There are still many people who have a traditional view for how marriage should be. I feel like my view is being less tolerated.”

For the many gay and lesbian couples who once had to hide their very relationship, the changes wrought in the past six months have been profound.

The Bienieks

Tyler Bieniek and Thom Hauser met in 2006 at the Granite City Grill near Sartell, an area with a strong conservative streak. They fell in love almost immediately and soon were living together.

Then came news that would have been tough for any young couple: Tyler’s Guard unit was headed for Afghanistan. Both men knew that if Tyler got wounded — or worse — Thom would be left behind with no benefits and no rights.

The Guard’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy meant Tyler and Thom could not openly use the secured Guard e-mail accounts created for soldiers to communicate with loved ones back home. Tyler set up an account for Thom with the name “Marissa,” to throw off military screeners. Tyler and “Marissa” exchanged love letters through the long months of deployment.

  • checking in with Minnesota newlyweds

    “We really didn’t appreciate the full impact of marriage until it was on our doorstep, when one of us was sick.”

    Jan Knieff and Cathy Hare, Marshall

    “For us, after 27 years together, nothing has changed, but on the other hand, everything has changed. It’s even better now.”

    Keith Haugen and Mike Goerdt, Duluth

    “Actually, being married is really life-changing. … The legality is a different kind of experience, it’s really validating.”

    Amanda and Laura Tufano, Minneapolis

    “I don’t feel so much pressure to be hidden. We just strive to be a normal married couple.”

    Thom, above left, and Tyler Bieniek, of Sartell

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