Kissing and wishing

Southwest has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of gay and lesbian couples. Many want to get married, but the political landscape has short-circuited local civil disobedience.

Three years ago, Cathy ten Broeke took her solemn vows of marriage in what she calls a "very, very traditional" church wedding in front of a couple hundred friends and family members. Flowers, tears and smiles were in abundance.

"It was a wonderful day," ten Broeke said.

The ritual of love and commitment she and Margaret Miles went through isn’t recognized by the state of Minnesota, however. As far as the state is concerned, the Whittier couple’s wedding had no more legal significance than handholding at the senior prom.

"In our hearts, and in the hearts and minds of all our friends and family, we are married," ten Broeke said. "But not having those legal rights is very serious."

Ten Broeke watches the same-sex marriage debate grow hotter by the day, as couples from California to New York, and places in between, challenge laws prohibiting legal recognition of gay and lesbian marriages. "I’m really appreciating those acts of civil disobedience," she said. "In any civil rights movement, those are the kinds of things — sitting on a bus, for example — that are considered illegal at the time; it takes those things to make an issue come forward."

She’d love to see Hennepin County, which issues marriage licenses locally, leap into the fray, too, but said she doubts it will happen anytime soon. "We have a pretty different political scene at the County Board level, with the majority being quite conservative," she said.

Ten Broeke knows County Board politics: she’s policy aide for Commissioner Gail Dorfman, whose District 3 includes all of Southwest.

Deborah Talen, executive director of Rainbow Families, a Southwest-based organization serving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered extended families, said Southwest has much at stake.

"We’re heavily Southwest in our membership," Talen said. "The mayor likes to say there’s not really a gay ghetto in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and that’s true, but the combination of the livability of South and Southwest Minneapolis, and the quality schools, means that a lot of gay and lesbian families live here."

The 2000 Census numbers back up Talen. Southwest has 1,148 same-sex couples, 45 percent of Minneapolis’s total. And Minneapolis’s concentration of gay and lesbian partners was third highest among the nation’s large metro areas.

Southwest neighborhoods with the most same-sex couples were Whittier (111), Lyndale (90) and CARAG (85). Stevens Square had 118 combined with Loring Park.

Joining the fight?

Dorfman said she would also like to see Hennepin County join San Francisco, Seattle, Portland; New Paltz, N.Y. and other municipalities challenging same-sex marriage prohibition. However, the DFLer concedes that the chances of that happening are remote.

"It’s unlikely," Dorfman said, "But we’re having discussions. There’s some support on the board, but it’s not a majority. We’re trying to figure out ways that we can move the ball forward here, but it’s tough in the current political environment."

She said that the board — controlled 4-3 by Republicans and an Independent — couldn’t even agree to ask the State Legislature about extending equal health benefits to the partners of gay county employees two years ago.

"We’ve been careful about bringing it back because we don’t think it helps to continually bring it forward and have it fail," Dorfman said. "We’re also aware of the fact that the current [Republican] makeup of the Legislature isn’t going to make these changes, either."

The state House of Representatives recently began what promises to be a bitter process when it initiated hearings on a proposed state constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman only.

Ten Broeke dismisses both the proposed state amendment and the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution as "legalizing discrimination."

Along with dozens of other same-sex couples, she and Miles added their names to Minneapolis’ Domestic Partner registry Feb. 12 — "Freedom to Marry Day." Though the act was largely symbolic, the couple has taken more concrete steps, such as creating wills and health directives, to try to secure the legal protections of marriage.

Simulating marriage

Phil Duran, an attorney with gay advocacy group OutFront Minnesota, said the state turns a blind eye to same-sex couples. "A same-sex couple, they could be together since the earth cooled and the law treats them as acquaintances," he said.

That’s why it’s a good idea for same-sex couples to create some legal bindings and protections, he said.

People in same-sex relationships can create and sign healthcare directives and living wills that authorize their partner to make medical decisions on their behalf. These agreements can also include organ donations and funeral arrangements, he said.

They should also write wills, he said, and grant their partner power of attorney so that the partner can make business and financial decisions on their behalf should they become incapacitated.

Duran said folks should also inventory their pension plans, insurance plans, investments and the like to make sure that beneficiary designations are in their partner’s name.

The price of inequality? Hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars.

Duran said that health directives and power of attorney documents are a couple hundred dollars for the time and advice of an attorney — while wills have a much broader range of prices, dependent on the size of the person’s estate.

Duran said same-sex couples face complications when trying to adopt children as well. In international adoptions, one partner will often legally adopt a child from another country first, then the other will go through the adoption process locally because, he said, many nations don’t allow same-sex couples to adopt as a couple.

He said same-sex Minnesota couples could adopt kids together here, however.

Family colors

Talen said the issue of same-sex marriage is, in some ways, a distraction for the GLBT community. "Most of the folks working around gay civil rights weren’t really pushing marriage equality a year ago," she said.

"The Right Wing has really taken hold of this issue and politicized our lives in a way that we hadn’t anticipated," she said.

Nevertheless, she said she hopes that same-sex couples will soon be able to legally take the step she and her partner took 15 years ago when they got married at Southwest’s First Universalist Church.

"More than one person has said to me that in the 15 years since going to our ceremony, they’ve never been as moved as they were at our event," she recalled. "A lot of it had to do with the power of two people choosing to be together outside the framework that is expected. That it really made them look internally at why are they committed to the person they’re committed to.

"It was important for our families and friends to have us stand up and to say we’re making a commitment to each other. I think it makes a difference with opposite-sex couples and it makes a difference with same-sex couples."

Pastor and partner

Mary Albing, pastor of Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer, 5440 Penn Ave. S., said she hasn’t been asked to officiate at a same-sex wedding. Her congregation hasn’t given her explicit permission to officiate, but she figures they would back whatever decision she makes. "Since they have a lesbian pastor, I don’t think they’d have trouble with it," she said with a laugh.

Albing said she, too, would like to see local authorities issue same-sex marriage licenses as a way of challenging the status quo.

"Minnesota is primed to do something like that," she said before pausing and backtracking a bit. "At least we used to be very progressive. I sometimes wonder now, but I still think there is a really strong progressive element here."

She said that, overall, the national and local discussion of same-sex marriage is a positive development for the GLBT communities. "When the civil rights movement was at its hottest and its height, there were a lot of African-American people who said, ‘Oh, this is really a bad idea. This is causing me a lot of problems.’ It’s an ordinary human response. People get scared.

"But in the long run, I think it’s a great thing to have the conversation because what it’s done is to get both the gay and straight communities to think about marriage in a whole different way. When have you seen all the aspects of marriage and how important it is discussed so thoroughly?"

Albing said that she and her partner would like to someday be married. They want the real thing. Said Albing, "Rather than the two of us running out to San Francisco, I would just as soon have it be something legitimate here."