MINNEAPOLIS — 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.
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 email 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.
They’ve married since then, and the next time Tyler gets deployed things will be different. Thom has full spousal benefits and rights. He’s already using Tyler’s GI Bill for nursing classes at the College of St. Scholastica. When they have children, the kids will be covered, too.
“I’m very glad we have the same last name, that we are a family,” Tyler said. “I never thought I would be in this position. I knew it would probably come in my lifetime. … It’s changed so fast.”
Minnesota broke a 30-state winning streak for opponents of same-sex marriage, who had become accustomed to launching campaigns and winning elections that embedded bans on such marriages in state constitutions.
When that was tried here, supporters of gay marriage mobilized with money and manpower to a degree unseen elsewhere. Once they defeated the ban, supporters turned up pressure on the Legislature, making Minnesota only the 12th state in the nation to legalize gay marriage. Others have followed and 17 states, along with the District of Columbia, now permit same-sex marriage.
Another breakthrough came last month, when U.S. Attorney Eric Holder announced that the federal government would “recognize lawful same-sex marriages as broadly as possible,” including in such issues as bankruptcies, prison visits and federal survivor benefits. Federal benefits will be extended — and protected — even in the 34 states that don’t sanction such marriages.
The barriers to same-sex marriages appear to be toppling quickly, even in those states where constitutional bans were thought to provide the ultimate protection. Recently Nevada’s Republican governor and Democratic attorney general said jointly that the state would no longer defend its constitutional ban on gay marriage in court because it is “no longer defensible.” On Feb. 26, a federal judge in Kentucky ordered that state to recognize same-sex marriages despite its constitutional ban. Earlier, a judge in Virginia struck down the commonwealth’s ban as unconstitutional. The same day, a move by the Indiana Legislature to put a constitutional ban before voters faltered at the last minute for lack of support.
Fred Sainz, an executive vice president with the Human Rights Campaign, a chief backer of same-sex marriage initiatives around the country, said “Minnesota became an important foothold for marriage around the country. It shows that it is not just some newfangled experiment in California or the coasts. The nation’s heartland is just as immersed in equality as other portions of the country.”