6 months of gay marriage has Minnesota confronting profound change
Tyler, left, and Thom Bieniek watch an NFL playoff game before dinner during a family gathering in their Sartell, Minn., home on Jan. 19, 2014.
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.”
Marge Hauser, Thom’s mother, admits to a long personal journey before accepting gay marriage. Now, she said of her son and Tyler: “They are like any other married couple. I think they are really brave to do it.
“There are still members of our family who disagree,” Tyler said. “Maybe someday, someday they will be able to accept it, and it will be OK for them.”
“The best we can do is keep exposing our lives to them,” Thom said.
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.”
Jan Knieff and Cathy Hare met at a church in St. Paul more than 31 years ago and proceeded to build a life together without the benefit of marriage. When the couple retired in 2002, they moved to Marshall to care for family. They were welcomed by many. But when the couple flew a rainbow-colored gay pride flag over their home, the flag was torched. When they put up a Vote No sign in their yard during the push for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, the sign was vandalized.
“We always considered ourselves married, whether we were legal or not,” Knieff said.
Still, the couple had planned a wedding for Aug. 19, commemorating the anniversary of an earlier commitment ceremony. Then came shocking news: Knieff had cancer and would need to come in for treatment at the Mayo Clinic on that day — no exceptions and no delays. They moved the wedding up to ensure Hare would have a spouse’s rights to medical control over her longtime partner. “We wanted to make sure when we went to Rochester we wouldn’t have a problem with Cathy being involved in any medical decisions,” said Knieff, 62.
They called relatives and close friends and asked them to show up the next afternoon: “Just bring your jeans and let’s get this done.” They said their vows in their living room.
“We really didn’t appreciate the full impact of marriage until it was on our doorstep, when one of us was sick,” said Hare, 65. Knieff’s cancer is now in remission. Since then, they’ve been struck by how moving it is, finally, legally, to be wife and wife.
“It is still extremely touching,” Knieff said. “Very profound.”
Soon after same-sex marriage became legal, Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey released a video on the agency’s website, warning business owners that they could face fines if they refuse to serve same-sex couples. “It has been the case in Minnesota since 1993,” he said. “They cannot discriminate against an individual based on sexual orientation.”
That has left some business owners, particularly in rural areas, dreading the day a gay or lesbian couple walk in seeking flowers, a cake or other service for their nuptials. These business owners fear that if they refuse, they will be targeted as lawbreakers and socked with penalties that could drive them out of businesses.
“I just don’t think people like me should be punished for believing what marriage has always been and meant to be in society,” said the rural Minnesota florist, who declined to be identified for fear of being targeted by the state. “I think our rights are being put into question, and I don’t like it.”
Political repercussions will be better known after November, particularly for the Republican legislators who broke with their party to vote for legalization.
Republican activists in Sen. Branden Petersen’s district took a rare no-confidence vote against the Andover Republican after he became the only GOP senator to vote for legalizing same-sex marriage. Petersen quietly began meeting with local activists one by one, stressing his overall record, which is among the most conservative in the Legislature. Last month, activists rescinded their vote of no confidence.
“Time helps,” he said. Same-sex marriage “has quickly become an issue that is a nonissue for people, at least in terms of a rallying cry.” The coalition that pushed for legalization has said they will not forget those who put themselves on the line. Though many in the coalition lean Democrat, they are actively raising money to help Republican legislators who voted with them fend off primary challengers.
Petersen and other Republicans are comforted by the fact that no GOP gubernatorial candidate has made repeal of same-sex marriage a pillar of the campaign. In fact, they aren’t even talking about it.
“That tells you everything you need to know about this issue in terms of Minnesota Republicans,” Petersen said. “The longer that time goes on, people will realize we have bigger fish to fry.”
That time may not be here just yet. State Rep. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, thought the debate was over. But his vote for same-sex marriage wound up costing FitzSimmons the endorsement at his district convention last month. A longtime party activist who is now helping conservative former legislator Tom Emmer in his 6th Congressional District bid, FitzSimmons is still contemplating whether to run for his seat in a primary, as many in his party are urging him to do.
Away from politics, life has settled into a routine for thousands of same-sex couples who are sharing new lives together.
One recent winter night, the Bienieks braved the cold for happy hour at a favorite bar and then home for pizza.
While the pizzas cooked, Thom sipped red wine and Tyler poured a glass of water.
Thom talked about the disparaging comments he sometimes hears from inebriated patients in the emergency room.
Over time, Thom — who is more gregarious by nature — has learned to keep quiet about his sexual orientation in an emergency room that sees a variety of patients.
After so many years in hiding, Tyler, 37, wants to be more open.
An administrator at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System and an officer in the Guard, he no longer hides his marriage at work. When a fellow Guard member asked what his wife thought about something, Tyler stopped him.
“Well, first of all,” he said, “my wife’s name is Thom.”
Tyler and Thom finished their pizza and sat quietly at the table for a minute.
“I don’t feel so much pressure to be hidden,” Tyler said. “We just strive to be a normal married couple.”