Barb Weller and Marg France finish each other's sentences the way longtime couples do, and after 19 years together it's no surprise how they feel about commitment and next week's vote on whether enshrine Minnesota's same-sex marriage ban in the state constitution.
"If the amendment is passed ..." said Weller, "... we won't be able to get married in this lifetime," finished France. Both women are in their 60s.
For most gay Minnesotans, particularly those who would like to marry longtime partners, passage of the constitutional amendment would put that dream further out of reach. Defeat of the measure would by a welcome but largely symbolic victory for gay couples because the state's current same-sex marriage ban would still be in effect, denying same-sex couples who consider themselves married in all but name the same protections and privileges as legally married couples.
That means worrying about things like being denied hospital visits to an ailing partner; being unable to honor a loved one's wishes after death; or being excluded from parenting rights in cases where an unmarried person adopts the child of a partner. Gay rights supporters say those are just a few of the legal privileges they are denied or may have to fight to assert because of their inability to marry.
During the long campaign over the constitutional amendment, the group working to pass it has stressed that it's not trying to hurt gay couples. "Everybody has a right to love who they choose," says the narrator in a commercial from Minnesota for Marriage, a coalition of religious and socially conservative organizations.
The group contends that male-female marriage is a centuries-old societal building block that benefits children, and that redefining it in law could lead to intrusions on religious liberty and the right of parents to control influences on their children.
Gay couples say that rationale ignores the realities of the lives they're already living. "We have taken on all the responsibilities of marriage, but we don't get the rights," said Rebecca Hostetler, who lives with her partner of 19 years, Julie Redpath, in Chisago City.
Hostetler, a librarian, and Redpath, a retired state worker, got married this summer in Iowa, which legalized same-sex marriage via a state Supreme Court ruling in 2009. Since Minnesota doesn't recognize their marriage, they have drawn up wills and taken other legal steps, including granting each other final say in making end-of-life decisions, to mirror the rights automatically conferred upon opposite-sex married couples.
But both women fear the documents won't be enough since they don't have a marriage contract that grants them next-of-kin status.
"We know that these are our wishes, but by law they don't have to be honored," Redpath said.
Weller and France, both retired social workers who live near Duluth, say they have seen what can happen. In 2002, France's brother Rick France - who was also gay - died suddenly of a heart attack while sitting in his car outside a Minneapolis grocery store. Weller and France were living in the Minneapolis area at the time, and they got the first call from the county medical examiner, who was legally required to notify the next of kin in cases of unexpected death.
"There was a card in Rick's wallet that said to notify Bob in case of emergency, but they said `we can't do that,"' said France, referring to Bob Hedin, her brother's partner of 18 years. She had to go with Hedin so that he could claim Rick's body from the morgue and have it cremated, claim his and Rick's car from the impound lot, and make other arrangements.
"We learned the hard way that all the legal preparation in the world doesn't matter when it counts," France said. Bob Hedin, her late brother's partner, confirmed the account via email. "I was immersed in the love of our friends and family, but ran into walls whenever legal relationships came into play," wrote Hedin, who now lives in Arizona.
France and Weller have taken many of the same legal steps as Redpath and Hostetler. However, as they age and deal with health issues they say they occasionally encounter resistance or refusal from hospitals when they request medical information about one another.
"You're reminded that you're not, under the eyes of the law, your partner's next of kin," France said.
Project 515 is a Minnesota nonprofit that takes its name from what it says are 515 instances where Minnesota state law extends rights to married couples that are not accessible to gay couples. Many of those rights, the group says, can't be duplicated with legal contracts or other arrangements; and even those that can often require the expense of hiring an attorney.
The organization has compiled gay couples' stories of hardship, including a woman's account of being denied medical information about her partner's newborn, even though she legally adopted the girl. Another woman told of losing her home to a medical assistance lien after her partner's death, which the state would not have been allowed to enforce had they been allowed to marry.
"Absolutely you want the rights and benefits," said Gary Anderson of Duluth, who's been with his partner, Gary Boelhower, for three years. "But more than that, you want to be recognized for the responsibility you are willing to take for this other human being. I'm here to take care of him `til death do us part, but without a marriage license that's not something we can take for granted."