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Same-sex couples celebrate anniversary of legal marriages in Minnesota, hope ND follows soon

Cindy Phillips, left, and Janet Jorgensen of Fargo, N.D., are celebrating their one year anniversary of marriage in the state of Minnesota. The same-sex couple seen here Thursday, July 31, 2014, were among others who wed during the midnight ceremony last August. Nick Wagner / The Forum

Janet Jorgensen and Cynthia Phillips dated for two years before pledging their lives to one another at a small ceremony with friends in 1993. Last year, they legally tied the knot in Moorhead along with 17 other couples the day Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage.

Phillips calls Aug. 1, 2013, “the anniversary of our relationship to the government.”

Jan Titus and Robert Stone, both of Fargo, share three anniversaries – one for when they met, a second for the commitment they made to each other at a church ceremony before same-sex marriage was legal in Minnesota, and a third for their official wedding at the midnight ceremony last Aug. 1.

“We both kind of expected the courthouse ceremony to be just kind of a thing to do to get a piece of paper,” Titus said. “But when we looked into each other’s eyes, we both started crying.”

Crucial step forward

Gloria Weisgram and Mary Hapala, both of Moorhead, feel they are treated no differently now than a heterosexual married couple.

The pair were married at the midnight ceremony last August and since then have benefited from filing state and federal taxes together. Weisgram could also benefit from Hapala’s Social Security if she needed to.

“All the benefits they have, we have,” Hapala said.

“It makes you think, ‘Gosh, there were 25 years where we could have filed taxes together,’ ” Weisgram said.

Being legally married “puts a legitimacy to it that we really never anticipated would ever happen,” Weisgram said.

Despite its complex relationship with North Dakota law, same-sex marriage in Minnesota has been a crucial step forward, said Geneva Nenzek of the Fargo-Moorhead Pride Collective.

“If I want to get married, I don’t have to move somewhere else,” said Nenzek, a recent Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate and vice president of the board at the collective.

Nenzek said that publicity from same-sex marriages has provided positive exposure that could help gay people who feel ostracized.

The weddings might make them think, “ ‘OK, people don’t hate me. The way I was born isn’t horrible and evil,’ ” Nenzek said.

Local restaurateurs Monte Jones and Jerry Erbstoesser, who live in Moorhead, are set to be married on Aug. 8 in Moorhead after nearly 11 years together.

They hope their wedding serves as the positive example Nenzek described.

“You don’t have to be in the closet. You don’t have to be ashamed,” Jones said. “We’re not ashamed.”

The pair said the response to their wedding has been phenomenal. They’ve had to expand their seating arrangements to accommodate the number of people who have asked to come and celebrate with them.

The community support is a far cry from the Fargo-Moorhead Jones remembers from his childhood.

“I knew I couldn’t grow up here,” Jones said. “I just knew I wasn’t going to fit in.”

He left for New York City to pursue a career in dance, eventually returning to spend time with his aging mother.

Now, Jones said, “attitudes have changed dramatically.”

Couples said the marriage licenses they received from the Clay County Courthouse haven’t changed their relationships.

“We have been together almost 30 years,” said Peter Vandervort, a costume designer who married Ronald Ramsey at the midnight ceremony in Moorhead. “Being married for one year really does not change the situation.”

Seventy-three same-sex couples have been issued marriage licenses out of a total of 652 marriage licenses issued in Clay County since last August, according to county recorder’s office records.

ND couples frustrated

For those who live and work in Fargo, the fact that their marriage isn’t recognized in North Dakota has been frustrating, expensive and unfair, they say.

North Dakota passed a constitutional amendment in 2004 banning same-sex marriage. A lawsuit filed June 6 in U.S. District Court in Fargo is challenging the ban.

Ramsey and Vandervort, both of Fargo, are among seven same-sex couples challenging the North Dakota law.

“It’s a second-class citizenship,” said Ramsey, who teaches architecture at North Dakota State University. Vandervort cannot be covered under Ramsey’s health care plan without incurring a $6,000 penalty because they are not considered spouses, they say.

Jorgensen and Phillips also live in Fargo. Jorgensen is a disabled Navy veteran eligible for property tax benefits under North Dakota law. If Jorgensen had married a man, those benefits would cover her spouse’s portion of their house, but those benefits don’t apply for Phillips.

Heterosexual couples can factor in the legal and tax benefits of marriage, Phillips said, but “we don’t have that choice.”

If they were man and woman, Stone and Titus would both be covered under Stone’s retirement pension from his years teaching at NDSU’s Division of Independent Study.

Titus said he doesn’t receive that benefit because their marriage isn’t recognized.

“We live on the North Dakota side, so when we go over to Minnesota we usually say we’re married,” he joked half-heartedly. “We’re still married, but not legally, here.”

The legal troubles faced by same-sex couples are complicated and can be a “nightmare,” said Alisha Ankers, a Fargo attorney specializing in family law.

“It’s only complex because there’s a different set of rights for two different sets of people,” she said.

Same-sex couples who want to raise children in North Dakota face uncertain legal territory. Ankers is working with a same-sex couple trying to separate while maintaining joint parental rights of their children, a complicated task.

“All of those issues in North Dakota are completely up in the air when it comes to dissolving those relationships,” she said.

Opponents not deterred

One year after same-sex marriage was legalized in Minnesota, opponents are not deterred.

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said in an email Thursday that opponents of same-sex marriage were energized by legalization.

“The defeat of the marriage amendment and the subsequent redefinition of marriage in Minnesota awakened a lot of people and showed them the importance of social and political engagement,” Adkins wrote.

He also criticized the Minnesota Department of Human Rights for “actively seeking to punish those who decline to provide services for same-sex weddings.”

Business owners have been “threatened” by same-sex couples who were refused service, Adkins wrote.

“The redefinition of marriage was allegedly about freedom, but in practice it has already meant an infringement on the conscience rights and liberty of Minnesotans,” he wrote. 

Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, said he is focused on North Dakota, not Minnesota.

“While we follow cases in other states,” he said, “obviously we don’t see that they affect us.”

“We’re hopeful in North Dakota that our case is resolved favorably between a man and a woman, as people voted on by 73 percent in 2004,” Freier said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter 

Adrian Glass-Moore at (701) 241-5599

Adrian Glass-Moore

Readers are encouraged to reach Adrian Glass-Moore at (701) 241-5599 or with comments, criticisms and tips. He joined The Forum as its night reporter in 2014.