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A night to remember: Same-sex couples mark first year since legal marriages in Minnesota

FNS Photo by Nick Wagner Cindy Phillips, left, and Jan Jergensen of Fargo are celebrating their one-year anniversary of marriage in the state of Minnesota. The couple, seen here on Thursday, were among others who wed during the midnight ceremony last August.

MOORHEAD, Minn. — The first same-sex couples who wed at midnight in Moorhead on this date last year are celebrating two anniversaries — the day they made a lifelong commitment to each other and the day they were able to be legally married.

Janet Jorgensen and Cynthia Phillips dated for two years before pledging their lives to each other 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

Crucial step forward

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 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. “Lord knows 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.

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.”

Opponents not deterred

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

“We hope that one day the state of Minnesota reaffirms that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Council, said in an email Thursday.

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.”