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Northland same-sex couples see validation in prospective passage of marriage bill

The marriage bill expected to pass in the Minnesota House today has many Northland same-sex couples thinking about how their unions will change. For many, there are practical matters such as financial security and the ability for a partner to dir...

Nettie Bothwell and Naomi Christensen
Naomi Christensen (left) and Nettie Bothwell of Duluth are looking forward to today's House vote on legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota. They've been together 16 years. "It's been kind of interesting," Christensen said of the movement in the past year toward equal marriage rights in the state. "It's leveling the playing field." (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The marriage bill expected to pass in the Minnesota House today has many Northland same-sex couples thinking about how their unions will change.

For many, there are practical matters such as financial security and the ability for a partner to direct health care in times of crisis. There also is the emotional side, of something happening that they thought might not: recognition in Minnesota of same-sex couples on a level with heterosexual marriages.

"We just want to be able to take care of each other," said Barb Weller, sitting next to her partner, Marg France.

"I am fluctuating between being scared to death and crying," said Barb Crow of rural Duluth about the likely historic vote today. She will be with her partner, Sherry Rovig, in St. Paul as the vote nears. "We will be witness."

The News Tribune contacted several other Northland same-sex couples and supporters and gathered their reactions to the state moving ever closer to equality in marriage.

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Nettie Bothwell and Naomi Christensen

Nettie Bothwell couldn't get any more frank about what marriage equality in Minnesota means to her.

"If we can marry, my super-religious brother won't be able to take my body," she said.

"It's been kind of interesting," Bothwell's partner of 16 years, Naomi Christensen, said of the movement in the past year toward equal marriage rights in the state. "It's leveling the playing field."

The couple is most concerned about being able to see each other and offer directives when either one falls ill.

"We can just say we're recognized as whole people," Bothwell said.

Doug Stevens and Paul Eckhardt

They've been partners for 28 years. They helped raise a daughter. They got married in Iowa. But Doug Stevens and Paul Eckhardt have never been recognized as a married couple in Minnesota.

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"We just never thought we'd see it happen here," Stevens said.

The marriage bill will mean no more questions about who can give health care directives or control over who would get property in the event one person dies.

"We'll be able to get all the rights married couples have," Stevens said. "No longer can someone else come in and say, "You were never married.' "

Stevens said he will rejoice if the marriage law passes and helps erase the horror stories of the past. Last fall, he said, a client of his was denied rights to his deceased partner.

Like other couples, Stevens and Eckhardt have spent a lot of money on attorney fees getting their rights down on paper.

Barb Weller and Marg France

Imagine being told by a doctor in the hospital that you can't see your partner or even be told how your partner is faring. It's happened to Marg France and Barb Weller. Passage of a marriage bill would end the fear of not being there for each other.

"I won't have to be terrified anymore," Weller said.

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Weller is 70 and France is 66, and as they age, health is on their minds as well as rights to pensions. They gave vows to each other in 1993 and had a commitment ceremony in 1997.

"It's right," France said of the bill. "And we see things more urgently."

"Another reason we want marriage equality is so that we, too, can have freedom of religion," Weller said. "Right now our church (St. Paul's Episcopal) does want to be able to marry us legally. It is not allowed. We support every church's right to choose whom they can marry, and to refuse to marry also. Ours doesn't have that right."

Barb Crow and Sherry Rovig

Barb Crow works away from home while Sherry Rovig has done work to shape their homestead in the country north of Duluth. And that scares them.

"It puts her at risk," Crow said. Rovig is vulnerable through current law should Crow die. She could be left with nothing.

They have spent more than $2,000 on attorney fees to set legal powers.

But Crow is careful to not concentrate on the financials. Some of those in opposition to marriage equality have said it's only about the money.

"There is a spiritual aspect to marriage and a legitimacy that comes with it," Crow said. She is still shocked to see that marriage equality will get a vote today.

"I can't believe it's happening in our lifetime," she said.

Therese Presley and Andrew Presley

They are mother and son, and both have been outspoken on the issues of marriage equality.

Therese Presley was one of three mothers of gay men at a marriage equality rally of more than 2,000 people in St. Paul in February. Her son, Andrew, lives in California, and he said Wednesday that Minnesota allowing marriage for all will be a factor for people such as him who are thinking about relocating.

Therese said it's important that the marriage bill includes provisions that won't force any church to perform marriages.

"I think it will help the Catholic Church heal," she said.

As a parent of a gay man, she also believes others in her position will be helped.

"Knowing that marriage is possible for them, it will help parents accept their children."

Mark Hakes

He's a devout Catholic, attending Mass every weekend. He's also the children's minister at Duluth Peace Church. And he is gay.

Hakes said he was thrilled to see the term "civil marriage" enter into the bill Wednesday because it then doesn't infringe on the wishes of churches on either side of the equality debate.

"It's really an expansion of religious freedom," he said.

Hakes, 24, said he didn't think he'd see what might happen in the Legislature this year.

"I didn't think it would go this quickly," he said. "We would be the 12th state. That's shocking."

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