Story by Nick Coleman
Weddings often begin after the appointed time, but this one was almost too early: If Margaret Miles and Cathy ten Broeke pledged their troth before the big clock on the Minneapolis City Hall tower struck Midnight, it wouldn’t count.
My cellphone said it was 11:58 p.m. Minnesota’s historic same-sex marriage law — passed by the Legislature last spring after a tumultuous year of angry debate and a popular uprising that finally put marriage equality on the statute books — wouldn’t take effect until the calendar turned from July to August, opening a new chapter in Minnesota history.
So with one eye on the time and another on the lovely couple — resplendent in red and black gowns and with their precocious 5-year-old, Louie, mugging at the crowd that jammed the City Hall atrium around the 1906 sculpture of Mississippi: Father of Waters — Mayor R.T. Rybak stalled for time.
Ten Broeke and Miles had descended the marble steps at 11:30 p.m. to a brass quintet’s rendition of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Rybak and a rabbi already had shared their thoughts on the power of love and the necessity of equality before the law. And Rybak, playing Minnesota’s Marrying Sam, had already kicked off a night-long marriage marathon — 63 couples were queued up to marry before dawn — by administering the vows, traditional with the historic exception that both parties had agreed to take the other as their “lawfully wedded wife.”
The women — accomplished, articulate, attractive — could be on a poster for same-sex marriage rights as the campaign continues to bring marriage equality to the 38 states where it still is unrecognized. They had a commitment ceremony 12 years ago, a commitment that has outlasted many traditional marriages but which was not recognized in the law. Last night — wearing the same dresses they wore in 2001 – they filled in the blanks on a marriage license, and made it official.
They embraced, kissed, cried…and waited and waited and waited for two minutes more — minutes that might have seemed almost as long as the decades of organizing, campaigning, fighting for this night. All that remained was the mayor’s pronouncement that they were now legally wed. But that had to wait for the midnight hour to arrive.
Rybak checked the time and said, “We will talk about this for a couple minutes,” bringing laughter from the crowd that had been holding its collective breath. There was a brief musical interlude as Minnesota bid farewell to the old days of legal oppression and rejection and a new era began to be born. Rybak checked the time again. It was here.
“By the power now finally vested in me by the laws of the people of Minnesota,” he declared loudly, “Margaret and Cathy are legally married.”
It was time to kiss the brides. Minneapolis City Hall burst into cheers, the right to marry was extended to all, the long and difficult fight for human rights, dignity and equality had accomplished another milestone and love was the law. It was a night to remember, and to put in the history books.
The celebrations had begun four hours earlier at the Wilde Roast restaurant, a place with a wall-sized portrait of Oscar Wilde, wit, raconteur and doomed lover whose object of desire famously called same-sex attraction, “The love that dare not speak its name.” Last night, love was shouted to the rooftops.
The Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” was on the sound system, couples danced and hugged and laughed, politicians –mostly Democrats but including a sprinkling of Republicans — vied for attention, wedding cake (courtesy of General Mills) was being sliced up, and “I Do” cupcakes were being handed out.
“I Do,” as in the marriage vow. But the prevailing mood was more like: “We Did!”
“This is a night of all nights,” said DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a long-time advocate of same-sex marriage. “Minnesota is joining the real world, at last. And nobody expected it to happen this fast.”
The marriage equality law passed just six months after the against-all-expectations voter defeat of a mean-spirited amendment that would have written a ban on same-ex marriage into the state Constitution. Kahn credited the spiteful anti-gay efforts of people like Republican State Sen. Warren Limmer and Catholic Archbishop John Nienstedt for the speedy success of gays and supporters of fair play in the uprising that shot down the amendment and pushed same-sex marriage to victory.
“We should have made them (Limmer and Neinstedt) the marshals of the Pride Parade,” Kahn cracked. “It wouldn’t have been possible without them.”
Sen. John Marty, one of the most passionate supporters of marriage equality, was eating wedding cake, talking of the upcoming 32nd anniversary of his marriage to his wife, Connie, and celebrating the expansion of equality.
“I’ve been to so many weddings (but) this is the first time that we’re able to celebrate so many weddings,” Marty said. “There are plenty of couples who have been together as long as my wife and I. But only now, is the state recognizing their three decades together.”
Marty was talking about an often overlooked aspect of marriage-equality: Same-sex couples who have been married in other states or countries were not recognized as married in Minnesota. Until midnight. One such couple sat near by, holding hands and celebrating that their love — almost exactly as old as the Marty marriage — is now official in their home state. Walt Oberstar and Clark McDonald met at a gay picnic in Duluth in 1982, moved in together the next year, have been together ever since, and were married in Canada in 2008.
But last night, as midnight came close, they finally knew that their relationship, Made in Minnesota, was also Official in Minnesota. McDonald, 55, an unemployed designer, spent “thousands” of hours working phone banks against last year’s anti-gay marriage amendment and, after its defeat, working for the same-sex marriage law.
“Equal rights is worth the struggle,” McDonald said. “It feels just fantastic.”
Walt and Clark each wore T-shirts supporting same-sex marriage rights, and embossed with photo images of their Canadian marriage license. For a long-time couple like them, last night was not just a celebration. It was an emancipation, one that brought real-life rewards far more important than cupcakes.
Walt, 62, is seven years older than his husband. Now, at last, he knows Clark will have a spouse’s legal rights.
“Our marriage finally will be recognized,” said Walt, who works at the University of Minnesota. “I know that if something happens to me, that Clark is covered by my Social Security, he won’t have to pay any inheritance taxes, he’ll get my pension… It’s just a lot less stress.”
Just before midnight, as food trucks dished out snacks to the hungry outside City Hall, Liz Aram and Sara Shoen waited for their friends, Jenny and Nikki Starr. Each couple was on the mayor’s marriage schedule sometime between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., and each planned to serve as legal witnesses for the other. But they had more on their mind than their own bliss. They wanted people to know that the struggle for marriage equality was just one part of a much larger struggle for human rights, and that the LGBTQ community’s fight is not over.
“A lot of other causes have been neglected,” said Aram. She was holding a sign on the sidewalk that said, “I Do,” but her “I Do” was about more than marriage. It said: “I Do Promise To Keep Working For Justice.”
“A lot of queer money has gone into this fight,” Aram said. “It was a good cause, but now we’ve got to turn around and keep fighting — against poverty, against injustice, against inequality everywhere.”
Then, the four women took their leave: It was time to go inside City Hall, and get ready to start new lives.
It was their wedding night.
Nick Coleman is the Executive Editor of The UpTake. Reach him at email@example.com
The UpTake’s Kathryn Nelson contributed to this report.