Shortly after Jon A. Kaplan and Joel Pearson met, they decided to spend a week together in Florida over the holidays — an extended first date, they call it. The trip went so well that they bought a pair of matching rings while they were there, rings that resemble traditional, pricey wedding bands.

"Actually, they cost $10," says Pearson. "They haven't been off our hands since."

That was 18 years ago. The Bolton Hill residents, now in their 40s, plan to use those rings if and when the day comes they can obtain a marriage license in Maryland.

"Joel and I feel we are married, but we would love to have our relationship formally recognized by the state," says Kaplan, a fitness instructor. "I want to celebrate here. We want our parents to come to Baltimore for the wedding."

Like gay couples throughout the state, they are stuck in a kind of limbo. The narrow defeat of a marriage bill in Annapolis at the last legislative session means that another bill can't make its way to the floor until sometime next year.

But many gay couples have grown tired of waiting for the right to such a contract. The effort to recognize same-sex marriage in Maryland has been going on for at least seven years.

Meanwhile, other states have joined Massachusetts and Iowa in legalizing gay marriage, including neighboring Washington, D.C., which began marrying gay couples last year. Another option that could exert considerable appeal is New York, which will begin issuing licenses Sunday.

Yet the successful passage of a marriage bill in New York last month, even with a Republican-controlled state Senate, has given a boost to marriage advocates here.

"What New York showed, more so than any other jurisdiction, is that there was a broad coalition of people who understood that all citizens, including gays and lesbians, should be treated as equals," says Lisa Polyak, an environmental engineer in Baltimore and a board member of the civil rights organization Equality Maryland. "This crossed all kinds of lines — Democrats and Republicans, gay and straight, secular and religious."

Polyak and Gita Deane were among nine couples who sued for the right to wed in Maryland in 2004. Although a Baltimore circuit judge sided with the plaintiffs, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed the state's one man-one woman marriage statute in 2007. When Polyak and Deane campaigned for the marriage bill that was voted on in Annapolis this year, there was a difference — they were already married.

"We decided we had been waiting and waiting for so long — we will be together 30 years in October," says Deane, a learning specialist. "So we just decided last February that we weren't going to wait anymore. We had our wedding in D.C. We had to take care of our family. We have two children, ages 12 and 15, and this was very important to them. They wanted us to do something to make it legal."

Adds Polyak: "I think a lot of people are exhausted from waiting. I would have been much happier to have our celebration in Maryland."

That's the same attitude expressed by Patrick Wojahn, a lawyer, College Park city councilman and chairman of the Equality Maryland Foundation. He and Dave Kolesar, an engineer, were also part of the 2004 law suit. They recently married in Washington.

"We had been very hopeful we could get married in my adopted home state," Wojahn says, "especially because my husband is a Maryland native. But we thought it would be better to take advantage of legal protection, so we decided to go to D.C. My sense is that a lot of couples are doing what we are doing, getting married elsewhere and then coming back with the hope that the license will be recognized in Maryland."

There are at least some grounds for holding that hope.

"Attorney General Doug F. Gansler issued an opinion that Maryland should recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, but it's untested," says Lee Carpenter, a Baltimore estate planning attorney. "There have been very few problems with that so far, but there aren't any guarantees. It could go to the highest court."

Objections to Gansler's opinion do not impress Polyak.

"Some states have a much younger minimum age for marriage, but Maryland still recognizes those licenses when people come here," she says. "I expect the Maryland Court of Appeals will have to weigh in on the matter of out-of-state gay marriages. Right now, Anne Arundel County government is not willing to recognize same-sex marriage licenses for employees, but the county school system will."

Regardless of which decision committed gay couples make — have a wedding outside the state now, or hold on for the next session of the Maryland legislature — Carpenter recommends that they do estate planning. That includes wills and power of attorney authorizations.