Gay couples weigh going out-of-state to marry or gambling on Annapolis

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.

The latter can make all the difference when it comes to health issues.

"Not until Lisa was pregnant did we decide to do living wills and power of attorney," says Deane. "We were so worried that if something happened to one of us, the other would not have access."

They had reason to worry.

"When I was giving birth to one of our daughters, the anesthesiologist asked Lisa to leave the room," Deane said. "He would have none of it. And a pediatrician told me I couldn't bring in Lisa's child because I was not recognized as the legal parent. Who runs around with legal documents? That's insane."

As Carpenter points out, "Marriage has a legal and an emotional component. Most people don't look at it as strictly a legal matter. Having a marriage license is extra helpful legally for gay couples," he adds.

Jonathan Blumenthal and Eric Cohen decided they had waited long enough. Now in their early 40s, the Silver Spring couple started contemplating marriage not long after they met 11 years ago, long before the effort to gain legalization in Maryland.

"We were looking into having a commitment ceremony. We wanted to have it in front of family and friends. We even found a venue," says Blumenthal, a federal government worker who co-founded with Cohen the Burgundy Crescent Volunteers, which coordinates LGBT volunteers for gay and gay-friendly nonprofit groups in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

"But then we decided, why not wait for marriage in Maryland? It seemed possible that it would soon be legal, and we felt it would be silly to do a ceremony twice. So we waited," says Blumenthal. "But we had to wait longer than we thought. When we saw that Maryland didn't get it this year, we started thinking about New York."

While the marriage bill was heading to defeat in Maryland, the effort to gain same-sex marriage rights in New York was in full swing.

"I was up there with Eric when the vote was taken. That's when we definitely decided to get married. New York is the second-best choice. We really wanted to do this in the state we live in."

Kaplan and Pearson attended a gay wedding in Washington last year right after the legalization. "It was fabulous," Kaplan says. "I love going to weddings. But there is so much love to be shared in this state."

Kaplan is particularly anxious about getting the opportunity to do some of that sharing because his father has cancer. That's the only reason he and Pearson may eventually decide to opt for D.C. before the next legislative session in Annapolis takes up a marriage bill. Meanwhile, the couple plans to do some lobbying when that session gets under way, just as they did this year, hoping to change some minds.

The opposition from religious conservatives, who provided the votes to kill the bill, is not likely to melt easily.

"I would remind them that there is a separation of church and state," Kaplan says. "When a couple gets married, there is a civil license. Different religions can believe very different things, but each one is entitled to give a civil license. No one objects to that, even though they may disagree with other religions. We want people to understand that this country was founded for freedom of religion. When you step outside of your church, you're a Marylander. Jon and Joel getting married isn't going to hurt anything."

Polyak and Deane will be lobbying again, too.

Despite the likelihood of an uphill struggle, Polyak feels optimistic about the chances in Maryland for same-sex marriage rights. "It's inevitable and it's imminent."

Wojahn agrees.

"There is a new hope for us next year," he says. "There will be a full push from a coalition of mostly Maryland-based groups. And the vote in New York will help us. The more marriage equality becomes accepted around the country, the more people will realize that the sky isn't going to fall. It's a matter of simple equality. It's not right to have to go to another state to get legal recognition."

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