The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 29, 2013

Top 10 stories, No. 2: Local counties approved first same-sex marriages

Joe Strong says he was surprised how far his story traveled

By Edie Schmierbach

---- — Surrounded by the media and loved ones eager to witness their lifelong commitment to each other, Rob Thomas and Joe Strong of rural St. Peter were married Aug.1 by Nicollet County Court Administrator Carol Melick.

“We’re just thrilled that this day is finally upon us. I didn't believe the actual legal day would ever come in our lifetimes," Strong said on their wedding day, the same day when Minnesota became the 12th state to recognize marriages between two people of the same gender.

Six months later, people still stop and congratulate them, Strong said.

"To see what our small-town story has meant to others, I didn't realize how much it meant to others ... how much they embraced the idea. There's been so much out-of-nowhere support," he said.

After the Associated Press republished the story of Thomas and Strong's ceremony, the couple found out they made the news in other states and several countries. Family members reported watching an Australian report on the marriage and a North Carolina newspaper featured a photo of the St. Peter men's wedding kiss, along with the headline "What are we waiting for?"

For 17 years before their marriage the two men were a couple, so much of the change in status has been about paperwork.

Thomas recently noted one of the details in their lives that is now handled differently. "When we fill out insurance forms, we now mark "married," he said.

A few weeks before Aug. 1, Jenn Melby and Anna Kelley signed their marriage papers at the license center in Mankato. They were greeted warmly by the Blue Earth County employees and by others waiting in line.

"It was a very empowering day," Kelley said at the time.

"All we had to do was change a few words, it all went pretty smoothly," Director Patty O'Connor said of the filing process that day.

On May 14, Gov. Mark Dayton signed HF 1054 into law, making Minnesota's marriage law gender neutral and adding the state to a growing list of those allowing same-sex marriage. The bill was passed by the Minnesota House of Representatives May 9 and the Senate on May 13.

Dayton also showed his support when he proclaimed Aug. 1 — the day the law went into effect — to be "Freedom to Marry Day" in Minnesota.

Shortly after Melby and Kelley's union, the Twin Cities-based magazine Lavender honored them with a community award. Jenn Melby-Kelley, proprietor of the Coffee Hag, was recognized for her work to preserve and strengthen one of region’s first GLBT-owned establishments.

The couple noticed an advantage of being married when they recently became first-time homeowners.

"When we bought our house, it made the financing process easier," said Anna.

The newlyweds have experienced some awkward situations while traveling out of state, but the majority of the people they encounter are friendly.

"It's nice to be out in the open in our hometown," said Jenn Melby-Kelley. "It's been nice to be able to say when I am out shopping, 'This is for my wife.'