March 8, 2012 at 11:18 am EST | by Dionne Walker
The Maryland originals

Dave Kolesar, left, and his partner, Patrick Wojahn, in Annapolis for last week's Maryland marriage bill signing. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

There’s no questioning Charles Blackburn’s love for partner Glen Dehn: He met the now-retired government worker at a party, moved in immediately and is still with him 33 years later.

Yet the pair has never walked down the aisle — not because the men didn’t want to, but because the state of Maryland said they couldn’t.

“We could never understand how a committed relationship of two gays or two lesbians could possibly hurt a heterosexual marriage and we haven’t been told yet,” says Blackburn, who, urged by a friend, signed the couple up to join a 2004 lawsuit for same-sex marriage in Maryland.

Years later, the Blackburn-Dehn couple is among 19 original plaintiffs rejoicing in the wake of a newly signed measure legalizing gay marriages in Maryland. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the bill into law on March 1; Maryland joins D.C. and six states in legalizing gay marriages. The Civil Marriage Protection Act is scheduled to take effect in January, though a voter referendum in November could kill the measure before then.

For now, the signing brings to a close a fight that’s meandered from the failed lawsuit, to legislative hearings and finally, to the governor’s desk.

As the fight for marriage has twisted and turned, so too have the lives of those original couples — through family changes, relationship endings and new beginnings.

Yet through it all, several of the original plaintiffs tell The Blade they’re glad to have played a role in securing the rights of same-sex couples and families in Maryland and beyond.

“Whatever obstacles you face, you want to make it better for yourself but you also want to leave a path that’s a little bit better for the people who come behind you,” says Gita Deane, who joined the suit with partner Lisa Polyak. “I don’t for a minute think that we shouldn’t have done it.”

‘We had to do it’

Polyak and Deane were living the life of the average family with two young daughters when a turn at the microphone during a town hall near their Baltimore home changed everything.

“(We) just spoke about the difficulties of our lives being parents and about things we wanted to do for our kids that we couldn’t,” says Polyak, who later got a call from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The civil liberties group was looking for couples to join a lawsuit to be filed in Baltimore with the cooperation of Equality Maryland. The groups would charge that a state law denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the Maryland Constitution.

Joining the case could mean helping pave the way for their family and similar families to enjoy the financial and emotional benefits of legal marriage. But it could also mean harassment.

“I had a great many worries about how this would impact my children,” Deane says. “When we had time to talk to the lawyer ACLU my first question was, ‘Is anybody going to send us hate mail or put up signs on our front yard?'”

Farther south in Riverdale,  Md., Mikkole Mozelle was also apprehensive when her then partner Lisa Kebreau mentioned getting involved in the case she’d heard about through an email — but for different reasons.

“I guess I always thought something like this was extraordinary people fighting extraordinary struggles and we were just your everyday, average couple. It caught me off guard, but in a good way,” says Mozelle, a black woman who eventually embraced the idea of changing the largely white face of the gay marriage push.

The planned lawsuit would be one in a string filed by the ACLU, its partners and affiliates on behalf of same-sex couples seeking marriage equality in New York, Oregon, California and the state of Washington.

ACLU attorneys would eventually file suit in state court in Baltimore in July 2004 on behalf of nine couples and a widowed man. Among them were Kebreau and Mozelle, Polyak and Deane.

“It would never have been my choice to be public about my life,” Deane says. “(But) we had to do it because we had children and we have a responsibility to our children to make sure we’re able to take care of them.”

A matter of families and finance

From the beginning, the plaintiffs have argued the marriage question had less to do with certificates and ceremonies and more to do with tax breaks, health insurance and the other practical benefits that rise in importance as families grow and couples mature.

Dave Kolesar was just 18 years old when an infection led to brain surgery and a dim prognosis. Now 34, he’s in great condition, but worries along with his partner Patrick Wojahn about after effects.

They joined the case a year after Wojahn had proposed to Kolesar.

“In case something else were to happen to him, we wanted to be assured that I would be able to take care of him,” Wojahn says.

For plaintiff John Lestitian, that “what if” scenario became a reality in 2003, when his partner of more than a decade died suddenly. A subsequent battle over the home they shared and his final resting place encouraged him to join the suit.

“I’d gone through a situation of a contested will and dealing with the aftermath of the death,” he says. “My personal experience made me all the more willing to step forward.”

Yet for other plaintiffs, the choice to make their private lives personal stemmed in part from financial concerns. For instance, Charles Blackburn is blocked from sharing his partner’s federal health benefits, which he estimates could save the couple several thousand dollars each year.

Polyak and Deane estimate they’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars yearly on separate health insurance policies and the adoptions of each other’s biological children.

Despite the money spent, the couples remain financially at risk.

“We’ve done as much as we can through wills and legal things,” Deane says. “But we can only cover about eight of the 1,000 benefits that come with marriage on our own.”

Reaching the victory lap

On March 1, Patrick Wojahn and Dave Kolesar joined dozens of same-sex couples, gay lawmakers and advocates who stood behind O’Malley as he signed the historic bill in Annapolis.

“It was just electrifying,” Wojahn says. “There was so much excitement in the air.”

The bill-signing ceremony came just one week after the Maryland Senate voted 25 to 22 to approve the measure, and nearly five years after the Maryland Court of Appeals voted 4 to 3 to uphold state law barring same-sex marriage, ending the ACLU’s suit.

The ACLU and Equality Maryland immediately took the push to the General Assembly, and the plaintiffs largely went back to their normal lives.

Wojahn and Kolesar married in D.C last year, as did Polyak and Deane, who said they tired of waiting on legislators.

Lestitian found a new love and also married in D.C. in 2010, while Mozelle and partner Kebreau split in early 2009.

Still, Mozelle says she believes her partner is as pleasantly surprised as she is that the legislation went through.

“I feared that it wouldn’t,” she says, “but I prayed that it would.”

Some of the couples, like Wojahn and Kolesar, plan to re-marry in Maryland to ensure all of their rights.

For Blackburn and Dehn, both in their 70s, the ceremony they hope to have if the law holds would be their first.

But marriage or not, after 33 years, they know where they stand.

“I moved in a month after we met,” Blackburn says. “We just knew we had found something special in each other and it remained that way.”

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