On Oct. 23, not quite three months after her right to marry became Minnesota law, Ann DeGroot became a widow. Which is bittersweet for many reasons, among them that for 21 years DeGroot was the executive director of OutFront Minnesota, one of the LGBT groups behind the fight for marriage equality. DeGroot left that post in 2008 to take the helm of Minneapolis’ Youth Coordinating Board.
As it became clear her successors were going to finish the fight for equal rights, DeGroot and her partner of 16 years, Rhonda Lundquist, began talking about marriage in personal terms. A published poet and social-service provider with deep roots in public policy, Lundquist had battled ovarian cancer for eight years.
DeGroot and Lundquist were the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Ramsey County. They married Aug. 4, in the company of their son, Andy, who is 13. In DeGroot’s words:
Most people who are straight know a lot about weddings because they are planning for this day, but they don’t necessarily know what it means to get married. I knew everything it means to get married in terms of the legal side of things. I didn’t understand the wedding side.
We thought, “We’ll just do it and whoever can come can come.” But then friends were saying, “I can’t come that day.” We weren’t planning it so people could come – that’s what I mean about not understanding about weddings.
All of a sudden it became a big deal. People started saying, “Well, you know I could bring a cake. Why don’t I get a cake?” We don’t need a cake. “Oh no, you have to have a cake.” That’s not what we had planned, but it’s what people had in mind.
Rhonda got diagnosed with a brain tumor at the end of July. On the 31st we signed up for hospice. By Friday the 2nd she was having a hard time talking, moving. The hospice nurse said to me, “I’m seeing signs here that she’s not going to live that long.”
So I said to my friends Liz and Liz, “I think we need to move the wedding up.” In 36 hours our friends put together a wonderful wedding. I remember standing at my front door seeing all these cars pull up and our friend’s brother David bringing in tablecloths and flowers and vases. Other friends walking in with trays of food.
Our friend Connie bringing in an actual wedding cake. She called all these bakeries and they said, “Are you kidding?” So she called her friend Kathy Lantry, who is the president of the St. Paul City Council. And Kathy said, “I’m on it. My mom and I will make it.” They made a beautiful, delicious cake.
Rhonda couldn’t get out of bed, so we all crammed into the bedroom and I lay next to Rhonda on the bed and Andy stood next to me. Our friends were all around. She did try saying the vows. She was working really hard. It was a good day, even though it was a sad time.
Rhonda didn’t remember everything about the day. The radiation did something with her head. But she rallied and by the beginning of September she was more herself. And at that point she saw the photos and a video. She remembered the feeling of the day.
It didn’t change the relationship. Cancer changed our relationship. Cancer made us much closer. Getting married? No. Now it’s hard to say whether that would have been true had she lived longer. It didn’t change our relationship – it changed things about the relationship.
It made it safer for us. I had worried when we traveled. What if she got sick and we needed to get her to a doctor and they wouldn’t let me in because I’m not her spouse or blood relative? If we have a piece of paper that says we’re married, you can’t keep me out.
Getting married changed us to being married, which is different. The civil sanction of marriage gives people status. People know what to do with you if you are a wife or a husband. They know what that is. They don’t know so much what to do with you if you are a partner.
For example, I am now a widow. I thought I would be a surviving partner. Being a widow has a status. I don’t know what that means, but it’s different from just being a surviving partner. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.
Rhonda and I were together for years. Even though we weren’t legally married it was still marriage to me. It was the same thing: the commitment and the caring for each other and the love between two people. All of those things were there. But the legal recognition added something.
Editor’s Note: This story was first published on MinnPost. Used with permission.