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Rights within reach: For some gay couples, marriage is mere miles away — but that's still too far

Jean-Marc Giboux / for NBC News

Laura Hartman, left, and her partner, Anne Dickey, walk along the Mississippi River with their three-year-old son, Theodore, in Davenport, Iowa, on July 13. They live across the river in Rock Island, Ill., where same-sex marriage is not legal.

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. -- The right to get married for some lesbian and gay couples is mere miles away, or just a hop across the river.

Take same-sex couples in western Illinois, who upon crossing the Mississippi River enter Iowa, where gay marriage was legalized in 2009. Gay and lesbian couples living in states like Nebraska, Oregon, West Virginia, Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania experience similar frustration: an easily traversed body of water separating them from a slew of rights and recognition. For them, marriage is close but out of reach -- a reality that didn’t change despite recent Supreme Court decisions advancing gay rights.

“You feel the freedom,” said Dennis Henry, 65, of traveling to his home state of Iowa from Monmouth, Ill., where he lives with his partner, Larry Shaw. “You cross this divide, the Mississippi River, and you get over there and you're a full-fledged American citizen with the same rights everybody else in the country has.”

“And then you have to turn around, come back, and you leave them. You leave those rights,” added Shaw, 67. The couple has been together nearly 35 years. 

The high court in June struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, effectively ordering federal recognition of same-sex marriage in the 13 states where it is legal, and opening access for those couples to more than 1,100 federal benefits they’d been previously denied. The court also declined to weigh in on a case challenging Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples in California. Gay and lesbian couples resumed marriage ceremonies there on June 28.

But like Shaw and Henry, a majority of the nation’s 650,000 same-sex couples live in one of the 35 states where same-sex marriage is banned, mostly by voter-approved constitutional amendments. Four states allow civil unions, including three that -- like Illinois -- don’t permit gays and lesbians to tie the knot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another three states that ban same-sex marriage allow domestic partnerships.

“(The) constitutional amendments have made America a house divided, in which families on one side of a border are denied crucial protections and personal dignity that they can see on the other side of the border, and this is intolerable,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, which campaigns for LGBT rights. “Americans should not have their families vulnerable and their marriages sputter in and out like cell phone service depending on what side of a border they find themselves.”

Rock Island residents Anne Dickey and Laura Hartman, who entered a civil union in Illinois in 2011, said they believe the court’s DOMA decision has highlighted the differences between states where gay couples can and can’t get married. 

“That sort of raises a feeling of injustice,” said Hartman, 35. “Now the differences between a couple in Iowa and a couple in Virginia (where same-sex marriage is illegal and where the couple used to live) are bigger than they were before, and that is upsetting. ... That’s not OK.”

This patchwork of state recognition of gay marriage -- legal, not legal -- together with alternatives to it like civil unions or domestic partnerships, has left same-sex couples with a “fractured identity,” legally-speaking, depending on where they live, Hartman said. 

“I think that’s part of what it's like for people when they cross state lines," she said. "‘We’re married ... we’re not married. ... Who are we? What is our relationship?'”

An impossible choice
Dickey, 39, and Hartman debated whether they should settle down in Iowa as they completed their move from Virginia in 2009 for Hartman’s job as an  assistant professor of religion at Augustana College in Rock Island.

Iowa’s supreme court ruled that year that gay couples had the right to wed. That forced Dickey and Hartman to make a tough decision: move to a state where their relationship would be legally recognized, or to Illinois, which at the time had seemingly stronger protections for same-sex couples with children (Dickey was then pregnant with their now 3-year-old son, Theodore).

They chose Illinois. Hartman said their decision showed the “tragic dimension” of a situation that other same-sex couples have had to face, too. 

“We had to choose between my relationship with him and my relationship with her -- which one was going to be protected? We couldn’t have both, at the time,” she said. (Before the Iowa Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage, second-parent adoptions by gay couples were costly, invasive and for a brief period, on a judge-by-judge basis. A court decision in 2013 mandated that both same-sex parents be automatically placed on their child’s birth certificate at the time of birth, making adoption unnecessary, according to LGBT advocacy group, One Iowa).

Dickey and Hartman, who are part of a civil rights lawsuit seeking same-sex marriage in Illinois, feel it’s just a matter of time before they can legally wed and say they are committed to seeing the process through in the state where they live.

"We are neighbors and citizens here, and so we want this community and this government to be the ones that recognize us," Hartman said.

National Conference of State Legislatures

This map of the United States shows states that do and don't allow same-sex marriage, plus those that provide civil unions.

But Shaw and Henry have many regrets about their decision to move to Monmouth, Ill., a town about 30 miles from the border with Iowa. They returned to the Midwest in the early 1980s from California to care for their ailing parents and settled in Illinois rather than the Hawkeye state.

The couple has talked over and over about moving to Iowa. Henry mused that in his hometown of Keota, which he just had to “get out of” as a young man, the couple could be married.

“I wish we were back there,” he said, later adding, “It’s just funny that now that little town that I hated looks pretty darn good ... you just kind of come full circle in your old age.”

But for the time being, they can’t imagine leaving behind their successful real estate business.

“The sacrifices that we have to make to leave here and go to Iowa – I’m not sure,” said Shaw, who has had open heart surgery and had a toe on his right foot amputated due to his diabetes. “We've got to think about keeping a roof over our heads and money coming in, and at our age, do we want to start over again?”

The fight goes on
Frank Schubert, political director of the National Organization for Marriage, which has led the fight to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, said gay couples always had geographic limits on where they could marry -- and that hasn’t changed since the high court weighed in.

“There is no right to same-sex marriage, period. Marriage is determined by the states; that’s what the majority in Windsor (DOMA) had to say, that the states get to determine it and if that’s true, then they have to accept and respect the right of states to determine marriage in the traditional way just like they demand that we accept states like New York and Massachusetts that have redefined marriage,” he said.

“I think that it’s certainly not an ideal environment, but it’s one the Supreme Court has created through their judicial activism,” he added. “It’s one of the reasons why many people are looking at a Federal Marriage Amendment to restore marriage nationwide.”

Campaign groups supportive of same-sex marriage said they would use the momentum of the court victories to push for initiatives or legislative votes in states like Oregon and New Jersey, while also seeking repeals of bans in states such as Ohio and Michigan. 

Gay couples in states where same-sex marriage isn’t allowed are waiting to hear from the federal government about which benefits denied under DOMA they could now receive. Shaw and Henry talk about how they’d like to share social security and veterans’ benefits with each other (Henry served in the Air Force in Vietnam). They’re also concerned about ensuring inheritance rights for one another.

“How can DOMA have failed and now all the states that have marriage are going to get all of these federal benefits. What about the rest of us?” Shaw said. “That puts the federal government in a position they’re going to have to discriminate, and that’s not right.”

They believe marriage will come to Illinois, but even five years could prove an “eternity” at their age, Henry said. If they can wed, the ceremony will be simple.

“Unfortunately, so many of our friends have passed on," Shaw said. "It wouldn't be a big one.”

He later added, "I just think after all these years, it's between him and I."

Are you part of a same-sex couple hoping to get married but living in a state where you cannot do so? If so, please email reporter Miranda Leitsinger at miranda.leitsinger@nbcuni.com. Also note if your comments can be used and provide a telephone number.

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