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Carson City couple make gay marriage fight personal

More than 40 years ago, two young neighbors in Seattle got to know each other over coffee.

They became fast friends. Their discussions became more frequent. After three or four years of these coffee klatches, they realized they were in love.

They moved into a home together and raised three children, who in time grew up and raised children of their own.

But the love between the two has not culminated in the happy ending they both want.

Beverly Sevcik, 73, and Mary Baranovich, 76, cannot get married.

In Nevada, where they have lived since 2001, marriage between same-sex couples is against the law.

Sevcik and Baranovich believe the marriage law is wrong. They believe this so strongly that the normally quiet and reserved pair volunteered to become the lead plaintiffs in a court battle to overturn the law.

They are helping the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund pursue its lawsuit, filed April 10 in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, challenging the voter-approved state constitutional amendment allowing marriages only between one man and one woman.

Eight same-sex couples are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, according to Tom Warnke, a Lambda spokesman.

And the story of Sevcik and Baranovich, who were rebuffed when they sought a Nevada marriage license, was considered so compelling that their names lead the lawsuit, which will be known in the court system as “Sevcik et al v. Sandoval et al.”

‘SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS’

Sevcik and Baranovich were among the first same-sex couples to sign up as domestic partners in 2009 under a new state law that gives them almost all the rights that straight couples have.

But it’s not enough.

“Being married says you love and are committed to each other,” Sevcik said. “Domestic partnerships more define your legal responsibilities to each other. There is no love in domestic partnerships; it is more financial.”

Sevcik and Baranovich want to marry as a way of solemnizing their love for each other.

“Domestic partnerships give us all the rights and responsibilities of heterosexual couples, except for marriage,” Baranovich said. “To me, that says we are second-class citizens, we aren’t as good as everybody else. We are plenty good at paying taxes. We would like to see some equality.”

But they are hardly gay activists. They keep up with the news, but belong to no gay rights organizations. They live in an immaculate home in a nice Carson City neighborhood.

Their neighbors do not speak English, so no one has any unkind words for them.

“We wave when we see each other,” Sevcik said.

Their life together is ordinary: They follow traffic laws, pay their bills and go to the store. They aren’t church-goers, but consider themselves spiritual and believe in God.

“God said something about loving one another,” Baranovich said.

Today they are doting grandmothers, the kind one expects to offer cookies and milk to visitors.

They don’t show public affection, but their respect for each other is real. Neither interrupts the other when answering questions about why they have gone to court for the right to marry. When one partner talks, the other listens, which hardly can be said for a lot of married couples.

In their eyes, they have been married since Oct. 2, 1971. That day they rented a hotel room in downtown Seattle, went to a J.C. Penney store and purchased wedding bands. They made sure the rings did not match in an effort to avoid questions about their relationship.

“We could have lost our jobs,” Sevcik said. “I could have lost custody of my children.”

FEAR OF PERSECUTION

Although they have not faced any threats or overt discrimination over being a same-sex couple, Sevcik and Baranovich still worry about that possibility.

They are well aware that just last week two cars were burned in a neighborhood north of Reno by someone who spray-painted anti-gay slogans on a garage.

“It happens somewhere every day,” Sevcik said. “Our safety is our primary concern.”

The problems they have faced as a gay couple have been more of being placed in awkward situations.

“If you are filling out a form, it may say, ‘Check married, divorced or single,’ ” Baranovich said. “We check single when we want to check married.”

They also cannot claim the married-couple deduction on their federal income tax returns.

And if one of them dies, the other cannot claim Social Security survivor benefits like heterosexual couples can do.

They were able to purchase their home together through joint tenancy laws.

TOGETHER IN SEATTLE

Baranovich and Sevcik grew up in Seattle. Both were bookkeepers. When they were in their 30s, they became neighbors.

After three or four years and after Sevcik’s marriage ended in divorce, they moved in with each other and became co-parents to Sevcik’s children, then ages 8, 10 and 12.

“It was a gradual thing,” Baranovich said. “I thought she was a nice neighbor.”

They do not want to identify their children or their four grandchildren, who range in age from 14 to 28, for fear of causing them discomfort.

They said the children are all heterosexual and accept their relationship.

They never showed affection around the children, or told them that they were a couple.

But they shared a bedroom and, by the time the children entered high school, they figure the kids knew.

Sevcik said her former husband eventually learned of their relationship, and they remain friends.

Both women feel they were born gay, but fought against it because such relationships were considered unnatural by society of that time.

“When I grew up, girls were to sew and cook and clean,” Sevcik said. “Society was so against being gay. You had to be careful.”

“The kids played sports, did everything other kids did,” Baranovich added. “They are straight.”

“Straight parents make gay children,” Sevcik said jokingly.

They moved to Carson City in 2001. Decades of living in Seattle’s depressing weather drove them to a sunny climate.

“We thought we had found heaven,” Baranovich said.

They have kept their relationship hidden from all but their closest friends.

They also have made a point of never showing affection in public.

They did volunteer work during the height of the AIDS epidemic in Seattle, and grew sad as almost all the men they tried to help died.

“We are ordinary,” Baranovich said. “We are not a threat to any heterosexual couple. I don’t know why they should be threatened by our relationship.”

ARGUMENTS FOR, AGAINST

The Lambda challenge to Nevada’s heterosexual-only marriage law is based on the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and its clause that “no state (shall) deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Peter Renn, a Lambda staff lawyer, contends there is growing support for gay marriage, citing a Gallup poll last year that found, for the first time, that a majority of Americans support gay and lesbian marriages.

“It is ridiculous for a state like Nevada that prides itself on libertarian roots to essentially try to be the boss in people’s bedrooms,” Renn said.

Independent American Party leader Janine Hansen, one of the leaders of the Protection of Marriage movement, hopes Gov. Brian Sandoval will follow voters’ wishes and fight the Lambda challenge.

Nevada has until May 4 to make that decision.

Hansen won’t discuss whether she thinks same-sex marriages are right or wrong, moral or immoral, and she won’t discuss the specific situation of Sevcik and Baranovich. To her, it is a matter of upholding the public’s wishes in passing the Protection of Marriage amendment restricting marriages to one man and one woman.

“The vote was overwhelming,” Hansen said, noting more than two-thirds of voters approved the same-sex marriage ban in both 2000 and 2002.

“People in Nevada want traditional marriage. They have all the rights now as married couples with domestic partnerships. The only difference is one starts with a D and the other starts with an M.”

But it’s a no-brainer for Baranovich and Sevcik: A domestic partnership is sterile, and a marriage constitutes love.

When they heard that Lambda was considering challenging Nevada’s Protection of Marriage amendment, they contacted the organization and asked to be part of the lawsuit.

They realized they were taking a bold step but believed the time had come to do their part to help other same-sex couples in Nevada.

Baranovich and Sevcik believe it is inevitable that same-sex marriages will be allowed throughout the United States someday, but for that to happen someone has to have the guts to challenge the law.

“How does our relationship affect the sanctity of heterosexual marriages?” Baranovich asked.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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