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Legislators’ foot dragging on same-sex marriage has life and death consequences: Brown

Robb Smith (left) Steven Rynes (right) getting civil union.  Robb Smith Steven Rynes gay couple who wanted get married.

Robb Smith (left) and Steven Rynes (right) getting a civil union. Robb Smith and Steven Rynes, a gay couple who wanted to get married. But Rynes became ill with cancer and was too sick to travel out of state. He died Monday night, Sept. 9, 2013.

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Updated: October 12, 2013 6:37AM



Robb Smith and Steven Rynes would have liked to be married, but the State of Illinois never afforded them the opportunity.

Now, it’s too late.

While Illinois legislators continue to delay a vote on legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples so as not to draw opposition in the March primary, real life sets it own deadlines.

Rynes died early Tuesday morning from the effects of metatastic melanoma, a particularly lethal form of cancer.

“It’s fine while [legislators] waffle over it, but I think they forget that we’re really out here,” Smith told me later Tuesday. “It’s not just me and Steve. How many thousands of people have missed this chance?”

Many, many thousands of same-sex couples have missed out on marriage in Illinois alone, I would guess, counting those who died from old age, although it’s not often we are confronted with their stories.

Rynes, 32, and Smith, 48, had been together coming up on two years after a two-month online chat relationship turned romantic on Christmas Day of 2011 when Rynes accepted a dinner invitation. Within months, they were living together in Smith’s Edgewater condo.

Their friends often called them the Bickersons for the contentious nature of their relationship, Smith conceded, but it was a relationship that stood the test after Rynes’ melanoma intruded on their lives in March of 2012.

Rynes, a department store sales associate, had experienced a previous bout with the disease two years earlier. With no health insurance, he relied on Stroger Hospital for his care, and the relapse was quite advanced before it was caught.

The couple got a civil union this past January as a sign of their love and commitment — and for the practical advantage of getting Rynes on Smith’s health insurance.

It was a difficult year as the disease progressed, with Smith serving as Rynes’ primary caregiver in between working to support them after Rynes could no longer keep his job.

Making it worse for Smith was battling with his employer over whether he was entitled to the same family medical leave to care for Rynes as if they were a man and woman. The employer determined Rynes was not a “recognized” family member.

Smith, who is employed as a graphic designer, said he and Rynes had spoken from time to time about getting married, but didn’t see any urgency.

Then they started discussing it in earnest just two weeks ago after Rynes came home from the hospital. Unable to legally wed in Illinois, they would go to Iowa, they figured, where gay marriage has been legal since 2009.

But the next day, Rynes landed back in the hospital, and his condition deteriorated rapidly.

“Everything happened so fast we never got the chance,” Smith told me.

If it had been possible to get married in Illinois, they would have gone right out and done so, he said.

Smith said getting married was especially important to Rynes.

“He wanted the security and the affection and the whole deal,” Smith said. “For him, it was a really big deal, and I wanted to give that to him, and honestly, I wanted it, too.”

“He never, I think, really believed I would stay. I think because in his life nobody ever did. And even gay people have stigmas against gay people thinking we’re really not committed to things.”

Rynes’ mother, Colleen Smith of Holland, Mich., confirmed that her son had looked forward to getting married after surviving a rough childhood.

“He told me he just wanted to enjoy the same life that my husband and I enjoy,” said Colleen Smith, who calls Robb her son-in-law but is otherwise not related. She said her son also wanted the same legal rights as other married couples.

Robb Smith said Rynes would have especially enjoyed having a real wedding.

“He would have planned it for a year,” he laughed.

Smith said he sometimes feels as if people thought he and Rynes were just playing at marriage, as if they didn’t consider their civil union to be a real commitment.

That seemed especially true, he said, when they would remark on his care and support for Rynes with comments like: “It’s so amazing you did that.”

“Why? Isn’t that the point?” Smith said.

Smith said he blames himself for not getting married sooner — and his eyes filled with tears at the thought.

“You always think you’re going to have more time,” he said.

That’s what Illinois lawmakers keep thinking, too, as they wait for a safer time to vote. “Wait until the veto session,” they say. Then, “Wait until after the election.”

They already waited too long for Steven Rynes.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkBrownCST



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